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Human Development Index - a weapon of the weak?

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: August 2, 2014, 12:50 PM IST
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If you are interested in 'development' you would probably know about the Human Development Index. Although the statistical calculation involved in arriving at the score for each country according to the Human Development Index is a matter for statisticians, most of us know that every year the UN brings out a report called the Human Development Report which apart from discussion on various issues also brings out ranking of countries according to Human Development Index. The countries are divided into four groups - (a) very high human development; (b) high human development; (c) medium human development, and (d) low human development. This index was first initiated in 1990.

If we go back to the history of the concept of human development and the human development index we shall see that the two leading thinkers behind it were Mahbub-ul-Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen from India. The idea behind developing such an index was a noble one - Development Economics was till then busy with only calculating the development of an economy in terms of GNP growth. The proponents of HDI wanted "to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people-centered policies". Thus a country was no more to be evaluated in terms of its GNP only but also in terms of its achievements in terms of education, health etc, i.e. in terms of the what the government did to ensure the quality of life for its citizens as a whole.
High GNP could mask enormous poverty and deprivation within the country and hence a new index was formulated. The index itself was more the contribution of Mahbu-ul-Haq as he wanted a score sheet to act as a policy advocacy tool apart from making purely academic calculation. A landmark in policy advocacy of this new index was the Millennium Development framework in 2000 when UN members pledged to achieve certain measurable goals by 2015, most of which were related to human development. This also had massive impact on donor funding and has been the dominant global strategy for development since 2000. In one way therefore Mahbub-ul-Haq's decision to create such an index at the risk of diluting some of the theoretical complexities associated with the concept of human development was successful as the global development discourse now started to move in the context of the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs.

After nearly twenty-five years of the development of this index we now perhaps need to re-visit some of the theoretical assumptions behind Human Development and the Human Development Index. You do not need to be an expert academician or a great scholar in order to understand why this is required. Consider a situation - a country ensures a high quality of life for its citizens in terms of Human Development Index but decides to bomb schools and kill children of another country. The Human Development Index will still show that this country is "very high" in Human Development even though it is committing barbaric inhumanity in another country. If you want an example check the status of Israel in the Human Development score card of 2014.

Imagine also that a country is "very high" in HDI but is constantly supplying arms to other countries, creating instability, fuelling unrest, arming radical groups and even bombing on civilians in the name of war on terror. Still the HDI will show that this country belongs to the "very high" group of Human Development Index. If you want an example check the HDI rank of United States of America.

Imagine a country that is "very high" in HDI but has a banking system that helps corrupt people from all-over the world to save their ill-gotten wealth and survive any form of disclosure. This country therefore is clearly helping the criminals of the world to stash their cash. If you want an example see the HDI rank of Switzerland.

Secondly, the HDI ranking is a strange a-historical ranking system. Its puts United States and Bangladesh in the same scoring system and then finds Bangladesh in 142nd position and United States in the 5th position. It completely ignores the economic status of the two countries, their histories, when the countries became independent from colonial rule, what was the poverty level of the two countries in 1990 when HDI started, so on and so forth. As a result when you see the Index you are likely to think that Unites States is so much better than Bangladesh. Was this the purpose of developing the Index and this score card? To remind poor countries every year that they belong to "medium human development" and "low human development" category? Were this Index and this score card created to make the rich countries feel good about their "high human development" status?

Whether intentionally or not, the Human Development Index has become complicit in the game that the rich countries play to make rest of world feel inferior. The poor countries are now being told that not only do they have poor GNP based score, they also have poor HDI based score and therefore belong to a lower level of the civilized order. Then of course the rich countries can play all sorts of tricks if a poor country tries to break out of that inferior status. The dirty tricks of the rich countries do not get reflected in the beautifully produced Human Development Reports every year.

In 2014 Afghanistan's rank is 169th. But who is responsible? The Human Development Index and indeed the human development approach are silent on the issue.
First Published: August 2, 2014, 12:50 PM IST