Why Canada doesn’t need an ego boost from the UN

The United Nations Human Development Index is utterly irrelevant (and we're not just saying that because of our recent showings)

Why Canada doesn’t need an ego boost from the UN

Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star

Canadians with a penchant for lists will recall that in 1994 we began a record stint of seven straight years atop the United Nations Human Development Index. Meant to provide an international comparison of living standards, our dominance on this global leader board was seen as tangible proof Canada was the best country in the world. The annual report regularly garnered substantial media attention and sparked plenty of national braggadocio. Prime minister Jean Chrétien, in particular, made it a frequent talking point.

No longer. We haven’t topped the rankings since 2000. Current leader Norway now boasts more first-place finishes than we do. (Although our Nordic friends haven’t yet won seven in a row.) In fact this year marks the first time Canada has failed to place in the top 10. The most recent edition, released last week, has us at a humbling 11th—a whisker above South Korea. Ireland beat us.

Making matters worse, the UN has changed some of the components of its index and recalculated past results. Many of our old top performances have thus been erased from the record books. It should therefore come as no surprise then, that our current status has received scant media attention and no political boasts. Should we consider our disappointing result a crisis, a call to action or at least a blow to our national pride?

Hardly. Where it once provided a welcome, but largely meaningless, ego boost during grim times, today the index seems utterly irrelevant. Since those first-place finishes a decade or so ago, Canadians have learned to be much more secure and confident in their international reputation, regardless of what the UN has to say.

The Human Development Index has been published since 1990 and is a combination of national statistics in three categories: life expectancy, education and gross national income per capita. Only Japan, Canada, Iceland and Norway have ever placed first.

Given Canada’s traditionally strong performance in life expectancy (currently 81.1 years) and per capita income (US$35,369) our recent slippage arises largely from the education component. Literacy rates were once used to measure success in education, but most highly developed countries routinely score 99.9 per cent. As a result, the less-precise measure of “expected years of schooling” has since been substituted. According to the current report, Canadians entering the school system will complete, on average, two fewer years of education than Norwegian youngsters and four years less than in second-place Australia. With the cost of higher education and national skills shortages top-of-mind policy issues these days, it’s worth asking whether those extra years of schooling represent a tangible benefit, or a waste of resources. It’s certainly a point for debate.

But regardless of how the figures are toted up, what seems beyond debate is that Canada casts a much bigger shadow today than was the case in the mid-1990s, when we were the apple of the UN’s eye.

In 1992 the Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency stripped Canada’s federal foreign debt of its coveted AAA rating, thanks to an endless stream of government deficits. In January 1995 the Wall Street Journal measured Canada for a barrel suit, declaring us to be “an honorary member of the Third World” in its now-legendary “Bankrupt Canada” editorial. Our debt-to-GDP ratio hit a peak of 68 per cent that year. The loonie was worth about US$0.72, and would bottom out at US$0.62 before it was done falling.

Since then, of course, Canada’s financial turnaround has become a totem for countries around the world struggling with the after-effects of the Great Recession. Government finances are in better shape than most and our dollar at par. Canada’s reliance on natural resources, once considered a retrograde habit, has played a large role in allowing our economy to weather the storm. Our banking system is an international paragon of virtue; we’re even exporting central bankers. Plus Canada has adopted a more self-confident stance on foreign policy, replacing our old reputation as a meek and mild peacekeeper with a more authoritative voice.

It is this surfeit of real-world, ego-boosting evidence that explains why Canadians have stopped paying attention to the Human Development Index. We no longer need an international beauty contest to boost our self-esteem.

Anyone looking for a reason to continue paying attention to the UN’s list is best directed to the other end of the scale. In 1990 the inaugural index ranked the benighted African country of Niger at the bottom as the least developed country on Earth. Twenty-three years later, unfortunately, it’s still there.