New Internationalist

Humane development

Issue 375

The fractured fiefdoms and independent missions of the UN system may have made for an unwieldy bureaucracy - but they have also opened up spaces where unique projects can emerge. Mark Engler reads between the lines.

Our Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for those who break them... It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armoured carsfor police who fight riots in our streets... Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or... the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning... It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. - Robert Kennedy.

Even as Kennedy was speaking in the 1960s, a new view of development was percolating in the global South. There was growing disenchantment with economic orthodoxy of the kind increasingly promoted by the World Bank and the IMF. The ferment eventually made a prominent appearance at the UN with the publication of the first Human Development Report in 1990.

For a decade and a half now this annual report has propagated a brand of thinking that contrasts with the dominant viewpoint of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and corporate globalization. While never framed as a radical enterprise, it has armed advocates of global justice with statistics and analysis that cut through the rhetoric of neoliberal triumphalism. It has challenged economic growth as the prime mover – and Gross National Product (GNP) as the prime measure – of human well-being, placing the condition of the world’s poor at the centre of international dialogue. And it provides an intriguing illustration of how one group of thinkers can successfully navigate a UN structure that is as politicized as it is labyrinthine.

The Report presents a new paradigm, tirelessly cultivated by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq until his death in 1998. ‘The purpose of development,’ the first Report stated, ‘is to offer people more options. One of their options is access to income – not as an end in itself but as a means to acquiring human well-being. But there are other options as well, including long life, knowledge, political freedom, personal security, community participation and guaranteed human rights.’

It might easily have been ignored, suffering the fate of countless technical publications that never enter the public spotlight. So Haq devised an ingenious public-relations device – a ranking system that would directly rival GNP. Nobel economist Amartya Sen, who initially opposed reducing the complexity of human development into a single numerical listing, remembers Haq promoting the opposite case. Sen was won over by the reception of the first Report. ‘It was rare for a UN report to be noticed at all,’ he wrote, ‘but unique for it to be covered by virtually every newspaper round the world.’

The single measure is the Human Development Index (HDI). It ranks countries based on a number that takes into account factors like life expectancy, literacy and purchasing power. To the chagrin of the US – accustomed to thinking of itself as number one in the world – the superpower regularly ranks between fourth and eighth on the HDI. It falls behind countries like Canada, Norway and Sweden which, although not as wealthy, produce healthier citizens.

In-depth analysis

The annual Reports also go beyond the Index, each year providing in-depth analysis on a selected topic. It is this research that has frequently proven useful for promoters of an alternative to corporate globalization. The 1995 Report, with a focus on gender, found that 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty were women. When Nelson Mandela wanted evidence of the ‘unequal and inequitable’ distribution of globalization’s rewards he cited the 1999 Report, which showed that the top fifth of the world’s countries ‘command 82 per cent of world export markets and 68 per cent of foreign direct investment; the bottom fifth just one per cent of each of these.’

How, then, does the HDR fit into the UN structure? The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which houses it, has not been known as a haven for anti-Washington rebels. Activists who have engaged the agency charge that, Malloch Brown’s stated opposition to some neoliberal policies notwithstanding, the UNDP has watered down its criticism when faced with political opposition. Doug Hellinger, from the Development GAP in Washington DC, is one of them. ‘We tried to work with UNDP to organize a dialogue on [structural] adjustment in the mid-1990s,’ he told me. ‘When word got out, the US Treasury and State Departments intervened and killed it. They’ve been able to create an environment at the UN where people are often intimidated.’

The manner in which the HDR has functioned in this politicized setting was exemplified by its founder. Haq - trained at Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale - always positioned himself as an insider in the development debate. He served long terms at the World Bank under Robert McNamara and within the Pakistani government during the Zia dictatorship.

Yet he was adept at knowing when he could criticize the institutions where he worked. Many of his most controversial stances when he moved to the UNDP were aimed not so much at the Washington establishment as at developing countries themselves. He focused on the ability of even impoverished governments to improve the lives of their citizens and he challenged militaristic administrations to cut arms spending.

Haq was a steadfast believer in free markets, convinced that ‘global opportunities for trade and investment’ – rather than aid – would provide a path to development. But he took this concept far further than most wealthy countries liked, proposing market penalties for nations that are the largest polluters or which restrict migration.

Within the UN system, Haq worked to gain the Report a space of autonomy. His friend, economist Meghnad Desai, writes: ‘To preserve the integrity of the Report, Mahbub persuaded William Draper III [UNDP Administrator at the time] to issue it not as a UN document – the kiss of death for independence– but a free-standing publication of the UNDP.’

Still, independence has its limits. Haq observed in 1998 that not a single year passed ‘without some government demanding the stoppage of these Reports’. He charged that ‘despite their professions to the contrary, the World Bank and the IMF are still fully committed to the defence of traditional economic growth’.

Limits of dissent

Haq’s belief in free markets, in particular, has led outside critics to charge that some of the Report’s recommendations seem tepid or objectionable. The most recent change at the Report office suggests that it will continue to walk a fine line on the edge of ‘acceptable’ dissent. In August last year Kevin Watkins was appointed as its new Director. Watkins was formerly Head of Research at Oxfam in Britain. He authored the organization’s controversial position on trade, Rigged Rules and Double Standards, which argued that the global South’s lack of access to Northern markets is a key reason for its continued impoverishment. An echo of Haq’s position, the paper drew fire from advocates like Walden Bello, of Focus on the Global South, for reinforcing ‘the paradigm of export-oriented growth’. The Oxfam paper also painted globalization activists as ‘globaphobes’, which Bello charged had the effect of ‘caricaturing [the movement] in the crudest Economist fashion’.

While it remains uncertain whether Watkins’ tenure will produce Reports that are more or less confrontational, it is likely that the office will remain one of the UN’s most compelling contributions to the development debate. The Reports have presented markedly different values to those of the Washington Consensus. Most importantly, they have lent the legitimacy of the UN to the call for alternatives. That, in itself, is a humane development.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site www.democracyuprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.

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