October 9, 2009
Despite HDI ranking, the Caribbean still vulnerable


Caribbean countries can beam with pride at much of the results of the recently-released Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The 2009 report, based on data for the year 2007, assesses the quality of life of people in 182 countries in the world using such criteria as life expectancy, levels of literacy and school enrolment, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), among other economic and social indicators.{{more}} From these, countries were put into four broad groupings using a Human Development Index (HDI), as follows-Very High, High, Medium and Low.

Not surprisingly, developed countries top the list, with seven countries in Europe plus Australia, Canada and Japan occupying the first ten places. Norway leads the way followed by Australia, Iceland, Canada and Ireland. Significantly, the United States of America (USA) is not in the top 10, ranking 13th; neither is the United Kingdom (21st) nor Germany (22nd), who are among the world’s 20 leading nations. By contrast, 22 of the 24 countries ranked at the bottom are in sub-Saharan Africa, with the West African nation of Niger at the very bottom, even below war-torn Afghanistan.

Barbados has maintained its position as the highest-ranked Caribbean nation on the HDI index, holding 37th place, ahead of four countries in the European Union and the fast-growing South American country of Chile. It is the only Caribbean country in the top-ranked Very High group. Eight other Caribbean nations are in the High category – Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Bahamas, St. Kitts Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Dominica and Grenada. Again comparisons are intriguing, if misleading in some respects. Thus St. Kitts Nevis is ahead of T&T, Antigua and Barbuda ranks above Argentina, Cuba and the Bahamas have higher rankings than oil-rich Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, St. Lucia is above Russia in the table, while both Dominica and Grenada come before such countries as Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Turkey.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is the lowest-ranked independent country from the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) grouping, failing to make either of the two top groups. It is ranked in the Medium Development category, in 91st place, one behind the Dominican Republic, but at least we can claim that it is ahead of China in the table. Suriname is 98th, Jamaica stands at 100th, with Guyana holding No.114. Haiti continues to be the bottom-ranked Caribbean nation, just above the Low Development group of 24.

These statistics again underline the impressive strides that Caribbean countries have been making in socio-economic development over the years. Their successes in education and other social sectors are admirable, given the enormity of the economic challenges they face, and it is to their credit that in spite of many adverse circumstances, they have still been able to provide sources of livelihood for their peoples. The irony is that such “favourable” classification of Caribbean countries ends up working against their interests. By ranking our small nations in the “High” and “medium” development categories, they are graduated out of the ranks of those countries eligible for development financing on concessionary terms. In the context of the current global economic crisis, this can spell disaster.

Worse, there is every indication that the very successes we hail are being used against us to consider us as rivals and competitors in attracting offshore financing, thereby inviting punitive measures. In the field of trade, too, developed nations tend to drive hard bargains in removing favourable trading arrangements which have enabled us to fund our economic and social development. We are no longer considered “poor” and in need of substantial development assistance. Instead the focus is not to reward those who are trying to help themselves out of poverty, but to unfairly compare us with those who are even worse off than we are.

That strategy ignores the chronic vulnerability of Caribbean countries, in every sense possible -economic, social and now, most worryingly, our deep exposure to the disastrous effects of climate change. That is why it can be misleading to revel in such statistics as those in the HDI rankings. We have a long way to go before there is solid sustainability in our achievements so far. Overnight reversals, occasioned by the credit squeeze, the war on our banana industry, tourism setbacks, the global economic crisis and the threatened crusade against economic diversification in the offshore financial sector, can cause a catastrophic collapse almost overnight. We cannot afford complacency.