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Indigenous well-being in four countries: An application of the UNDP'S Human Development Index to Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States

Martin Cooke1*, Francis Mitrou2, David Lawrence2, Eric Guimond34 and Dan Beavon34

Author affiliations

1 Department of Sociology and the Department of Health Studies and Gerontology, University of Waterloo, 200 University Drive W, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

2 Centre for Developmental Health, Curtin University of Technology, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, PO Box 855, West Perth. WA. 6872. Australia

3 Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Terrasses de la Chaudière, 10 Wellington, North Tower, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

4 Department of Sociology, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2007, 7:9  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-7-9

Published: 20 December 2007



Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand consistently place near the top of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index (HDI) rankings, yet all have minority Indigenous populations with much poorer health and social conditions than non-Indigenous peoples. It is unclear just how the socioeconomic and health status of Indigenous peoples in these countries has changed in recent decades, and it remains generally unknown whether the overall conditions of Indigenous peoples are improving and whether the gaps between Indigenous peoples and other citizens have indeed narrowed. There is unsettling evidence that they may not have. It was the purpose of this study to determine how these gaps have narrowed or widened during the decade 1990 to 2000.


Census data and life expectancy estimates from government sources were used to adapt the Human Development Index (HDI) to examine how the broad social, economic, and health status of Indigenous populations in these countries have changed since 1990. Three indices – life expectancy, educational attainment, and income – were combined into a single HDI measure.


Between 1990 and 2000, the HDI scores of Indigenous peoples in North America and New Zealand improved at a faster rate than the general populations, closing the gap in human development. In Australia, the HDI scores of Indigenous peoples decreased while the general populations improved, widening the gap in human development. While these countries are considered to have high human development according to the UNDP, the Indigenous populations that reside within them have only medium levels of human development.


The inconsistent progress in the health and well-being of Indigenous populations over time, and relative to non-Indigenous populations, points to the need for further efforts to improve the social, economic, and physical health of Indigenous peoples.