United Nations versus growth

In: Uncategorized

27 Jun 2010

It is hardly surprising that a study on the 20th anniversary of the first Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) rejects the importance of economic growth for development. The whole notion of human development, formulated by Amartya Sen and others, is based on a downplaying of material factors.

Of course conclusions cannot be rejected simply because they are in line with a previously stated growth sceptic stance. That is why the evidence should be examined in closer detail over the coming months.

From what I can see the key paper in the debate so far (with more due to be published before the October anniversary) is George Gray Molina and Mark Purser’s Human Development Trends since 1970: A Social Convergence Story (PDF). I entirely agree with the first sets of its conclusions pointing to substantial improvements in welfare over the past few decades: “Since 1970, life expectancy increased by 9 years, average literacy increased by 20 points and income per capita increased by US $3,800” (each of these factors being a component in the original Human Development Index [HDI]).

However, the remainder of the paper argues that economic growth and welfare improvements are not correlated. As the paper puts it: “income is not a significant determinant of HDI change once we include urbanization, fertility and female schooling”. Instead it points to evidence suggesting that female schooling and fertility are most closely correlated to improvements in human development. This would seem to suggest that prioritising higher levels of female schooling and improving access to contraception are the best measures to improve human welfare. In other words it is completely in line with the current development orthodoxy – a fact that should signal the need for considerable scepticism towards the findings.

Given my lack of time I have not had a chance to go through what is a dense statistical argument in any detail. However, it should be noted from the start that incremental improvements in human welfare – particularly those identified in narrow HDI terms – are not the ultimate goal of development. Those who support material equality, including myself, would favour an economic transformation of the poor countries to turn them into rich ones. Improvements in life expectancy and female school enrolment are welcome but they are only part of a much bigger story.

* For a blog post by the head of the UNDP research team on human development which identifies support for economic growth with free market thinking see here. For Oxfam’s take on the recent human development debate see here.