HDR 2002: Wishful thinking or concrete measures? Sabyasachi Mitra

The Human Development Report 2002 (HDR 2002), published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), focuses on the importance of democracy in achieving human development targets. In the foreword to the Report, titled ‘Deepening democracy in a fragmented world’, Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP Administrator, notes that effective governance is central to human development, and that lasting solutions need to go beyond narrow issues and “be firmly grounded in democratic politics in the broadest sense”. HDR 2002 states that there need be no trade-off between democracy and development as no evidence has been found to establish such a claim. No one has been able to conclusively demonstrate that authoritarianism provides better outcomes, and hence democracy needs to be sacrificed for economic growth and social progress. In fact, democracy can be looked upon as both a final objective of human development as well as an instrument for further expanding human development.HDR 2002 identifies several key institutions necessary for democratic governance:

  • elected and accountable representation;
  • free and fair elections as well as universal suffrage;
  • checks and balances based on separation of powers, with independent
  • judicial and legislative branches;
  • a vibrant civil society, able to monitor government and private business, and to
  • participate politically;
  • free and independent media;
  • basic rights to free expression, assembly and information;
    effective civilian control over accountable security including – police -forces.

The Report, while optimistic about the institution of democratic regimes in many countries during the 1980s and the end of one-party rule in many others during the next decade, exhibits anxiety over the slipping back on the part of a number of democratic governments into increasingly undemocratic practices, and on the part of a few into de facto rule. Besides, the Report correctly observes that just having regular elections should not be equated with participatory democracy in the true sense of the term: “Of the 140 countries that hold multiparty elections, only 80 are fully democratic. 106 countries still limit important civil and political freedoms.” Minority rights are followed more in breach than in observance. Where a small elite dominates economic and political decisions, democratic institutions can easily be subverted, cautions the Report. The pitfalls of such elite control of democratic institutions are manifold:

  • Absence of accountability of elected representatives except just before elections.
  • Absence of checks and balances between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, with the executive and the judiciary being weakened to make the legislature unaccountable.
  • Subversion of democracy through corruption, money power and criminalization.
  • Institutionalization of existing social discrimination on the basis of gender, community, religion, socio-economic status, etc., by the ruling elite, who often stand to gain from these discriminatory practices. In such cases, participation in democratic processes is of little value to those facing discrimination.
  • Centralization of executive powers and reduced federalism.
  • Marginalization of the weaker sections, who constitute the majority of the population.

In this kind of a situation electoral democracy goes hand-in-hand with what HDR 2002 calls ‘democratic deficits’. People are more inclined to support even an authoritarian leader who promises accelerated economic growth, social progress and stability, despite curtailed civil liberties and political freedoms.

HDR 2002 also rightly calls for urgent action in democratizing international governance, particularly for ending domination by the OECD countries of international financial, economic and trade organizations: viz., the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF.

However, even as the Report raises several issues pertaining to the establishment of real and participatory democracy in nations worldwide, and identifies some of the obstacles that impede true democratic processes, it fails to ask what causes these obstacles and to suggest means to do away with the same in the world today. HDR 2002’s unflinching loyalty to market forces as the performer and its belief that state intervention is the perpetrator of the ills that afflict the nations in crisis, put to rest all hopes that the Report will provide some direction to nations that are currently in crisis due to the implementation of IMF-World Bank-guided structural adjustment and stabilization programmes. While the Report makes an appeal for these institutions to be made more broad-based and for giving a voice to the developing countries who take loans from them, it is unlikely that the appeal will fall on sane ears.

The Report’s hope that the marginalized majority will get increased access to new opportunities, both in and in technology, is bound to remain a daydream. The OECD countries, and the US in particular, rarely accord any respect to international treaties that they think will harm their interests, no matter what impact such non-compliance might have on the world. The US refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol and to cut down on emission, is just one of many such instances. These countries always get away with flagrant violation of all rules of treaties to which even they are signatories, or they frame the rules in such a manner that it is only the developing economies who have to give up some, if not all, of the privileges they enjoyed before joining the treaty. While countries like India are cutting down the meagre subsidies they used to give to the farming community, the recent US Farm Bill is a case in point which shows that, when it comes to adherence to norms, it is one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

Large capital has become all-powerful during the last two decades. It enjoys social, political and economic power in practically all the countries of the world, with other groups having no say even in matters that have direct consequences for them. This has reduced the control democratic processes used to have over policy decisions that are critical in shaping people’s social and material lives. People across the world have witnessed disempowerment and this process is being aided and abetted by the forces of liberalization, deregulation and globalization. International finance capital is wreaking havoc in economy after economy, inequality and deprivation are on the rise, and economic democracy is on the wane. National governments are becoming more and more subservient to the international financial institutions.

And yet, HDR 2002 does not discuss this threat that looms large — the threat of a real democratic deficit as reflected in the greater power, nationally and internationally, of large capital in various forms. The Washington Consensus still rules, and prospects of significant reform are more remote than ever. Despite the considerable heterodoxy and dissent that prevail in current economic analysis, orthodox neoclassical economic theorizing done mostly in the US continues to strengthen the ideological and political hegemony of the Consensus.

Although the Report eulogizes India for the independence and activism of its judiciary and its efforts at decentralization through panchayati raj, the majority of Indians may not be impressed by such praise from an UN publication. In a country where the main partner in the ruling alliance openly exhibits a partisan approach to the upper castes from the majority religion, this kind of accolade can only serve the rulers as a shroud with which to cover the dastardly acts committed and sponsored by them.

The Human Development Report 2002 seems to confuse people’s empowerment with the establishment of open markets, and wants its readers to believe that open markets are all about innumerable choices and infinite opportunities. It deliberately ignores the fact that these opportunities are the preserve of only a chosen few, and that people steeped in poverty are in greater need today than ever of government support even to survive on a day-to-day basis. The Report forgets the basics of promoting equality. It forgets that we can have equality only among equals. To equate unequals is to perpetuate inequality.

International finance capital will pay no heed to the moral lessons that the Report intends to serve out, and will take no step to voluntarily ameliorate the miseries of the masses unless national governments force them to do so. Curbing the power of large capital and restoring the sovereignty of nation-states should be the primary goal of any true democrat today.