Growth through social justice

Print edition : November 02, 2007

The alliance between human development and human rights would augur well for the poor.

in New York

Doing homework on a pavement in Chennai. It is a social irony that a country registering impressive rates of economic growth leaves a section of its population illiterate, malnourished, socially marginalised and impoverished.-R. RAGU

Doing homework on

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj (self-rule) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Mahatma Gandhi

Development is the strategy of evasion. When you cant give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you dont send the children to school, try non-formal education. When you cant provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Cant give them jobs? Not to worry. Just redefine the words employment opportunities. Dont want to do away with using children as a form of slave labour? Never mind. Talk of improving the conditions of child labour. It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.

P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

THE underlying concept of justice in the human development approach does not recognise any national boundaries about whom to include and whom not [to], emphasised Amartya Sen in the first Mahbub ul Haq Memorial Lecture on Human Development on September 19, 2007, at The New School for Social Research, New York, United States. Such a globally unrestricted coverage of the idea of human development, Sen argued further, places the human development approach in a unique position to address issues of local and global inequalities, which is much better than most mainstream theories that confine their focus to a nation or a particular political community.

Moreover, its distinctive edge, according to Sen, derives from the fact that it adopts a comparative approach to well-being without having to wait for some abstract and transcendental principles of a perfectly just society, and connects justice with the realisation of basic capabilities and freedoms for everyone in society. It may well turn out, he said, that in a comparative perspective, the introduction of social policies that eliminate widespread hunger or remove rampant illiteracy can be shown to yield an advancement of justice.

The lecture was part of the fourth annual conference of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), organised in collaboration with the Graduate Programme in International Affairs at The New School, from September 17 to 20. The previous three HDCA conferences were held in Groningen (The Netherlands), Paris and Pavia (Italy). The theme of this years conference Ideas Changing History brought together more than 300 philosophers, economists, researchers, policymakers and practitioners from 40 countries who are engaged in research on the capability approach, human development, gender justice, health, human rights, education, disabilities and other related areas. The HDCA networks main aim is to promote high quality research in the interconnected areas of human development and capability and to bring together those primarily involved in academic work with practitioners. It consists of over 600 members from 60 countries.

As envisaged by its chief architect, the late Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, and his team of visionary economists and researchers, the principal aim of the human development approach is to draw the attention of the world community to the idea that development consists in enhancing peoples quality of life, and consider economic growth only as a means to that end. It is no less than a social irony that a country registering impressive rates of economic growth leaves a section of its population illiterate, malnourished, socially marginalised and in poverty. Can this be called genuine development?

Prof. Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate, highlighted the broader scope of the human development approach in his Mahbub ul Haq Memorial Lecture.-M. VEDHAN

Prof. Amartya Sen,

Since 1990, with a view to shifting the focus from the traditional income-centred accounting to people-oriented programmes and policies, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been publishing the annual Human Development Report (HDR), focussing on the conceptual issues and policy strategies to tackle poverty and deprivation. One important component of the HDR is the Human Development Index (HDI), which ranks countries on the basis of three basic capabilities: life expectancy (ability to live a long and healthy life), educational attainments (ability to acquire knowledge through literacy, basic and secondary education and so on) and economic standard of living (to have access to the resources needed for a decent living standard).

This index illustrates that the orthodox income-based GDP per capita measure is an imperfect indicator of human development and that the addition of capabilities-based indicators shows quite different results. When, for example, countries and regions such as Poland, Costa Rica, Brazil and the State of Kerala in India manage to achieve higher levels of and sometimes scandalous, disparity between human and economic development that is prevalent in many countries. It appraises the performance of governments and policymakers and persuades them to devise well-targeted policies.

Right from the origin of the UNDPs human development approach, Sen has closely collaborated with Haq to strengthen its theoretical edifice by envisioning development as an expansion of human capabilities and freedoms. Yet in his memorial lecture, Sen was keen to highlight the broader scope of the human development approach. In addition to being seen as a call to action for transforming peoples lives and as having a global appeal that cuts across national boundaries, the human development approach is also founded on a different type of social thinking and philosophy.

Unlike other mainstream political theories, such as the one expounded by American philosopher John Rawls, for instance, the human development approach in the first place does not rest on the idea that justice would obtain only when social cooperation is organised on the basis of mutual benefit. Instead, it starts off from a kind of public reasoning that does not focus exclusively on the benefit of cooperation but on the responsibility of everyone particularly of those with more power and resources to bring about positive changes in the lives of people.

Referring to the mother-and-child analogy in Gautama Buddhas Sutta Nipata, Sen points out how the mothers reason for action is guided less by the rewards of cooperation and symmetrical power than by the motivation that she can and must do things that can make a crucial difference to her childs life and future.

Similarly, the human development approach, according to Sen, is steered by the motivational justification that if someone has the power to make a change that he or she can see will reduce injustice in the world, then there is a strong social argument for doing just that. New ideas are rarely born in isolation. Quite frequently, they emerge in clusters and families and try to win over hearts and minds, relating and at the same time differentiating themselves from other established concepts and ideas.

Given its relatively shorter life-span, it is amazing that the idea of human development has captivated the social imagination of many people so rapidly: it has not only altered the way progress is assessed but has also become the benchmark and vocabulary widely used by non-governmental organisations, universities, the media, politicians and governments all over the world.

And yet, it is crucial to realise that the future of the human development approach depends very much on how it explores its links and interconnections with another globally influential idea with a much longer history and wider appeal human rights. Do these two approaches complement or compete with each other? What is the distinctive trait of human development that can enrich the human rights discourse and vice versa?

As most leading human development as well as human rights theorists and activists would agree, because of their common shared motivations in securing the lives and freedoms of individuals, there is no reason to see these two approaches as rivals. On the contrary, there is a growing need to see them together as a family of ideas supplementing and strengthening one another. In fact, the prospect of world development would turn out to be much brighter for the poor and worse off in society when a mutually beneficial alliance is forged between human development and human rights.

HDR 2000, which for the first time explored the interconnections between the concepts of human development and human rights, underlines this need: Human development and human rights are close enough in motivation and concern to be compatible and congruous, and they are different enough in strategy and design to supplement each other fruitfully. A more integrated approach can thus bring significant rewards, and facilitate in practical ways the shared attempts to advance the dignity, well-being and freedom of individuals in general.

For instance, one conceptual clarity and richness that the language of human rights can bring to the human development framework is the notion of claim. When we say that something is a right, we understand that behind that right is a claim of an individual agent on other people or institutions that should help in ensuring access to this freedom.

Depending on the kind of rights, claims can take different forms, some in the form of protection from interference and others in the form of positive assistance. But that it is a claim is what is strongly embedded in the language of rights and this can bring about an additional perspective to the framework of human development. Quite often, it is not enough to mention the goals of development; it is also important to enlist the specific obligations and responsibilities of individual and collective agents to realise these goals.

Conversely, the human development approach can bring in a variety of enrichment to the human rights approach. The human rights literature has thus far shown comparatively less interest in quantitative and qualitative research, while these have been the driving force behind the human development approach. Data collection, analysis, measurement and quantification of problems cannot be an immediate and overall solution to the many maladies of our societies, but it can be of a great help to make precise and relevant interventions. Furthermore, the human development approach can play a decisive role in underlining the importance of peoples social and economic rights.

While theoretically human rights theorists have been careful to talk of the indivisibility of different human rights, national activism and international interventions have been more focussed on civil and political rights. Organisations that are willing to name and shame individuals and governments for the violation of political rights do not show similar enthusiasm when it comes to failures in the areas of economic rights such as the right to decent living standards and employment opportunities.

Intrinsic to the human development paradigm is the idea that people will not be able make effective use of their rights if they do not possess the required capacities and at least a minimum of material resources and social conditions. So, the human development approach can make useful contributions to push forward the agenda of social and economic rights.

In 2015, the human development approach initiated by Haq, Sen and other committed experts would have a quarter century of experience and history, coinciding with the target year of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Among the human development theorists and practitioners, there is already a growing worry that the rhetoric of human development does not reflect the reality of human development indicators on the ground; the policy impact of the human development approach is much less in proportion to its huge political and public success.

For example, since 1995 the HDRs, by introducing the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), have tried to underscore through facts and figures the gender-biased character of poverty and deprivation, and how in many parts of the world girls and women are much more disadvantaged in terms of nutrition, education, health and self-respect than boys and men. And yet over the last 10 years very few countries can speak of any significant improvement of gender-related development indicators.

Politicians, including presidents, prime ministers and finance ministers of countries and their policymakers are quick to pick up the human rights and human development rhetoric. But when it comes to policy decisions they are led by populism and short-term gains. Often enough, taking human development seriously means more investments in social sectors and public infrastructures, and in long-term goals that will enhance the health, educational, employment and social capabilities of people.

Also, the world today is in many ways a different place than when the human development approach was initially launched in 1990. Rising up to the challenges of globalisation, technological innovations, rampant spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), climate change, global terrorism, human security, migration and so on, are vital to keep the human development movement robust and relevant.

There is, however, another related concern, the dilution of the theoretical richness of what the idea of human development as a whole stands for. Ideas are like the ripples created by a pebble thrown into a pond. As they spread, from a small group to a wider public, from a minority of believers to a majority of followers, they tend to lose their vigour, originality and charisma. Sen frequently stresses the need to go beyond the human development index.

Peoples well-being and freedom are influenced by a wide variety of social, political, economic, legal and environmental factors. The HDI, which selects and concentrates on some of these elemental features, cannot but be limited in comparison to the complexities and richness of the actual human life. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, former Director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of several HDRs, speaks of the tendency to imprison a wide range of possible human development ideas and strategies within the HDI and the consequent need to rescue the human development concept from the HDI.

The popular appeal and success of the HDI has, unfortunately, created the wrong impression in some circles that human development is just about education and health, and nothing more.

The human development agenda in the future, according to Fukuda-Parr, should concentrate on other areas such as political freedoms, human agency, participation, empowerment and collective action.

John M. Alexander is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economics and Ethics, University of Leuven, Belgium and teaches Business Ethics and Society at the Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Loyola College, Chennai. His book Capabilities and Social Justice: The Political Philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum with Ashgate Publishers is due in January 2008.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×