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By Emil Danielyan
Armenia remains ahead of its neighbors in the annual "human development index" of the United Nations that uses life expectancy, the level of education and average income to measure prosperity around the world.

Armenia is 83rd in the list of 177 nations ranked in order of prosperity as part of the latest “Human Development Report” of the UN Development Program that was released on Wednesday. The two other South Caucasus states, Georgia and Azerbaijan, are in 100 and 101st places respectively.

The UNDP rankings, again topped by Norway, are based on statistical data for 2003 that was provided by national governments and international organizations. Armenia was again rated higher than Azerbaijan mainly due to a longer life expectancy which official figures put at 71.5 and 66.9 years respectively.

The other human development indicators of the two arch-rivals are essentially identical. That includes the amount of their Gross Domestic Product per capita measured in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. It stood at approximately $3,600 in 2003. Georgia’s GDP per capita was only about $2,600, but its life expectancy and rates of literacy and school enrollment are virtually the same as Armenia’s.

The latter indicators are close to those reported by 57 mostly Western countries whose level of human development is considered “high” by the UN agency. However, critics will argue that the official figures do not reflect a major decline in education standards in all three South Caucasus states since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A growing number of children across the impoverished region, especially those living in rural areas, reportedly drop out of school due to extreme poverty and lack of government support for their families.

The 2005 UNDP report also puts Armenia ahead of its two other, much bigger neighbors: Turkey and Iran. They ranked 94th and 99th despite boasting much higher GDP-per-capita figures.

While noting huge progress made by the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe over the past 15 years, the 372-page report expresses serious concern about a growing social inequality between the prosperous West and the struggling nations of sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. "The annual income flows of the richest 500 people in the world exceed that of the lowest 460 million," said Kevin Watkins, the lead author of the report.
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