In debates about global economic development that devolve into technical discussion of inflation rates and export balances, one can easily lose sight of some basic facts:
— Nearly three-fifths of the 4.5 billion people living in developing countries lack adequate sewers, a quarter reside in woefully substandard housing, and a fifth have no access to modern health services.
— Europeans spend $11 billion dollars each year purchasing ice cream, while only $9 billion per year would provide clean water and sanitation for all people.
— If measured as separate countries using basic indicators of social well-being, the African-American population of the United States would fall 30 places behind the country’s white population in a global ranking.
Such arresting statistics do not come from a renegade leftist think tank, but from a small, often controversial office nestled within the United Nations–a program operating under the banner of “human development.” If the fractured fiefdoms and independent missions of the UN system have made for an unwieldy bureaucracy, they have also opened up some spaces in which unique projects can emerge. With regard to economic theory and analysis, the annual UN Human Development Report (HDR) offers a prime example.
For a decade and a half, the HDR has propagated a brand of development thinking that contrasts with the dominant viewpoint of the Washington Consensus. While never framed as a radical enterprise, it has nevertheless armed advocates of global justice with statistics and analysis that cut through the rhetoric of neoliberal triumphalism. The HDR has challenged the dominance of Gross National Product (GNP) and economic growth as a measure of well-being, placing the condition of the world’s poor back in the center of international dialogue. And it provides an intriguing illustration of how one group of thinkers has successfully navigated a UN structure that is as politicized as it is labyrinthine.
The Emergence of Human Development
For decades, GNP ruled as the singular standard by which economists judged a nation’s progress. Yet this measure of the total value of goods and services produced in a country had serious shortcomings. Robert Kennedy eloquently described these in the U.S. context in 1968:
“Our gross national product,” Kennedy said, “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 armored cars for 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… [I]t measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Even as Kennedy was speaking, a new view of development was percolating in the global South which, in subsequent decades, would come to present an even more serious challenge to the “economic growth school” obsessed solely with GNP. Led by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, this ferment made a prominent appearance on the international stage in 1990 with the publication of the first UN Human Development Report.
The report presented a new paradigm of “human development,” which was tirelessly cultivated by Haq until his death of pneumonia in 1998. It argued that “while growth in national production… is absolutely necessary to meet all essential human objectives, what is important is to study how this growth translates–or fails to translate–into human development in various societies.” That is, into the actual welfare of a country’s citizens.
“The purpose of development,” the first HDR 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.”
Outranking the Superpower
The concept of human development would have a substantial impact on the economic debate in the next decade, uniting a wide range of forces dissatisfied with measures of economic growth. Still, the HDR might have easily been ignored, suffering the fate of countless technical publications that never see the public spotlight. To avoid such an outcome, Haq devised an ingenious public-relations device, a ranking system that would directly rival the dominant indicator of GNP. Nobel economist Amartya Sen, who opposed reducing the complexity of human development into a single numerical listing, remembers Haq promoting the opposite case. “We need a measure of the same level of vulgarity as GNP– just one number–but a measure that is not as blind to social aspects of human lives as GNP is,” Haq argued. Sen was convinced when he witnessed the reception of the HDR. “It was rare for a UN report to be noticed at all,” he writes, “but unique for it to be covered by virtually every newspaper around the world.”
The single measure that the HDR presented, and continues to chart on an annual basis, is the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI ranks countries based on a number that takes into account life expectancy, literacy, and purchasing power. To the chagrin of the United States, 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.
Few statistical tables make for as interesting reading as the HDI. It shows that Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman, whose investments in public education have been lacking, rank far lower than they would if listed by GDP. Cuba ranks 39 places higher. The 1998 report showed that Vietnam (108) placed far better than Guinea (162), a country with similar per capita income, owing to much higher literacy rates and life expectancy.
The reports (available on the United Nations Development Program [UNDP] web site or through Oxford University Press) 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, examining Gender and Human Development, found that 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty are women. The 2003 report, on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, revealed what the British Guardian called another “lost decade” in development. It showed that 54 countries–including some of the neoliberal “poster children” of the decade–ended the booming 1990s poorer than when they started. The finding prompted UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown to call for a “guerrilla assault” on the “Washington Consensus.” And when Nelson Mandela wanted to cite evidence of the “unequal and inequitable” distribution of globalization’s rewards, he cited the 1999 report, “Globalization with a Human Face,” which showed that the top fifth of the world’s countries “command 82 percent of world export markets and 68 percent of foreign direct investment; the bottom fifth just one percent of each of these.”
The Limits of UN Dissent
How, then, does the HDR fit into the UN structure? The UNDP, which houses the HDR, 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, it has watered down its criticism when faced with political opposition.
Doug Hellinger, Executive Director of the Development GAP and global civil society coordinator of a major review with the World Bank of structural adjustment policies, cites examples in which pressure from the United States and threats of withholding funding have squelched critical initiatives. “We tried to work with the UNDP to organize a dialogue on adjustment in the mid-1990s,” Hellinger 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, Mahbub ul Haq (see interview in NI 262). 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 he worked within. Many of Haq’s most controversial stances targeted not the Washington establishment, but 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 in order to address social needs.
Within the UN system, Haq worked to gain the HDR a space of autonomy. His friend, economist Meghnad Desai, writes that “To preserve the integrity of the Report, Mahbub persuaded [then UNDP Administrator William Draper III] to issue it not as a UN document–the kiss of death for independence–but a free-standing publication of the UNDP.”
Still, the HDR’s independence has exhibited limits, and many of its recommendations can seem tepid or objectionable to outside critics. Haq was a steadfast believer in free markets, convinced that “global opportunities for trade and investment” rather than aid, would provide a key path to development. Of course, he took this concept far further than most wealthy countries would like, proposing market penalties for nations that are the largest polluters and that restrict immigration.
The most recent change in leadership at the HDR suggests that the office will continue to walk the fine line at the edge of “acceptable” dissent. In August, Kevin Watkins was appointed as the new director of the HDR office. Watkins formerly served as the Head of Research at Oxfam, one of the most prominent progressive NGOs working on development issues. However, while at Oxfam, Watkins 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 export markets was a key reason for its continued impoverishment. An echo of Haq’s position, the paper drew fire from allied advocates like Walden Bello, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, for reinforcing “the paradigm of export-oriented growth” and “increas[ing] pressures on developing countries to open up their markets.” The Oxfam paper also painted globalization activists as “globaphobes,” which, Bello charged, had the effect of “caricaturing [the movement] in the crudest Economist fashion.” Oxfam responded by claiming that “market access is one theme among many” in its trade campaign and by reiterating its standing criticisms of “free-market prescriptions.”
While it remains uncertain whether Watkins’s tenure will produce HDRs that are more or less confrontational in their policy analysis than earlier reports, it is likely that the office will remain one of the UN’s most compelling contribution to the development debate. Haq observed in 1998 that not a single year has passed “without some government demanding the stoppage of these reports.” At the same time, over 120 countries have launched human development initiatives at the national level, often using them in conjunction with their economic planning commissions. Haq charged that “despite their professions to the contrary, the World Bank and the IMF are still fully committed to the defense of traditional economic growth.” Nevertheless, those moving beyond the GNP have influenced initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals, the progress toward which has been tracked in recent HDRs.
While the mechanisms of neoliberalism persist, the reports have presented a development paradigm guided by markedly different values. And they have lent the legitimacy of the UN to the call for alternatives. That, in itself, is a humane development.