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Henry M. Robert

Ranked Down: Ukraine Now 78th on Living Standards Index

13 September, 2005 - 00:00

A year ago we ranked 70th. Like in 2004, the No. 1 country today is Norway: experts have found that its per capita income, life expectancy, and level of education and medical care are the best. The annual UN Human Development Report has squeezed Ukraine between Saudi Arabia and Peru. This is not the worst assessment for post-Soviet countries: for example, Kazakhstan is ranked 80th, Armenia 83rd, Georgia 100th, Azerbaijan 101st, Kyrgyzstan 109th, Uzbekistan 111th, and Moldova 115th. Out of all the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic states have made a good show: UN experts refer to them as “regions with a high level of human development,” leaving Russia (62nd), Belarus (67th), and Ukraine among the first top 20 “middle-ranking” countries.

The UN findings have shocked Ukrainian researchers. The report clearly indicates that our worse ranking is primarily caused by low life expectancy. International experts noted that in 2003 (data was collected for that year) Ukrainians’ life expectancy was reduced by an average of 3.4 years. Meanwhile, according to Ella Libanova, deputy director of the Institute of Demography and Social Studies, these figures are impossible in principle. If you go by what the UN says, life in Ukraine is shorter than the world’s average, which includes even those who die of AIDS in Africa. Naturally, life expectancy has dropped in Ukraine, but the drop is only 0.08 per year, according to the State Statistics Committee. In other words, the UN experts made an error that cost us a staggering ten ranking positions. “By all other parameters, Ukraine showed ‘pluses,’ so in reality our place is somewhere at the end of the sixties,” Ms. Libanova says.

This is not the first time that unfair rankings have incensed Ukraine. In 2002 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly challenged the UN’s “verdict,” accusing experts of using outdated information. At the same time, in the case of some developing countries, indices may well “jump” even over a six-month period. Nevertheless, the hypothetical 67th place that Ukraine allegedly deserves is not much of an achievement. For instance, life expectancy is 66 years, 8 to 10 years fewer than in European countries. Moreover, the Institute of Demography and Social Studies claims that the mortality rate among Ukrainian men is 7 to 8 times higher than in Sweden, one of the world’s most prosperous countries. As a result, 47% of our country’s males fail to reach retirement age. Statistics are based predominantly on unnatural deaths, such as suicide, alcohol poisoning, and homicide. Another crucial factor is that Ukraine tops in Europe in terms of fatalities among coal miners, occupational disease, and HIV rates.

The UN experts came to the conclusion that AIDS is the chief risk factor for Ukraine and its economy. The estimated number of people infected with HIV is now between 448,000 and 491,000, i.e., about 1.8% of Ukrainians aged 15 to 49. According to pessimistic outlooks, in 2014, 3.5% of this country’s adult population will be diagnosed as HIV-positive. Since antiretroviral therapy (including drugs that maintain immunity) is to be funded by the state and an annual course of treatment costs 1,000 dollars per person, the public health budget will have to be increased fivefold.

Experts also took a dim view of the current health care situation. “Ukraine should invest more heavily in social programs so that economic growth will finally have some effect on the grassroots. This applies first of all to education and medicine,” UN Human Development Agency deputy director Sara Burd-Sharp told the BBC. Meanwhile, Ukraine spends a mere 3.3% of its GDP on public health. The state budget allots 60 hryvnias a year for in-patient treatment per Ukrainian, while according to the most conservative estimates, a one- day stay in hospital costs 20 hryvnias. But this is not the point. What also affects life expectancy and disease incidence is access to medical aid. In this country, about 10,000 villages do not have even a nurse or paramedic, while residents of large cities prefer to practice self-treatment instead of going to a doctor.

Paradoxically enough, Ukrainian scientists believe that literacy has an impact on life expectancy. This link can be explained very easily: educated people always have a higher culture of hygiene. But, Ukrainians’ “learnedness”, a factor that the UN also takes into account, is not uniform. For example, about 300,000 of us have a very vague idea of spelling and arithmetic. This applies, above all, to street children, who do not attend schools, and rural residents. Ukrainians’ average level of education is also slowly but steadily declining. The percentage of degree-holders is on the rise, but so is that of migrants. Out of those who have left this country, 45.5% completed secondary school and 25% have a higher education.

In other words, the only obvious “plus” that the UN noticed in Ukraine is economic growth, although experts emphasize that the report used data that was almost two years old. Today’s Ukraine could be a much more attractive to live in: in the first six months of 2005 alone, the GDP rose by 5%, and individual incomes went up even more: 7%. According to the Institute of Demography and Social Studies, the past few years have seen an essential increase in the number of families with a minimum of appliances: 53% of Ukrainians own a refrigerator, color television, washing machine, and vacuum-cleaner. The situation is far worse a picture with other advantages of civilization. For instance, only 6% of Ukrainians own a car and modern audio-video systems, while a mere 0.1% has a computer, antenna dish, or a video camera. In addition, up to 60% of incomes are being spent in grocery stores, a level that does not at all indicate a high standard of living, according to experts. In developed countries, an average family spends no more than 40% of its income on food; the rest goes for various services, household appliances, and vacations. In Ukraine, only 7-10% can afford to live high off the hog like this.

By Oksana OMELCHENKO, The Day