The 85 richest people globally have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest in the world, the United Nations said, citing Oxfam figures, in a report that highlights ways to help the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1.25 a day.

The UN’s annual Human Development Report notes that overall poverty is declining throughout the world, but says worsening inequality risks reversing the trend to improvements in life span and income.

Canada placed No. 8 on the UN Human Development Index, a measure based on education, income, health and other measures of human well-being. It is among the group of nations considered to have a very good record on human development, with Norway at the top of the list.

That is better than last year, when Canada placed 11th, after making the top of the list in the 1990s.

'If you invest in people, if you upgrade your infrastructure and increase the choices available to all, you will have a more stable society.' - Khalid Malik, author of UN report

Among the nations considered to have very poor human development are Niger, Congo, Mali, Haiti and Nepal.

Nearly one-third of people are poor or vulnerable to poverty, meaning they are not resilient in the face of natural or human-induced disasters and can slip further behind, according to the report.

Eradicating poverty is not just about "getting to zero, but about staying there," said UN human development head Helen Clark.

Call for universal access to social programs

The report calls for "universal access to basic social services, especially health and education; stronger social protection, including unemployment insurance and pensions; and a commitment to full employment, recognizing
that the value of employment extends far beyond the income it generates."

"Where people do address these things, development can come along very, very nicely. Where they haven't addressed a lot of vulnerabilities and development deficits, as in Syria, it all comes spectacularly unstuck," Clark said.

Such investments in human capital pay off in the long run in lower infant mortality and greater resilience in the face of disaster, the report says.

It says global trends in human development, including income, education and life expectancy, are positive, but not guaranteed to remain on that track.

"If you invest in people, if you upgrade your infrastructure and increase the choices available to all, you will have a more stable society," said Khalid Malik, a lead author of the report.

Poor government policies and climate change are exacerbating the gap between rich and poor, he added.

Global 'race to the bottom'

"Most problems are due to inadequate policies and poor institutions," Malik said. "It's not innate that people have to suffer so much."

He points to the insecurity of employment in most of the developed world, amid a global "race to the bottom" by big corporations seeking the lowest wages in the poorest countries.

Nearly half of all workers worldwide are in insecure or informal employment, while 842 million, or about 12 per cent, of all people go hungry, he said.

Government budgets are shrinking, affecting their ability to provide social structures, as the rich evade taxes and the poor have little to give, he said.

The issue of inequality applies even to countries in the very high development index group, when their score is adjusted for internal inequalities in health, education and income.

The U.S. falls from five to 28 on that list, South Korea drops from 15 to 35, and Japan falls from 17 to 23.

Top 10 on the UN Human Development Index

  1. Norway
  2. Australia
  3. Switzerland
  4. Netherlands
  5. United States
  6. Germany
  7. New Zealand
  8. ​Canada
  9. Singapore
  10. Denmark

Bottom 10 on the list

  1. Mozambique
  2. Guinea
  3. Burundi
  4. Burkina Faso
  5. Eritrea
  6. Sierra Leone
  7. Chad
  8. Central African Republic
  9. Democratic Republic of Congo
  10. Niger


  • An earlier version of this story attributed research showing the 85 wealthiest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest to the UN Development Program. In fact, the research was done by Oxfam and cited by the UN in its Human Development Report.
    Jul 25, 2014 11:15 AM ET
With files from The Associated Press