The new UN Human Development Report on vulnerability and resilience: ignoring trade-offs and an epic fail on power and politics

July 25, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I started off reading the exec sum of yesterday’s Human Development Report (UNDP’s flagship publication) with initial excitement, followed by growing dismay. It’s a HDR launchpretty traditional kind of disillusion (I’m a bit of a connoisseur). Allow me to walk you through it.

In a nutshell, an interesting diagnosis and a few good new-ish ideas, followed by a pretty thin proposal for anything resembling a cure, while ducking most of the tricky questions. Recognize the pattern?

Let’s start with the positive. First a good topic: vulnerability and resilience – development fuzzwords that really need examination, clarification etc, in the way the HDR is usually good at.

Despite recent progress in human progress, the report correctly identifies an underlying malaise: ‘a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today—in livelihoods, in personal security, in the environment and in global politics.’

‘Real progress on human development, then, is not only a matter of enlarging people’s critical choices and their ability to be educated, be healthy, have a reasonable standard of living and feel safe. It is also a matter of how secure these achievements are and whether conditions are sufficient for sustained human development. An account of progress in human development is incomplete without exploring and assessing vulnerability.’

HDR fig1Some of its useful contributions:

It proposes a pretty broad conception of ‘human vulnerability’ (presumably to sit alongside the UNDP’s traditional focus on human development), and breaks it down a bit between groups (see first diagram).

It raises the possibility of some kind of multidimensional approach to inequality, pointing out that inequality in healthcare has fallen, whereas disparities in income has risen, while inequality in access to education has stayed roughly constant in recent years.

It points out that the rate of progress in human development has fallen significantly since 2008 (see bar chart).

It highlights the need to think about vulnerabilities in terms of life cycles. People’s vulnerabilities and strengths are cumulative and path dependent. That begins even HDR fig2before birth – babies born to undernourished mothers are less likely to do well in school or later life. Unemployment in youth can derail people for a lifetime.

The logic of this is ‘intervene early’ (see 3rd graph), but this is where I started to get frustrated. The obvious response is, ‘OK, but money doesn’t grow on trees (OK technically it does, in the case of paper money, but you know what I mean). What are you suggesting you do less of? Take money from pensions and spend it on early childhood development’? The nearest it gets to this is saying ‘Spending on health, education and welfare that increases over the life course does not nurture and support capability development during the crucial early years.’ That sounds like a recipe for a spectacular wonkwar between Save the Kids and Helpage, but as far as I can see, the report ducks the potential trade offs entirely.

HDR fig3Similarly it argues for a return to full employment as an economic policy objective. That’s a brave and radical proposal, but fails to acknowledge, let alone discuss, any possible trade-offs between full employment and decent jobs – it wants both (natch).

Finally, where’s the politics? I know it’s hard for UN bodies to talk about power and politics, but this is a pretty dismal example of a technocrat’s charter, assuming a benign, pro-poor government keen to improve (that’s a hell of a big can opener).

‘Building human resilience requires responsive institutions.. in particular states that recognize and take actions to reduce inequality among groups are better able to uphold social cohesion and prevent and recover from crises.’

And what do you do if you have a state that isn’t this kind of paragon? Complete silence: the executive summary (which is all most people read) doesn’t go there. No discussion of how non state actors can influence states, of how to shift incentives, build coalitions with sympathetic fragments within the state, seize the political opportunities provided by disasters (very important in this case). Likewise, no discussion of the politics of ‘turnaround’ – when and why have bad states turned good? There’s a page in the full report (106) on the role of civil society activism and participation, but that doesn’t make it into the exec sum. All in all, an epic fail, epitomized by the widespread use of what Robert Chambers calls the ‘passive evasive’ tense ‘greater efforts are needed’ etc etc.

My heart rose briefly when I saw a subhead saying ‘Deepening progress and collective action’. Great, here comes an edgy section on how change happens in real political systems. Oh, wait. ‘Collective action’ turns out to mean loads of governments agreeing some really kickass post 2015 goals. Don’t get me started on that one.

Now I’m a big fan of the UNDP (and they are more than welcome to set me straight). Maybe this is as far as an official UN report can go, but if so, that’s a shame. And it rather illustrates just how hard it is to talk about power and politics, even for NGOs. But that’s a topic for a future post.

July 25, 2014
Duncan Green