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25 Years of Human Development Reports: Wasted on the West

World Politics: It's been 25 years of the tradition of Human Development Reports. United Nations is celebrating this occasion. But it also gives us a chance to appraise how different nations have participated in this tradition. This article tries to do this review and present certain findings.

On 27th May 2015, United Nations Development Programme launched a campaign celebrating the 25th anniversary of the launch of the first human development report (HDR). In its overview, the first human development report laid out its agenda, “This Report is about people- and about how development enlarges their choices. It is about more than GNP growth, more than income and wealth and more than producing commodities and accumulating capital.” (1990: 1) This agenda represented the ideas on human development propounded by the members of the team who prepared this report, including people like Mahbub ul Haq- the project director and Amartya K.Sen- one of the consultants. Since then these reports have come to be produced not only for the entire world but also for individual nations and have sought to continue the task of looking at human development as a “process of enlarging people’s choice” (UNDP 1990: 1) and away from the “excessive preoccupation with GNP growth and national income accounts” (UNDP 1990: 9).

Yet the practice of producing human development reports has not been institutionalised in all the nations. Looking at the 187 plus nations which are ranked according to human development index, it is found that 145 nations have brought out human development reports for their respective countries while 43 countries have never brought out a single one over the years. Even among those which do, there is a difference in the number of reports that each country brings out. Some very significant trends and patterns emerge by looking at the country profile for the Human Development reports.

HDR Country Profile

The most number of reports that have been published are numbered at 18, produced by India. However this number is debatable. As per the UNDP website the last report listed for India is in 2007 which is the UP Human Development Report, whereas UNDP India webpage reveals that more reports have been published even after 2007 for other states. Russia ranks second with 17 such reports. These reports are not only produced at the national level but are also region specific, state specific and even district specific, like in case of India. Most reports have been published from Asian, South American and African countries. East European countries have also produced some reports over the years. On the other hand those nations which have not published any reports mostly come from Western Europe and North America besides Australia.
Another way to profile these countries is to look at their respective ranks in terms of human development index. Most nations which have produced these reports are ranked outside the “Very high human development” category as 28 out of total 48 nations ranked in this category have not produced any national HDRs. In contrast 40 out of 53 nations ranked in the “High human development” category have produced these reports. Similarly 40 out of 42 nations ranked in “Medium human development” and 44 out of 44 nations ranked in “Low human development” categories respectively have published these reports.

Most of the countries which do bring out the reports happen to be post-colonial and post Soviet nations and have undergone major political transformations in the past century and many of them still constitute what is loosely termed as the developing world.

Moreover these reports have been prepared based on certain themes as the UNDP’s categorisation reveals.  There are almost 60 separate themes under which these reports have been categorised. These themes include ‘civil society’, ‘employment’, ‘culture’, ‘democratic governance and empowerment’, ‘decentralisation and conflict’ and ‘civil strife’ to name a few. 

Significance of Human Development and HDR

The concept of human development breaks away from the previous views of development which solely focussed on economic growth and income indicators. It now wants to look at the “many dimensions of human choices” (UNDP 1990: 1). Thus human development besides providing a better standard of living also values enlargement of people’s choices which include “political freedom, guaranteed human rights and personal self-respect” (UNDP 1990: 1) such that people have a “reasonable chance of leading productive and creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.” (UNDP 1990: 1) Thus this approach becomes in many ways a “‘people-centred’ approach” (Dreze and Sen 2002: 6) which also accords importance to their cultural and local contexts. The many themes under which these reports are categorised reflect a multi-dimensional view of development situated in both economic and non-economic factors.

The reports become all the more important because states assume the responsibility to bring them out. In an increasing neo-liberal framework of governance, with the mantra of limited government, this responsibility suggests that development of people is still the primary responsibility of the state notwithstanding the huge influence which free market and other economic forces wield.

Preference for HDRs

Most countries which have published these reports in the 25 years have been from the continents of Asia, South America, Africa and Eastern Europe. With India and Russia leading the pack, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria and Egypt are some of the other nations which have produced high number of human development reports. Most of them do not rank in the very high category of the human development index. Another similarity as already pointed out is that these nations do not represent what are called “advanced industrialist nations”. Most of these countries have undergone major transformations in the post world war years in that they are new nation-states formed after decolonisation and disintegration of Soviet Union.

It becomes important to understand the reasons behind the preference among these nations to publish these reports. Based on the concept of human development following are certain explorations based on select factors which can be assumed for this shared preference to explore meanings and ways of human development through the modalities of such reports: Contextual dimensions of development, Alternative to a solely income based perspective, Structural and institutional paradigm.  
As new nation states most of them have struggled with the challenges of economic growth as well as human development. Meanwhile post world war development studies have been dominated by the notions and ideas derived from the experiences of advanced industrialist nations which fail to acknowledge the “pluralisms of development” (Brohman 1995: 122). Human development as a concept with its people centric approach attempts to provide this contextuality and thus appeals to these nations who want to find their own voice in the discourse of development which recognises the “local constraints and aspirations of people” (Planning Commission 2002: ii).  

Due to the scarce availability of various data required to measure a decent standard of living (one of the key components of human development), per capita income still matters. However this has been further corrected in human development index, by bringing in per capita purchasing power- adjusted real GDP which aims to reflect the “diminishing returns to transforming income into human capabilities”, since “people do not need excessive financial resources to ensure a decent standard of living” (UNDP 1990: 12). Nevertheless income remains an important variable and since countries loosely termed as belonging to second and third world lag in this area, they naturally have lower ranks in human development index. The idea behind human development for moving away from an excessive focus on “GNP”, “wealth” and “income” provides these nations the opportunity to look not just into “material attainments” but towards “outcomes that are either desirable in themselves or desirable because of their role in supporting better opportunities for people” (Planning Commission 2002: 3).

Most of these nations have struggled to consolidate their states, democracies and governance structures over the years. State has also been an important agent for not only economic development but increasingly to better the lives of the people of its nation. The thematic categorisation of these reports including topics such as democratic governance, civil society, decentralisation etc. is an example of the importance given to “the issue of governance for human development” (Planning Commission 2002: ii). The importance of state is reiterated with its role in ensuring human development. Even with an onslaught of neoliberal reforms, the institutional and structural paradigm in these countries is such that state remains a powerful entity and thus documenting its performance for human development adds to the appeal of the modality of these reports.

Advanced West and Human Development

While the reasons given above are more relevant to developing societies, (though not completely irrelevant to developed ones), there is one issue which transcends the context of development levels. Human development as already suggested gives importance to “enlargement of choices”. This increases the scope of human development to include, besides income, political freedom, social dignity and means of self respect. All of these choices are affected by socio-political, socio-economic and socio-historical realities in every society.

Advanced industrialist nations have their fair share of social and political fissures and these translate into economic inequalities as well. For instance among the advanced nations, US is not only found as a more unequal nation but also the one with lesser upward mobility. It also has “uniquely higher incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers” as Jason DeParle writes in New York Times. Robert D. Crutchfield and David Pettinicchio describe this phenomenon in the US a result of a “high tastes of inequality” whereby not only are the problems faced by the disadvantaged sections of community attributed to “the problems within disadvantaged individuals, assuming that these people are in dire straits through their own faults” (2009: 136) but also inculcates a culture of threat perception within the majority against the minority communities resulting in the latter’s greater incarceration and disapproval of social welfare measures directed towards them. This anti-other sentiment is also prevalent in other advanced nations of western Europe such as France and Spain where punitive police actions have been justified against rioters who “just happened to be North African  and Muslim “immigrants”” and anti-Latin American immigrant riots have been explained as a reaction to “imported gang activity” respectively. (Crutchfield and Pettinicchio 2009: 149)  

Similarly Henry M. Levin explores the perception of education in western European countries and US. He suggests, “It is very clear that the popular rhetoric and ideology of modern governments in the United States, Western Europe, and much rest of the world is predominantly sympathetic with the meritocratic vision” (1976: 149) which sees educational system as the “institution of modern society which develops, sorts, and selects persons according to their productive proficiencies to fill the hierarchical positions of modern, large-scale bureaucratic organizations in a rational and meritocratic manner” (1976: 148). Thus education is seen as an asset rather than an opportunity to enhance human capability.

Sociological inequalities affect economic inequalities and vice-versa. For instance Anglo-Saxon nations like US, Britain and Canada have been experiencing growth in wages inequality since past many decades. This wage inequality increases towards the top end of wage spectrum and conversely decreases towards the bottom (Lemieux 2008). Meanwhile France deals with intra-regional economic inequalities between developed cities and their disadvantaged suburbs (Scargill 1990).  

These are just some of the examples to illustrate that advanced industrialist nations face similar challenges as developing ones when it comes to extending the benefits of human development to all sections of population. The human development index shows relative rankings of nations while human development as a concept is about providing opportunities for enhancement of human capabilities for all to strive for the goals that they value. Human development reports provide an opportunity for nations to audit and document their respective efforts made for ensuring human development. While developing nations utilise this opportunity and provide not only national level but regional as well as local level accounts of achievements and challenges of human development, advanced nations need to participate in the modality of these reports to not only make this concept a truly global phenomenon but to also explore the infirmities in their societies which pose as obstructions in enlargement of choices for all sections of population.

Human Development as a Discourse

Since the world war development discourse has been dominated by mostly the experiences of western advanced nations. For a long time it was the modernisation approach which as John Brohman describes was “too simplistic and too vague to be taken seriously as a comprehensive theory of development” and was “really a celebration of the achievements of the advanced industrial countries.” (1995: 125) This approach was later only replaced by neoliberal framework which had its own inadequacies. Brohman suggests that neoliberal development studies in their concern over “modelling procedures” and “quantitative techniques” ignore “social complexity and diversity” and “non-quantifiable aspects of development” (1995: 126). But even he asserts that these models are inappropriate for “non-Western societies”, assuming that neoliberal development framework does not fit only developing societies when examples above illustrate that social complexity and diversity as well non-quantifiable dimensions of development remain a factor in development in the advanced western societies.

Human development intervenes in the development discourse by being more participatory and inclusive than earlier models and ideas. Under the aegis of United Nations Development Programme, HDRs provide non western world a platform to present their own development issues and perspectives which are contextually relevant. At the same time it is more inclusive as it focuses on economic as well as non-economic factors as the means and ends of development. However advanced western countries have clearly remained away from this modality of HDR as well as the concept of human development in itself. This could be because of ideological bias against both the concept and the modality. As far as the concept goes, the idea of moving away from purely economic considerations is something that western advanced nations may not find much appealing. Secondly the idea of states bringing out these reports, thus fixing the responsibility of ensuring human development on the state, is something which does not complement the neoliberal framework that most of these nations espouse.

However as explored in this article, advanced nations too have many worries which may not after all be solved by a neo-liberal framework or a purely economic view. At the same time UNDP needs to bring these nations on board in their efforts of exploring human development through these reports before touting the entire idea as a global phenomenon and a success.  


(Within the article you will find names, years and numbers within brackets after some sentences. These are references to the quote or argument taken from a particular article. The name represents the author, the year is the year in which it was written and the numbers are the pages from the article from where the quote is taken. Further expansion of the references are given below.)

-          Brohman, John (1995): “Universalism, Eurocentrism, and Ideological Bias in Development Studies: From Modernisation to Neoliberalism”, Third World Quarterly, Vol 16, No 1, pp 121-140.

-          Crutchfield, Robert D. and David Pettinicchio (2009): ““Cultures of Inequality”: Ethnicity, Immigration, Social Welfare, and Imprisonment”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 623, Race, Crime, and Justice: Contexts and Complexities, pp 134-147.

-          Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen (2002): India: Development and Participation, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

-          Lemieux, Thomas (2008): “The Changing Nature of Wage Inequality”, Journal of Population Economics, Vol 21, No 1, pp 21-48.

-          Levin, Henry M. (1976): “Educational Opportunity and Social Inequality in Western Europe”, Social Problem, Vol 24, No 2, pp 148-172.

-          Planning Commission (2002): National Human Development Report: 2001, Government of India, New Delhi.

-          Scargill, Ian (1991): “Regional Inequality in France: Persistence and Change”, Geography, Vol 76, No 4, pp 343-357.

-          United Nations Development Programme (1990): Human Development Report: 1990, New York: Oxford University Press.

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