prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows that five of the six Central American nations rate very poorly in areas such as life expectancy, education and per capita income.
Of the 162 countries included in the human development index, only Costa Rica, in position number 41, is ranked as a nation with "high human development''. The list is headed by Norway, Australia and Canada.
Worsening the dilemma, a series of natural disasters -earthquakes, hurricanes and droughts - has hit Central America in recent years. In addition to the tragic loss of life, thousands of people were left facing starvation and awaiting an economic boom that has not showed up.
Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in late 1998, killed 26,000 people and left a swathe of destruction and losses of millions of dollars. Experts say that this natural calamity alone set back the development of Nicaragua and Honduras by 30 years.
On the list, Panama is in position number 52 and El Salvador in 95th place, Nicaragua in position 106, Honduras in 107th and Guatemala in 108th spot. The rest of the countries on the list are in Africa and the Middle East, where poverty reaches dramatic proportions.
According to experts, Central America's backwardness is a direct consequence of low cultural levels due to a lack of access to basic education for a great majority of citizens, particularly in rural and indigenous communities.
Levels of illiteracy in Central America are quite high: 35 per cent in Guatemala, 33 per cent in Nicaragua, 28 per cent in Honduras and El Salvador. In terms of being able to read and write, citizens in Costa Rica and Panama fare a bit better - illiteracy in those two countries is of six and 10 per cent respectively.
Panama and Costa Rica also have the highest per capita yearly incomes in the region, of 6,528 and 5,969 dollars. These rates are however, much lower than, for example, Chile's per capita income of more than 9,000 dollars.
At the tail end are Guatemala with 3,682 dollars, El Salvador, 2,610 dollars and Honduras, with a per capita income of 1,977 dollars per year. Nicaragua has the lowest rate, with an average yearly income for each of its citizens of 1,837 dollars and with a monthly average wage fixed at 31 dollars.
With its nearly five million inhabitants, Nicaragua is one of the world's nine countries described by UNDP as "marginalized'' in its Technological Advance Index, followed by Pakistan, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania, Sudan and Mozambique.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, is considered to be one of 19 "potential leaders'' in technological progress, and El Salvador and Honduras are among 26 countries which are "dynamic followers''. The two great leaders of technology advances, according to the UNDP, are Finland and the United States.
Central American governments have tried, so far to no great avail, to promote regional integration to boost their access to international markets and permit greater funding for agriculture and animal husbandry, the two main economic activities.
The region is also labouring under a heavy burden of foreign debt, which three years ago was already at nearly 18 billion dollars.
Non-government groups say economic reform programmes in the region have led to a sharp drop in social spending and a rise in basic service rates, which has sparked the closure of many firms and compounded high unemployment. More than half of Nicaragua's population and a more than a third of Honduras' population don't have jobs.
dpa ve pe am mm AP-NY-03-27-02 2051EST
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Received by NewsEdge Insight: 03/27/2002 20:51:17
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