Look What’s on the other plate

Human Development in South Asia 1997

by Mahbub ul Haq

Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1997

ISBN 0 19 577773 5

Mahbubul Haq, the guru of development science, has tried to present the everyday reality of South Asia in this publication, where he employs the Human Development Index (HDI) he helped develop for UNDP for inter-country comparison and ranking on a development scale. Overall, the situation in South Asia described by the author and his Islamabad-based team of researchers is a close reflection of Subcontinental reality. The book does a creditable job of collating information on a South Asia-wide scale, addressing a myriad of diverse issues such as rising military expenditure, government´s "benign neglect", growth of NGO activities, and mobilisation of savings and investment. The country-wise human development profile is also of great interest and utility.
It is when Mr Haq insists on comparing South Asia´s performance with those of Sub-Saharan Africa on the one hand and East Asia on the other, however, that he enters shaky ground. Here, his report easily falls prey to the pitfalls of generalisation. Going by his calculations, India is behind Kenya and Lesotho; Bhutan is behind Rwanda and Liberia, and Nepal is behind Sudan. Anyone who has lived or visited these countries may draw their own conclusions. By the obvious indicators of development such as personal security, economic growth centres, individual purchasing capacity, relative economic stability, relative freedom of individuals and press, South Asia must be ahead of its African counterpart region.

The comparison between the two regions and the relative ranking given by Mr Haq is spurious. One cannot deny the deprivation that exists in South Asia, which has a massive problem of development largely due to population size. Its natural resource base is smaller, and South Asia has more than twice the population of Sub-Saharan Africa. Its landmass (4.1 million sq km) is less than one-fifth of Sub-Saharan Africa (22.4 million sq km).

Indeed, the 43 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa would collectively have ranked far ahead of South Asia today given the potential natural wealth of this region in relation to its population. But the fact is that political freedom and economic equity is grossly lacking in Sub-Saharan Africa in comparison to South Asia. If the egalitarian philosophy of President Nyrere of Tanzania had been implemented in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, the situation might have been somewhat different.

Romanticised East
The author argues that investment in the population could transform South Asia into the East Asia of the 21st century. Would it? Technological development and the world consumer market have been nearing saturation point for the last ten years or so, which severely limits economic prospects in the future. Further, you need less people to manufacture a product in a shorter period today than ever before. The simple formula of upgrading human capital will not work. Even if massive investments are made in human development, and this is the author´s main suggestion, South Asia´s population will not become a capital for development. All in all, Mr Haq´s philosophical treatise on development does not give enough importance to the need for a coherent South Asian population policy.

In comparing South Asia with East Asia, Mr Haq´s treatment of the latter (taken to mean Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) is highly romanticised. Strangely, he misses some of the underlying factors which have led to the Subcontinent´s economic stagnation and East Asia´s advancement.

Human Development in South Asia 1997 does not even glance at the role of the Vietnam War in the economic advancement of East Asia. Annually and for more than a decade, billions of dollars were pumped into this regional economy. A massive technology transfer also took place, all in the name of halting the communist takeover of Indochina. This is what resulted in the dramatic transformation of the region; industry grew, and the region soon became a production hub for Western consumers.

Further, how could Mr Haq and his team have forgotten that, unlike South Asian states with the exception perhaps of Bangladesh, individual countries of East Asia are all very homogeneous, and this is an essential factor in generating mutual trust and dialogue, which leads to development. South Asia, on the other hand, presents some of the most diverse human populations in the world, fertile ground for contempt and mistrust to take root.

The investment in human capital in South Asia is further complicated by the lack of awareness among the illiterate masses of South Asia, which have allowed family dynasties to rule over them under the guise of nominal democracy. Autocracies in South Asia have not put national interest before personal interest, unlike in East Asia. The authoritarian rulers of East Asia managed to maintain law and order (with American support, despite Uncle Sam´s apparent passion for human rights) which brought stability, a prerequisite for all-round growth and development.

Composite HDI
The HDI does appear to be sensitive enough in its ability to line up the countries of the East, West, North and South against some scale. However, it is not fine enough to pick up the actual development efforts of the countries. The index is the product of three indicators (life expectancy, adult literacy and GDP per capita). Individually, these indicators measure the achievements in equity of services, be it basic education, immunisation coverage, or accessibility of family planning services. Collectively, however, it may not actually measure what we want to measure, namely: equity of social services taken as a whole.

In the present publication, Mr Haq also introduces two new concepts of development measures not included in his earlier work with UNDP; these are the Capability Poverty Measure (CPM) and Human Deprivation Measure (HDM). The CPM is a composite index of three negative indicators measured by number of births unattended by a trained health worker, underweight children under five years, and the adult female illiteracy rate. The HDM is the tail side of the HDI coin, consisting of six negative indicators: population without access to safe drinking water, underweight children under five years, illiterate adult population, out-of-school children and population without minimum income needed for basic necessities of life.

Political leaders thrive on optimistic declarations, and so it will be hard to sell them the concepts of CPM and HDM which deal with negative indicators. A more sensitive index would be a combination of infant mortality, percent of children leaving primary school, percent of children under five above B2SD in weight for age ratio, percent of population with access to safe water and percent of population with access to health services within 30 minutes (by any means of transport).

Need for Teeth
The author proposes to universalise basic social services over the next 15 years, which will cost approximately USD 8.6 billion annually, which he says can be managed by restructuring the budget. In making proposals like these, Mr Haq seems to wilfully ignore the long shadow of sovereignty claims and mutual suspicion among South Asian states. He might have made a welcome and well-meaning political statement, but it has no teeth. What is needed in each country is a dramatic shift in political and economic decentralisation aimed at reducing disparities, controlling economic leakage, and political education of the mass. Reducing defence expenditure and demobilising armed forces will happen only when people realise its need and demand it.

The pervasive corruption in public and corporate sectors predisposes governments to making wrong decisions and emphasising wrong priorities. Taming corruption must be a priority if we are serious about human development in South Asia, yet discussion of this specifically South Asian malady (in terms of scale) is conspicuously missing in Mr Haq´s comprehensive report.

The role of ethnic and religious differences in the region is under-played. The author states that Sri Lanka made the mistake of extending some social services on a discriminatory basis, unlike the practice in Malaysia, which led to the Tamil-Singhala conflict. This is all a bit simplistic in terms of Subcontinental politics, and it must further be noted that Malaysia does insist on a discriminatory preference for Malays as opposed to the ethnic Chinese and Indians. Similarly, the author holds Bhutan out as an example of a multi-ethnic society free of ethnic tension, apparently unaware of the existence of a hundred thousand primarily Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in refugee camps managed by UNHCR.

HDI is a simple tool that tries to measure complex dimensions of development. In the absence of more acute measures, it has no competitor at the moment. For this reason, HDI may be used, but cautiously. For actual planning and policy-making, disaggregated data is the only answer, not HDI.

In summary, despite some of its failings, this is a useful publication that provides an overall socio-economic picture of the Subcontinent under one cover. Although, both Africa and East Asia has no resemblance to South Asia, in many respect there still are lessons to be learnt from their experiences. The development priority for South Asia lies in institutional reform (political and economic) whereby the concept of decentralisation of planning, land reform, job creation and job security will actually begin to contribute towards economic equity which is what human development is all about.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian