Among the more startling conclusions of the 1996 Human Development Report, prepared by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is that the world's 358 billionaires, including the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, have more assets than the combined incomes of countries representing nearly half - 45 per cent - of the planet's population.
"The world has become more economically polarised," said James Speth, the UNDP administrator. "If present trends continue, economic disparities between industrial and developing nations will move from inequitable to inhuman." The report, compiled by Richard Jolly, a Briton who is special advisor to Mr Speth, will be published by the Oxford University Press tomorrow.
In analysing trends within developed countries, the report singles out Britain and Australia for displaying growing economic injustice between the haves and have-nots. In both countries, the richest 20 per cent of their populations earn 10 times more money than thepoorest 20 per cent. The differential is almost as sharp in the United States and Switzerland.
Published annually since 1990, the report also offers what it calls a human development index (HDI), which ranks countries according to criteria that include quality of life factors such as access to health care, educational standards and basic purchasing power. This year Canada takes first position followed by the US, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway. Britain is ranked 16th, below many of its EU partners including France and Spain.
The focus of the report, however, is on the worsening position of many of the developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Eighty- nine countries are reporting lower per-capita incomes than they were 10 years ago. Worst off are 19 countries where incomes are less than they were in 1960 or before. They include Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan, Ghana, Venezuela and Haiti.
Among countries in the developing world, Hong Kong takes first place on the HDI followed by Cyprus, Barbados, Bahamas, South Korea and Argentina. Bottom place is taken by Niger.
This year the report adds a "capability poverty measure" designed to take account of hidden factors that may be impeding the poor from progressing up the economic ladder. Those include the number of children under five who are underweight, the proportion of unattended births, the number of children in school and the rate of female illiteracy.
Using this index, for instance, suggests that whereas in some south Asian countries like India, 29 per cent of the population may be living in poverty when income alone is measured, a much more significant 62 per cent is suffering conditions that make escaping poverty much more difficult.
The report also seeks to emphasise that economic growthalone will not automatically translate into improved lives for the population of any country unless other policy measures to encourage economic equity are taken simultaneously. It compares the contrasting fates of Pakistan and South Korea. Both countries had similar incomes in 1960, but whereas Pakistan managed a primary school enrolment rate of just 30 per cent, Korea ensured that 94 per cent of its young attended primary education. "That is one reason that the per-capita gross domestic product of Korea grew to three times that of Pakistan over the next 25 years," the report argues.
Mr Jolly said: "Policy makers are often mesmerised by the quantity of growth. They need to be more concerned with its quality and to take timely action to prevent growth that is lopsided or flawed." He added: "It is increasingly clear that new international measures are needed to encourage national strategies for increasing employment and human development."