35. Southeast Asia’s Global Metrics

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We have traced Southeast Asia’s story in two volumes. We started with her tectonic beginnings some 300 million years ago and finished with the political developments that led to the current state of affairs in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, 2014 to be specific. A long journey, to be sure. Before summarizing and saying our goodbyes, let us examine some global metrics that reveal where Southeast Asia’s nations rate with respect to the rest of the world.

Global metrics hold great appeal for a variety of reasons. The primary appeal is that empirical data protects us from personal bias and/or myopia, i.e. lack of general information. Similarly, scientists rely on experimental data to validate or invalidate personal opinion.

Relevant numbers can also be easily compared, while verbal reports or personal opinions are nearly impossible to rank. How bad is bad? For instance, one source implied that the income disparity between the rich and poor in Vietnam is large and rising. However, when all the international numbers are crunched, the global metrics give an entirely different picture. As we shall see, Vietnam’s income disparity is low relative to other nations.

Most would grant these numerically based international measures much more credence than purely verbal reports. Hearsay evidence is highly suspect. Even expert opinion must bow before empirical data. In other words, global metrics are highly rated on the evidence scale.

Before proceeding carelessly forth, let us add a cautionary note. We are looking at numbers accumulated by humans to reveal the ranking of the world’s nations with regard to each other. Because of their precise nature, numbers imply accuracy and objectivity. In actuality, the way that these numerical measures were tabulated, accumulated and averaged is inherently prone to inaccuracy and distortion. Even if these averages are totally correct, how can one number with a label, no matter how carefully recorded and computed, ever hope to summarize the nature of an entire nation with hundreds of thousands, if not a hundred million, people?

Further many of these tables of figures are composite averages that are computed from other composite numbers in very sophisticated ways. For instance, the gender inequality index (GII) is based upon 5 averages, each with their built-in ambiguities. In general, the potential for distortion is proportional to the number of measures and the complexity of computation employed to generate the global metric. As such, there is often some controversy associated with the more politically and emotionally charged categories, for instance gender equality, human development and corruption.

Because of this built-in ambiguity, it might be tempting to disregard the global information altogether – throwing these solitary numbers into the dustbin of over-generalization. However, these global metrics are the most objective information we have. Verbal reports are almost hopelessly subjective – skewed in one direction or another.

Not to worry. If we look carefully at this numerical information, we might be able to glean some useful knowledge that cannot be reliably derived in any other way. We must be constantly on guard against getting too carried away with our reason. For instance, we want to avoid granting the averages more weight than they deserve or over-claiming conclusions based upon inherently sketchy numbers.

Employing redundancy logic to check and crosscheck conclusions is a useful method of coming to a deeper understanding of the underlying message of the following multiplicity of global numbers. For instance, comparing political facts with the figures is a form of redundancy that can cast doubt upon or reaffirm conclusions. Sometimes numbers, historical events and commentary all point in the same direction. This confluence of knowledge validates the analysis. On the contrary, when number, history and knowledge point in contradictory directions, it is time to question assumptions.

A few caveats to hold in mind, as we enter following discussion: the global metrics are rough estimates rather than precise figures. There are subcategories behind each composite measure. As such, the name of the international measure is just an educated approximation of what the measures actually mean. For instance, the Gender Inequality Index is complied employing a variety of measures including teenage pregnancy percentages. However, income comparison is not a factor. Conclusions regarding women in these countries must be limited to what we know, not what we surmise.

With these admonitions in mind, let us proceed into the supposedly objective world of number comparisons.

Income Disparity in Southeast Asia

The relative income disparity between rich and poor is an indication of economic inequality. Some economic inequality is, of course, an inherent feature of any human society. However, too much disparity creates resentment and even blocks economic growth and national prosperity, according to a recent paper by Standard and Poor.

There are a variety of methods of measuring income disparity from the simple to the sophisticated. Based around population distributions and wealth, the GINI Index is the most sophisticated and is also the standard metric for measuring income disparity. A simpler and more accessible measure is based upon the income ratio between the top 10% earners and the bottom 10%. The world rankings for the measurement schemes are strikingly similar.

The following table provides some global metrics that compare the income disparity in a variety of countries. Southeast Asian nations are on the left; while a sampling of nations including the World average are on the right. The columns labeled ‘10%’ indicates the ratio between the incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 10% wage earners. The GINI columns indicate each nation’s score with this standard metric.

Income Disparity (2013)
10% Country GINI 10% Country GINI
Timor 31.9   12.5 Australia 30.5
7.8 Indonesia 33.4   9.4 Canada 32.6
6.9 Vietnam 35.6   8.6 India 33.4
8.3 Laos 36.7      
12.2 Cambodia 37.9   4.5 Japan 38.1
12.6 Thailand 40.0   12 World 39
11.6 Myanmar 40.0   12.7 Russia 40.1
15.5 Philippines 43.0      
22.1 Malaysia 46.2   15.9 US 45
17.7 Singapore 48.1   21.1 China 47
Brunei        

 

Let us look at Indonesia as an example of how to understand the figures. The top 10% earn 7.8 times more than the bottom 10%. If the bottom earns $10,000, then the top averages $78,000/year. For the World, the top wage earners average 12 times more than the bottom rung. Thus Indonesia’s income disparity under this measurement is quite low on a global scale. The same holds true for all Southeast Asia’s mainland countries. Each is equal to or quite a bit lower than the world average.

The GINI Index only makes sense in comparison with other figures of the same nature. The World’s GINI score is 39. As such, any score below 39 indicates that the country’s income disparity is less than average. At 33.4, the income disparity between rich and poor is much less in Indonesia than most other nations. Similarly for the countries of what was formerly French Indochina, i.e. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. All three have low GINI scores in the mid 30s.

In an earlier article, we mentioned that income disparity has begun to grow in Vietnam much to the discouragement of the idealists. However, the top wage earners only make 7 times more than the bottom wage earners. Laos is also relatively low in these categories. It seems that these communist nations have been able to maintain relative income equality in their populations, despite claims to the contrary.

Thailand and Myanmar are in the mid range. The top 10% earn about 12 times as much as the bottom 10%, which is the world average.  Their GINI scores of 40 are just over the world average. The income gap in the Philippines is much greater, with scores well above the world average. Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, the trio of former British colonies, have the greatest income disparity in all of Southeast Asia. The wage discrepancy between rich and poor could be termed excessive with the rich earning 20 times more than the poor and with GINI scores over 45.

According to a 2004 United Nations Human Development report, this discrepancy has led to problems in Malaysia. The richest 10% control 38.4% of the income, while the poorest 10% control only 1.7%. An increasing number of poor are squatters or living in shantytowns and slums. These squalid conditions have contributed to a rising crime rate; especially snatch theft, robberies and rape. Spread the wealth; increase general social contentment; reduce crime and insecurity. Simple. But who wants to share?

As a global comparison of GINI indexes, the U.S. at 45 ranks just below Malaysia’s 46. Dispelling any notion that communist nations keep a lid upon the income gap, China’s GINI score of 47 is higher still. In each country, the wealthy earn over 15 times more than the lowest wage earners. All measures are well above the world average.

In contrast, the GINI scores of Australia, Canada, India and the European nations are well under the global average, with scores in the low 30s and even some in the high 20s. In many of these countries, the top 10% wage earners typically earn less than 10 times the bottom.

Conversely, in most of the Central and South American countries, the top 10% earn from 30 to 90 times more than the bottom 10%. Shame! No wonder, the drug cartels have flourished and bribery is a way of life for public officials. In general, the countries of the Western Hemisphere, with the exception of Canada, have high income disparity, with GINI scores between 40 and 65. Southern Africa is even worse with scores mostly above 50.

The Americas
Europe
Country
10%
Country
10%
Ecuador
35
England
13.8
Bolivia
93
Spain
10.3
Brazil
40
Germany
6.9
Venezuela
19
Greece
10.2
El Salvador
38
Portugal
15.0
Guatemala
33
France
9.1
Panama
50
Italy
11.6
Haiti
54
Holland
9.2
Mexico
21
Sweden
6.2
Nicaragua
31
Denmark
8.1
Miscellaneous
Norway
6.1
South Africa
33
Finland
5.6
Saudi Arabia
33

Although there is a temptation to read a lot into this measure of income disparity, we must be cautious. Instead of ‘reasoning’ what these figures might mean, we must instead investigate other measures to see what they reveal. High income disparity is neither inherently bad nor good. Are there some overlapping redundancies that create a pattern? Or instead do other measures contradict our ‘logical’ conclusions?

Life Expectancy: National Longevity

Let us now examine a global measure that is certainly an indication of how well the society or government looks after the health of its citizens – national life expectancy. This is a number that anyone can understand and has very little controversy associated with it. In brief, the ‘Age’ associated with each country is the age at which the average person dies. Even this number has a bit of ambiguity associated with it, as women tend to live 5 years longer than men, again on the average.

Life expectancy is a great figure to attune to as it reveals much about a society. For instance, longevity is associated with nutrition, health care and social stability. Further when an entire population lives a long time, it is an indication that the nation probably tends in some way to the needs of the elderly. The average age of death drops substantially when a country is at war, the citizens are malnourished, and/or medical care is lacking.

However, longevity is not correlated with personal and political freedoms. Even a prisoner can live a long time if properly nourished and cared for. Some might even prefer the uncertainty of freedom to the security of repression. Wild animals tend to prefer freedom in the wilderness to the regular meals of a cage in a zoo.

Life Expectancy
Rank
Country
Age
 
Rank
Country
Age
4 Singapore 84   2 Japan 85
41 Brunei 79   34 US 80
67 Malaysia 76   64 China 76
72 Vietnam 75      
77 Thailand 75      
112 Philippines 73      
117 Indonesia 72   124 Russia 70
136 Laos 68   126 World 68
137 Myanmar 68      
146 Cambodia 66   150 India 65
153 Timor 64        

Those countries where individuals live about 80 years or more on the average represent the top tier in terms of human longevity (79 to 88 to be more precise). There are a little over 40 countries that fit into this category. Japan, the European nations, Canada, Australia, and the US are notable examples of societies that provide a social environment that sustains its citizens into old age.  

The Southeast Asian nations, Singapore and Brunei, also fit into the top longevity tier, with Malaysia not far behind. In other words, life expectancy is greatest in the 3 Southeast Asian countries with the greatest income disparity. This figure suggests that the citizenry in this trio of nations live in a socially stable environment, where food and medical care are readily available. Even though the press, civil liberties and personal freedoms might be restricted, the populace is cared for well enough to live a long time. Let us consider the notion that a healthy human tends to be someone with vitality. Vitality certainly places one in a better position to achieve self-realization, if not actualize potentials.

There are over 60 nations that fit into the 2nd longevity tier: those nations whose citizens regularly survive well into their mid-70s (74 to 78 years of age). Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand are the Southeast Asian nations that fit into this category. China does also. Both China and Vietnam are communist; Malaysia is a controlled Islamic democracy, while Thailand is a Buddhist monarchial democracy. It seems that there is very little correlation between the type of government or religion and how long the citizens live.

The next grouping contains those nations whose residents live until about 70 years of age (69 to 73). There are a little over 30 nations in this category, including the Philippines and Indonesia. Russian citizens also belong to this 3rd tier. Again in scanning the life expectancy list, there are no clear-cut patterns that jump out regarding the relation between the type of government and how long the citizens live.

There are about 20 nations whose citizens only survive into their mid-60s (64 to 68 years of age). Cambodia, Laos and Timor are the Southeast Asian nations that fit into this 4th category. India does as well.

There are still some 40 countries whose citizens tend to die even earlier (age 47 to 63). Gratefully in terms of this story, none of the Southeast Asian nations fit into this category. Many of the countries in the bottom tier are in Africa. Obviously these governments aren’t willing or are unable to take care of their citizenry.

We’ve spent a lot of time on the life expectancy list, because everyone can easily relate to the figures. More importantly, it reflects the findings of the more complex indexes.

Human Development Index (HDI) & Inequality adjusted Index (IHDI)

Let us now consider a pair of comparative indexes that measure the potential for human development, especially for children – the HDI and the IHDI. Because of the complex method of tabulation and computation, both metrics are a bit controversial. We take the two measures in tandem in order to gain perspective.

Developed first, the Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure based upon life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide. As such, the HDI is a composite number. The HDI is intended to be the standard metric for measuring the relative well being of a nation’s citizens, especially child welfare. However, it does not take inequalities in access to health, education and income into account. As such, it could be said that the HDI rates the relative well-being of the upper and middle classes of each nation in comparison with the same classes in other nations.

To more accurately reflect the general well-being of a nation’s citizenry, not just the more prosperous classes, the Inequality adjusted HDI (IHDI) was generated to take these inequalities into account. To achieve its equalizing process, the IHDI reduces the HDI proportionately for disparities in access to health, education and income. Directly derived from the HDI, the IHDI is also a composite measure.

While the HDI reflects a nation’s general well-being if everyone has equal opportunities, the IHDI reduces this score to reflect opportunity disparity. In general, the HDI and IHDI rankings are similar if the income disparity between the top and bottom wage earners is low. In contrast, the global rankings tend to fall quite dramatically when a country’s income disparity is high. As such, the IHDI reflects the average potential for human development in the entire population, not just the wealthier sectors.

Let’s first examine the global rankings of the Human Development Index (HDI), as this wealth-skewed measure is still the standard for comparison.

The rankings are strikingly similar to the longevity readings. Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia are on top of the scale, while Timor, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are at the bottom. The US, Japan and the European nations rank at the top of the scale, while India ranks near the bottom. Russia, China, and the World average rank in the middle. Most Southeast Asian nations are well below average according to this index.

Human Development Index (2013)
Rank
Country
HDI Rank Country HDI
9
Singapore
901 5 US 914
30
Brunei
852 17 Japan 870
62
Malaysia
773 57 Russia 778
89
Thailand
722 91 China 719
108
Indonesia
684 101 World 702
117
Philippines
660    
121
Vietnam
638 187 nations
128
Timor
620    
136
Cambodia
584 135 India 586
139
Laos
569    
150
Myanmar
524      

 

The rankings are strikingly similar to the longevity readings. Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia are on top of the scale, while Timor, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are at the bottom. The US, Japan and the European nations rank at the top of the scale, while India ranks near the bottom. Russia, China, and the World rank in the middle. Most Southeast Asian nations are well below average according to this index.

But remember, the HDI doesn’t take inequalities in opportunity into account. Hence this measure primarily compares the opportunities for those in the more privileged tiers of society. As such, it is great to be upper-middle class in the US, Singapore, and Brunei for opportunities abound.

Let’s examine when inequalities in health, education and income are taken into account. While Japan’s ranking is virtually unchanged, the ranking of the US falls precipitously. Over 20 countries jump ahead. It’s great to live in the US if you have money, while there might not be so many opportunities for human development if you are poor. Unfortunately, no IHDI was tallied for Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia, those Southeast Asian countries with the highest income disparity. We estimate that the rankings of these countries would also be impacted negatively – drawing down their relative score.

Inequality Adjusted HDI (IHDI 2013)
Rank
Country
IHDI
 
Rank
Country
IHDI
69
Thailand
573   19 Japan 799
72
Indonesia
553   28 US 755
74
Vietnam
543   40 Russia 685
76
Philippines
540   67 China 543
89
Laos
409      
95
Cambodia
440      
97
Timor
430      
Singapore
  100 India 418
Brunei
     
Malaysia
144 nations
Myanmar
       

 

After inequality adjustments, the global rankings of the rated Southeast Asian nations rise from 20 to 50 places. We can draw an interesting inference from this intriguing factoid. With the exception of the above-mentioned trio of unrated former British colonies, the relative equality of the citizenry of Southeast Asia is much greater than the rest of the world.

As a further indication, the global rankings of these nations unadjusted HDI scores were well below the global average. After adjustments for inequalities in opportunity, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are all bunched in the middle of the world’s nations in terms of the potential for human development. Laos, Cambodia, Timor, and Myanmar remain at the bottom of the Southeast Asian nations. However, these low ranking countries are still well above the bottom quarter of the world’s countries in terms of relative well being.

Considering what Southeast Asian nations have been through in the last few centuries, i.e. colonialism, neo-colonialism, the wars, the military dictatorships and the misguided communist policies, all the countries with few exceptions are providing an environment that has a decent potential for human development for its children. The general social, economic and political circumstances in these countries is certainly far better than during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Some of the countries have just turned around in the last decade.

% Rise in Human Development Index: 1980 -> 2013

To provide historical perspective, let us examine what happened to each Southeast Asian nation’s HDI scores from 1980 to 2013. The final 3 columns represent the percentage rise per year in the specified decade (100 = 1%). For comparison, we also show the World averages.

HDI % Rise in HDI
Rank
Country
1980
2013
1980-90
1990-00
2000-13
9 Singapore 744* 901 72 92
30 Brunei 740 852 60 46 27
62 Malaysia 577 773 105 112 58
89 Thailand 503 722 128 127 83
108 Indonesia 471 684 116 144 90
117 Philippines 566 660 45 46 49
121 Vietnam 463 638 28 170 96
128 Timor 465* 620 225
136 Cambodia 251 584 483 147 175
139 Laos 340 569 151 183 144
150 Myanmar 328 524 59 194 169
101 World 559 702 66 67 73
• Singapore begins 1990. Timor begins 2000.

Let’s examine each country in turn. In 1980 Cambodia was at her nadir. The country had just finished the decade from hell. US bombings annihilated the agrarian infrastructure during the 1st half of the decade. Then the fanatical Khmer Rouge communist regime systematically destroyed the urban environment during the 2nd half. At the end of the decade, Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia to establish some semblance of social order. The country’s desperate plight is revealed by her HDI score for 1980 of ‘251’. This score is almost 100 points lower than the lowest scores in the world today. These low scores come from the AIDS-infested countries of Africa.

Despite the adversities of the 1980s: occupation by a foreign power, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians leaving the country as refugees from the devastation, and the threat of invasion from the Khmer Rouge on the Thailand border, Cambodia still managed to improve its HDI score by nearly 5% a year over the decade, an unheard of rate of change. In the following decades, this international well-being index continued to rise at an amazing rate – almost 2% per year. No other country in the world raised its HDI score by over 300 points during the last 3 decades. While Cambodia is still ranked very low relative to the other nations, the country started far behind. Considering where it came from, the social progress has been remarkable.

While not as dramatic, the same analysis also holds true for Laos. Although its condition was not quite as desperate, things were still bad at the beginning of the 1980s. It had only been 5 years since the cessation of the US bombings that obliterated and poisoned their agrarian infrastructure; Laotians were leaving in the hundreds of thousands for more fertile and less dangerous lands; and the Communist government was enforcing the well-intended, but misguided, communist policies on the citizens. Since this terrible time, Laos has improved its Human Development Index score by over one and half percent per year for over 30 years. While still behind, Laos has made considerable and steady progress, almost double the world average.

Vietnam, the 3rd country of Indochina, started off better than the others. Yet the 1980s were not good for the citizenry. Much of the government’s resources were spent on funding the military rather than on rebuilding. During their Cambodian occupation, Vietnam was constantly defending her position from the ousted Khmer Rouge from the west and the Chinese from the north. Her score stagnated. However in the 2 following decades, Vietnam’s HDI score has risen over 1% a year, well above the global average of 2/3 of a percent.

Ne Win was still in charge of Myanmar during the 1980s. Due to the misguided practices of his military dictatorship, Myanmar’s HDI score started quite low and remained low during the remainder of his rule. However, after he relinquished power in 1988, Myanmar’s fortunes began to change. Despite being ruled by a military dictatorship, the country’s HDI score rose faster than any other Southeast Asian country in the 2 following decades. However because they started so low, Myanmar continues to be ranked near the bottom of the international well-being list. However, steady progress is being made. This is really all that can be realistically expected.

Indonesia deliberately dismantled East Timor after their vote for independence in 1999. As such, East Timor began the new millennium in a bad way. Due to international assistance, the country has been able to rebuild. Growing at over 2% a year in the last decade, Timor’s HDI score reflects an increasingly positive environment.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have all improved their human development score by about 200 points since 1980. This is nearly 40% better than the global average, which rose about 140 points during the same time period. Although the world is gradually becoming a better place for the bulk of the population in the terms of human potentials, the national well-being is rising significantly faster in most of the Southeast Asian nations. Hooray!

The Philippines is the only exception in this regard. The nation’s HDI scores have been relatively stagnant since 1980. In fact, both Thailand and Indonesia have moved ahead. If trends continue, Vietnam will also pass the Philippines in terms of national well-being in the coming decade. Indeed when inequalities are taken into account (the IHDI), Vietnam is already ahead.

These results are not really that surprising. Recall that Marcos’ corrupt regime was still in power in 1980. Even after he was deposed, the entrenched powers, i.e. the military, the Catholic Church, and large landowners, continued to rule the Philippines by manipulating elections and engineering a coup. However, the reform-minded Aquino was elected in 2010. We hope that social circumstances will now begin changing for the average Filipino in the years ahead.

We do not address Singapore and Brunei in this survey because their HDI scores were already high in 1980. Hence there was less potential for growth. Singapore and Brunei must be continuing to improve the social conditions in their countries as their HDI scores continue to rise. Hopefully, this rise reflects improvements for the entire population, not just the wealthy.

Gender Inequality Index (GII)

Besides life expectancy, the national rankings of the Human Development Index (HDI) seem to parallel those of the Gender Inequality Index (GII). The GII was generated to provide a rough comparative metric that addresses, as the name suggests, social inequalities between men and women in each nation. As with the HDI, Singapore and Malaysia rate near the top of this index, Cambodia and Laos at the bottom, with the rest in between. (Note again that a nation’s religion or political system seems to be unrelated to the Gender Inequality rankings.)

Gender Inequality Index (2013)
Rank
Country
GII
Rank
Country
GII
15
Singapore
90   2 Switzerland 30  
39
Malaysia
210   25 Japan 138  
58
Vietnam
322   37 China 202  
70
Thailand
364   47 US 262  
78
Philippines
406   52 Russia 314  
83
Myanmar
430        
103
Indonesia
500        
105
Cambodia
505        
118
Laos
534   127 India 563  
Brunei
       
Timor
         

Why are the Human Development and Gender Inequality rankings so similar? Because of the title of the Gender Inequality Index, we naturally assume that the nations with a low ranking are more sexist than the others. Having made this assumption, it is easy to make the correlation that sexist nations have less human potential because they treat women poorly. Put another way, women have more rights and opportunities in those countries with a high ranking. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that cultural well being occurs when both sexes are engaged in building a national environment. This certainly makes logical sense. Most believe that a country becomes strong when all citizens, regardless of gender or race, are able to contribute to the social fabric. Eliminate or reduce sexism and the world will be a better place for everyone.

While this line of reasoning could certainly have merit and probably does, there is another factor that could easily be involved in the striking congruence between the HDI and the GII rankings. The reason for the correspondence could easily be economic, rather than sexist.

To understand why, let’s examine the components that make up the GII. This composite measure is based upon 5 factors: 1) maternal mortality, 2) teenage births, 3) secondary education, 4) labor force participation, and 5) public offices.

Gender Inequality Components
2 Pregnancy
4 Education
HDI
1 Birth
3 Politics
5 Labor
Very High 16 19 27% 86% 52%
High 42 29 19% 60% 57%
Medium 186 43 18% 34% 39%
Low 427 92 20% 14% 56%
1) Maternal Mortality per 100,000 births
2) Teen Births per 1000 women
3) % Women in Office
4) % of Women 25+ w/Secondary Education
5) % of Women in Workforce

 

Note that maternal mortality rises dramatically from 16 to 427 deaths per 100,000 births as the HDI ranking falls. In similar fashion, teenage births rise from 19 to 92, while secondary education for women falls from 86% to 14%. The rise and fall of these factors directly parallels the HDI categories, shown at the left of the table.

What is the reason for this intriguing correspondence? Recall that the HDI is based upon medical care and educational potentials, among other factors. In other words, a low HDI score indicates that a nation’s medical facilities and educational potentials are poor. Maternal mortality is frequently due to lack of adequate medical care and teenage pregnancy is often associated with lack of education.

Let us suggest a plausible scenario that could easily apply to women in countries with poor HDI scores. A low HDI score also indicates a lack of income possibilities. The poorer sectors must focus all their attentions upon earning enough money for sheer survival. They can’t afford the luxury of education.

Without education, the natural course of events takes place. Women become pregnant as soon as they reach childbearing age as a teenager. Due to the demands of raising children, the woman’s potential for further education, an alternate career, or political involvement fades to nil. Under this line of reasoning, when education, medical and income potentials are limited, the role of women is predetermined, not necessarily due to innate sexism, but for economic reasons.

Taking the next logical step: as the HDI score rises and with it educational, medical and economic opportunities, we suggest that women’s potentials in a society will also rise. In other words, we suspect that as the Southeast Asian nations continue to raise their potential for human development that women will be able to take advantage of educational opportunities, thereby postponing pregnancy and increasing their career options including political involvement. Delaying pregnancy is one of the best ways to alleviate the problems of overpopulation. And excess population is a root cause of many social problems, i.e. lack of housing and jobs, inadequate education and medical care, and environmental and resource degradation to name a few. In other words, improve access to education and the entire well-being of the planet will improve, especially women.

Of course one of the best ways for countries to improve their HDI scores is to focus upon increasing women’s potential role in society. Tapping into everyone’s talents, not just one sex, is best for the overall culture. We need the nurturing inclinations of the female gender if the plight of humankind is to improve. As human development potentials rise, gender inequality falls. Southeast Asia is headed in that direction.

Global Hunger Index (1990-2013)

There is yet another international metric that indicates general improvements in living conditions for the residents of Southeast Asia – the Global Hunger Index. We introduced this metric in the chapter on the 3 countries of Indochina. As mentioned, this comparative measure is based upon 3 factors: infant mortality, underweight children and adult malnutrition.

Those who accumulate the statistics suggest that there is plenty of food to feed everyone on the planet. They identify 3 primary reasons that block the elimination of global hunger: 1) bio-fuels (the conversion of corn into mechanical energy, which eliminates it as a food source), 2) global warming, and 3) business speculators, who drive up prices artificially. Note that two of these factors are profit and wealth driven.

While it is easy look at current statistics and point an accusatory finger at those in charge, this judgmental position ignores historical context. It would be akin to judging an individual who was recovering from a train wreck by the same standards as a healthy individual who came from a prosperous family. In 1990 most of the Southeast Asian nations were just beginning to recover from the negative effects of repressive dictatorships, whether communist or capitalist, and/or civil war.

Global Hunger Index (GHI)
Rank
Country
1990
1995
2000
2005
2013
4
East Timor
26 29.6
16
India
32.6 27.1 24.8 24 21.3
35%
25
Laos
33.4 30.3 28 23.7 18.7
44%
32
Cambodia
32.2 30.7 27.8 20.9 16.8
48%
50
Philippines
19.9 17.4 17.7 14 13.2
34%
56
Indonesia
19.7 16.9 15.5 14.6 10.1
49%
Vietnam
30.9 25.1 18.1 13.7 7.7
75%
Thailand
21.3 17.1 10.2 6.6 5.8
73%
Malaysia
9.5 7.1 6.9 5.8 5.5
42%
China
13 10.4 8.4 6.7 5.5
58%
Southeast Asia
16 8
50%
World
20.8       13.8
34%

 

In the ensuing quarter century, each of the afflicted countries, again with the exception of the Philippines, improved their Global Hunger Index by over 40%. Vietnam and Thailand improved their scores by a whopping 75%! Southeast Asia overall improved its score by about 50% since 1990. These improvements far exceed the global average of 34% during the same time period. In other words, the average citizen in each of these countries is substantially better fed than they were in 1990. It could be that the governments are taking active measures to improve the nutrition of its citizens. Or perhaps the leaders are simply not getting in way of their populace by waging war and creating social disturbances.

While far from perfect, the global indexes suggest that Southeast Asia nations are far better off than they were in 1980 and 1990 in terms of both the potential for human development as measured by the HDI, and the percentage of chronically hungry citizens as measured by the GHI. Further, the numbers indicate that social conditions are not stagnating, but are instead continuing to improve. Yippee!

 

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