UNDP's HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT: OFFICIAL DEVELOPMENT DOUBLE SPEAK

PCDForum Column #44,   Release Date November 20, 1992

by David C. Korten

Evidence mounts almost daily that the global economy is systematically impoverishing the majority of earth's people and destroying its environment. Yet official development agencies continue to issue endless calls for greater commitment to the very prescriptions that are deepening the crisis, assuring us that eventually they will provide relief.

Even these prescriptions are presented only in fragments, mixed with countless competing messages. In a given day a citizen may hear exhortations to: Consume less to save the environment! Consume more to stimulate the economy! Support free trade! Buy local products! Faced with such conflicting advice the public is left hopelessly confused and immobilized. There is a great need to provide the public with credible guidance in understanding the differing assumptions and perspectives that lie behind contradictory prescriptions such as these.

Occasionally an official publication holds forth seeming promise of penetrating the veil of the establishment's view of the politically correct. UNDP's influential annual Human Development Report series is an example. Unfortunately, the HDR slips into a now familiar pattern established by an equally promising document, the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future. An insightful analysis tellingly penetrates the carefully cultivated myths of development orthodoxy, but the recommendations affirm the myths adding to the public's confusion, and all but destroying the document as a useful guide to policy reform. Specifically, the HDR presents compelling evidence that:

  • A high level of national income is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve a high level of human development.
  • Because of misplaced priorities, current foreign assistance programs are contributing little to human development and poverty alleviation.
  • Even the poorest countries have the financial resources to meet the basic needs of all their citizens without foreign financial assistance if they were willing to limit military and other non-essential spending.

Less well documented, but equally accurate, are its observations that:

  • Wealthy countries must reduce their profligate consumption to release environmental resources for use by those in need in poor countries.
  • Free and open trade and investment in an unequal world work primarily to the benefit of the economically strong.
  • Sustainable development depends on eliminating financial and environmental debt.
  • Greater attention to human rights, wide participation in political life, and transparency and accountability in public administration are essential to improved human well-being.

These are important contributions to the foundations of an alternative development framework that places people and ecology ahead of transnational capital and wealthy consumers. They raise significant hope that UNDP might offer an effective counter force within the UN system to the flawed analyses and destructive prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF. Unfortunately, the UNDP capitulated, hopelessly diluting its path breaking analysis with policy recommendations that might well have been taken right out of World Bank/IMF documents. The following are direct quotations.

  • "No sustained improvement in human well-being is possible without growth." (1991, p. 14) The study's analysis provides strong support for exactly the opposite conclusion. Indeed that is its major contribution.
  • "Global markets should be liberalized both in goods and services, to accelerate global growth and to ensure much better distribution of this growth." (1992, p. 9) It earlier asserted such action would increase inequality.
  • "Tariff and non-tariff trade barriers imposed by industrial countries cost developing countries about $40 billion a year in lost export revenues." (1992, p. iii) This implies rich countries should be consuming more, rather than less, of the resources of the poor countries,
  • "...the international community must strengthen its support to global human development...through increasing aid..." (1992, p. iii) Its analysis shows very little aid goes to human development and would not be needed at all if recipient countries set appropriate priorities.
  • "[The World Bank] might develop new lending instruments to recycle funds better from industrial to developing countries." (1992, p. 10) This, of course, would increase developing country debt.
  • "The International Monetary Fund should be strengthened to enable it to impose adjustment programmes not just on developing countries but also on industrial nations." (1992, p. 10) "The GATT Secretariat would...be more effective if it had a small executive board...[with] sufficient regulatory clout." (1992, p.10) The IMF and the GATT are already among the world's most powerful, nontransparent, and unaccountable institutions. What happened to the importance of human rights and political participation?

No wonder the public remains confused and frustrated. When even those few studies that profess an independent and critical analysis lapse into development double speak to appease establishment pressures to remain politically correct, where are responsible citizens to turn for credible alternative perspectives? It is time to challenge agencies such as UNDP to be more courageous in providing much needed alternative leadership within the official system.


David C. Korten is a fellow of the People-Centered Development Forum.

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