OTTAWA - Canada dropped to eighth place Thursday in a United Nations index that tries to measure quality of life in countries around the world.

That follows Canada's fourth-place showing in the 2009 UN Human Development Index.

Norway tops this year's quality-of-life list, as it has for much of the last decade.

Canada routinely led the list in the 1990s, when the UN first started compiling the index of living standards, giving prime ministers bragging rights about the country.

But development experts caution there is absolutely no statistical significance to shifts in the top 15 or 20 countries on the index, given their relative wealth.

"This year's eighth isn't comparable to last year's fourth, and down to first," David Morrison, executive secretary of the United Nations Capital Development Fund, said in an interview.

This year's report -- the 20th anniversary of the index -- notes that many poorer countries have made great gains in health and education despite only modest growth in national incomes.

"The message for a country like Canada is that aid programs targeted to economic growth are, of course, very necessary," said Morrison.

"The message is: don't give up on health and education because it's actually making a real difference in the lives of people in poor countries."

Canada is freezing its foreign-aid budget next year and for the foreseeable future as deficit-fighting measure. The move has sparked criticism among international aid agencies.

Rohinton Medhora, vice-president of programs with the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian corporation, said the survey results could allow Canada to effectively target its aid.

One of the study's many findings was that reproductive health is the largest contributor to gender inequality, he said.

That makes the Harper government's decision to focus on child and maternal health in Third World countries a timely initiative, he added.

"Any initiative that targets reproductive health, maternal health is going to make a big difference in the lives of people in poor countries."

In light of the challenges that poor countries continue to face, Canadians shouldn't be wringing their hands over their eighth place showing, Medhora said.

Instead, Canadians should take as sobering the fact that 23 of the 25 countries at the bottom of the list are from Africa. The other two -- Afghanistan and Haiti -- happen to be the top two direct recipients of Canada's foreign-aid spending.

"When you think about how the rest of the world is living, that's an eye-opener," said Medhora.

"When you're in the Top 20, or even the Top 30 or 40, a switch in ranks up or down by five spots is not really a big life-and-death issue. When you're in the bottom 25, everything is a life-and-death issue."

Zimbabwe, led by despotic President Robert Mugabe, was last in the rankings, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo vying for the bottom of the list.

Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Ireland rounded out the Top 5.