About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
UNEP Website GEO Home Page

Human development

Europe is predominantly a region of high to medium levels of human development (UNDP 2001). However, while the overall level continues to improve gradually throughout Western and parts of Central Europe, many countries of Eastern Europe have suffered severe setbacks, including a rise in income poverty, since the beginning of the transition process.

The region traditionally has high rates of adult literacy, estimated at 95 per cent or more for Europe as a whole, although rates tend to be slightly lower in southern parts of Western Europe (UNESCO 1998).

In several of the CEE countries (Moldova, Romania, the Russian Federation and Ukraine) half or more of the population had incomes below the official poverty line in the period 1989-95 (UNDP 1999a). This impoverishment is reflected in a drastic fall in real wages and per capita GDP, high rates of inflation and a rise in income inequalities - including between men and women, the latter often being the first to lose their jobs. Relative prices have also changed, with prices of goods and services needed by the poor often rising much faster than others (UN 2000a). While income poverty is clearly more pervasive and severe in Eastern Europe, it is not unknown in Western Europe, with an estimated 17 per cent of the EU population (excluding Finland and Sweden) still experiencing poverty. Vulnerability to income poverty is more widespread: 32 per cent of Europeans experience at least one annual spell of low income over a period of three years, while 7 per cent experience persistent poverty during this period (EC 2001).

Availability of and access to environmental information

Information, participation and access to justice are essential elements of a true participatory democracy. These themes therefore became central elements in the EfE process, resulting in the endorsement of the Sofia Guidelines in 1995 and the adoption of the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Århus Convention) at the Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference held in Århus, Denmark, in 1998.

The Århus Convention is based on the notion that the involvement of the public in decision-making, notably by public authorities, tends to improve the quality and implementation of final decisions. It guarantees the right to information, participation and justice in the context of protecting the rights of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to health and well-being.

The human costs of the transition process have reached beyond income poverty alone. In Europe as a whole, life expectancy has increased in the period 1995-2000 compared to 1975-1980 from 70.3 to 73.1 years (both sexes, compiled from United Nations Population Division 2001). However, in some Eastern European countries life expectancy has decreased over the same period, especially for men - for example from 62 to 58 in the Russian Federation and from 65 to 64 in Ukraine (UNDP 1999b). In addition, in many CEE countries (Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine), the ratio of men to women is far below the standard ratio. The causes of this 'missing men issue' are multiple and complex but stem mainly from human insecurity: military conflict, poor health, unemployment, loss of pensions and corruption, all of which result in social breakdown and a poor quality of life (UNDP 1999b).

Dismantling of the communist era welfare system also led to social disintegration and inequality in social services in CEE. This decline was associated with a proliferation of fraud, illegal businesses and organized crime (UNDP 1999b). In sharp contrast to conditions before transition, people now find themselves deprived of personal safety and security - often at the mercy of organized criminal forces that have arisen on the basis of collusion with corrupt government officials. The increase in crime reveals a weakness in state authority and in public law enforcement.