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UNDP's HDR Riddle

By Madhukar SJB Rana

Institute for Developing Studies

One must begin by congratulating the lead-author Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and her able team for a comprehensive, longitudinal report on human development, democracy and human security. No doubt, it will be read widely and for many years to come. It is a painstaking and imaginative endeavour to monitor the nature and scope of democracy actually prevailing -or not prevailing--- in 180 countries of the world. It is also remarkable for its forthright attempt to argue for democracy in the realm of international politics and multilateral diplomacy.

Political scientists will be happy to read that the report makes a solid case that politics is as important as economics for development. A novel concept of "democratic deficit" nationally and internationally is a watershed of this report. At the core, the report calls forth broadening and deepening of democracy at the national and international levels, albeit Mark Malloc Brown placing a rider to the effect that "the analysis and recommendations of this Report do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations Development Programme, its Executive Board or its Member States"!

What are we to make of this report then? Especially in the context of the significant statement of Kofi Annan therein who says " the sovereignty of states can no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights" (an emergent Annan doctrine?). Is this a universal principle applicable to the US as it is to say Bhutan? Or applicable only selectively to those developing nations that are on the verge of political collapse which have the potential for threats to either global or regional peace?

In the cruel realities of international politics, one cannot help feeling that a new thrust for development has been provided by the terrorist attack on America-- and a new concern for global security found on the implicit assumption that 'democracies do not go to war with one another'. (Perhaps people once said, just before the World War I, that inter-marrying members of the European royal families do not go to war with each other as all are descendents of Queen Victoria). If globalization fails to spread prosperity world wide and does so with less inequalities and inequities then fragmentation of civil societies and nation states may be the alternative scenario and a sounder assumption on which to assess the future of democracy.

As much as 72% of the 200 countries of the world are said to be partially democratic and only 82 countries or 41% (with 57% of the world's population) are believed to be full democracies. Thus, since 1990, democracy wholly or partially has been growing by leaps and bounds and yet the proportion of the world's people living in extreme poverty declined from 29% to 23% only from 1990 to 1999. Why such poor results?

We are told that 47 of the 81 new democracies are full democracies as of 2000. Comparative case studies on the extent of their achievements in human development and identification of general and specific causes for success or failure might have borne interesting policy lessons.

Are there no factors other than the lack of full or near-full democracy that makes for poverty at the national level and at the family level? Of course there are; as for example, civil wars, natural disasters, population explosion, community isolation with the lack of transport and communication, mountains are naturally poor in soils through the erosion of the top soil, unequal status of women in the larger society and girls in the households, lack of social mobility, family breakdown, drunken husbands, etc.

Now on to the riddle: Bhutan (HDI 0.494) is not a democracy, yet it fares better than Nepal (0.490). Maldives (0.747) is not yet fully democratic and yet too it is on top of the ladder of human development in South Asia; just before Sri Lanka (0.741) and much before India (0.577). Note that a high HDI is a value of 0.800 or more; medium is between 0.500-0.799, and low is below 0.444.

What are we to make of Singapore (HDI rank 25th) which country is better than the best in terms of rule of law, graft and corruption, effectiveness of government and with a
-2 polity score as compared to Norway's +10 (HDI rank 1st).

Then there are the East Asian 'miracle' economies of Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan that have been regarded as models of development for the last 30 years or so for having reached industrial-country status even quicker than Japan. Furthermore, we may expect Malaysia and Thailand to also reach that status soon, say within 10-15 years. Brunei is no democracy, yet has the highest per capita income in the world. Japan's per capita income ranks second place worldwide.

Yet these countries have not been models of democratic governance. While, even now, much political freedom is constrained, the state has strategically managed to garner the economic freedom necessary for entrepreneurial risk-taking based on strong internal competition, sound work ethics and visionary leadership.

The journey of economic development for these miracle Asian economies is over, or nearly so, for most of them. They have made their mark in history without democracy. There is more income and social equality in these countries than there is in democratic India or Sri Lanka. Thus contrary to the report's thesis, for these countries democracy may now be the final destination with development having been the journey- and not
vice versa.

Westernized Turkey at 0.742 is a mid-level HDI country and lying many places behind Malaysia (0.782), Libya (0.773), Saudi Arabia (0.759), Lebanon (0.755) and Kazakhstan (0.750); all in the same league. Costa Rica, a model democracy for Central and Latin America, with a HDI at 0.815 is behind Barbados at 0.871 and Argentina at 0.844.The question for Sri Lanka (0.741) is not more democracy but how to stop the civil war? The same may be true for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Nepal in the Asian region. Based on the logic of the report are we not to expect Pakistan's HDI to fall in 2001 and 2002 as a result of the military takeover?

Brunei is no democracy but its HDI is 0.856 in the 32nd position with the world's highest GDP per capita. Very few of the Arab states are democracies and yet their average aggregate HDI is 0.653. When Kuwait, UAE, Qatar along with Brunei are in the high HDI category what democracy do they need? China is ranked 96 (HDI 0.726) much ahead of India at 124 (HDI 0.577). What policies is the UNDP to promote for democracy in these countries? One wonders why Iraq, that 'evil republic', is unlisted ! And whose fault would the deteriorating HDI be-the UN's or Iraq's? Why has Russia's HDI slipped from 0.809 in 1980 to 0.781 in 2000? There is a story out recently that Kazakhstan is now returning to the old Soviet ways thanks to the cozying up with large US corporations and its strategic importance for the war on terrorism. What will the UN be doing there to promote democracy? Is advocacy sufficient? Or even necessary, as beyond a certain threshold it loses its sting or impact.

In the spirit of human development and human security globally, it would have been useful to have statistics on the status of the indigenous peoples of the world be they in America, Canada, Australia or elsewhere. Equally, since human development is ultimately about self-esteem and participation in society as productive members, it would be useful to have comparative statistic of unemployment and underemployment, people on welfare not in the labour market, extent of child poverty, population in prisons, and share of GDP in homeland and external security. These are probably equally relevant indicators of the quality of democracy, especially to assess the quality of industrial democracy.

Says Marc Malloc Brown " it has become common in recent years to hear policy-makers and development experts describe good governance as the 'missing link' to successful growth and economic reform in developing countries. But attention has focused on economic processes and administrative efficiency". Already host governments are uneasy about this focus as they charge intrusion by the multilateral financial agencies into domestic politics. Now what more may be expected from the UN as 'democracy' and not 'good governance' is conceived as the provider of just and equitable development. Actually, for practical purposes the UNDP has not moved beyond the 'good governance' parameters of (a) accountability, (b) transparency and (c) participation as originally conceived. This is because, ironically, it relies on processes alone when new structures are eminently desirable to ensure a pro-poor democracy, rid of the domination by the elite to the detriment of the poor, especially rural poor. .

The UNDP Report concludes by saying" This dual process-deepening democracy at the national and global levels --- has the potential to transform the lives of the world's poor" (P122). Yes, indeed, but how long should we wait for this to happen? Surely there must be shorter routes to eradicating poverty before 2015 and not just halving it? Remember, this will still leave a staggering 400 million abject poor in South Asia! Let us suppose that democracy is somehow widened and deepened. What next for the post-2015 poor?

The "missing link" in the presentation of the UNDP is about the role of the state in social mobilization of the poor for creating self-development organizations of the poor as well as the fundamental need for devolution of development responsibilities to the local communities and for the organizations of the poor to be empowered to reach out to local governments for their entitlements and rights.

Democracy must widen and deepen. Yes, but how? They suggest the five essentials, namely (a) free and fair elections based on universal suffrage, (b) separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers with proper checks and balances for abuse and misuse , (c) free and independent media, (d) effective civilian control of the security forces, and (e) a vibrant civil society that can monitor government and private sector and provide alternative forms of political participation.

One needs to add (f) self-reliant organizations of the poor to make for a pro-poor, participative democracy and development. Through social mobilization of the poor not as objects of development; not as political vote banks with populist slogans but as subjects of grassroots' development and democracy. There is this missing link that is conspicuous by its absence in the HRD Report for 2002. Political, economic and social competition is essential for democracy to sustain itself, and organizations of the poor could help break the clutches of oligopoly-power by the political parties to change policies for the good of the majority.

Another structural innovation is to have women represented in local governance units in proportion to their numbers in the population. For this women must vote for women candidates separately for elections to the local bodies. Without sufficient political representation for all classes of women they have very little chance for their transformation as political equals in feudal societies. To allot quotas to women is insufficient to meet their transformational needs that tantamount to self-defeating patronage of the select few.

A third vital structural innovation would be to reform channels of aid delivery towards controlling graft and corruption and move towards more direct aid to the poor so that they are in receipt of their entitlements through the organizations of the poor and local governments. 'Direct aid' would be far more equitable than withdrawing aid as a condition for non-performance over reforms since suspending aid punishes the poor more than the elite.

There is far too much emphasis in the report on civil society at the national and international level. It is perceived to be the harbinger of goodwill and development for the poor. Democracy must flow upwards through devolution of political responsibility and organizations of the poor to countervail the powers of the elite. A pro-poor democracy must not only be 'for the poor by the poor and of the poor' but also 'led by the poor' themselves.

Should the UNDP be the agency to monitor factors that have contributed to the regress of democracy in the host countries? Can it? Should it monitor the independence of the media as also its level of objectivity, honesty and integrity? Should it monitor elections for its freeness and fairness, including party elections? What solutions does it have for removing the power of money and muscle from elections? How should it account for the vibrancy or otherwise of the NGOs it and other UN agencies have actually fostered? Not to mention whether it should gauge the effectiveness of the elected authorities' control over the security forces. How does the UNDP account for such massive poverty levels in India despite its brilliant democratic credentials? What new action plans are necessary for India where nearly half the world's poorest reside?

In conclusion, the HDI is more a 'shame and blame index' rather than one with practical guideposts for faster economic development. The shame element is in the subjective indicators as, for example, for South Asia it is Bhutan that has the worst record judged by the indicators like polity score (-8), civil liberties ( 6) and political rights (7). Both economics and politics matter. The real riddle is how to have rapid human development and fast economic growth. This requires a judicious mix of policies and institutions for political freedom without compromising on economic freedom. Keep the multilateral agencies out of politics for their own good. Help strengthen the fundamental institutions to check on the abuse of power from political parties through the quest for innovative structures to deepen and widen democracy rather than engaging multilateral institutions in political outcomes through the quest for appropriate political processes. Let bilateral aid be democracy-driven and democracy-oriented.

Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
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