Failing America's historic mandate

Georgie Anne Geyer

May 23, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

NEW YORK — THERE IS a cruel irony for the United States of today and for the "America" of the world's imagination in the comprehensive "Human Development Report 1991," released this week by the United Nations Development Programme.

the report's "Human Freedom Index," virtually all of the 40 indicators to measure freedom (right to peacefully assemble, independent courts, religious freedom) are indicators that were pioneered by the United States.

But, in the report's "country ranking," the United States comes out only 13th, behind Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, New Zealand, Austria, Norway, France, Germany, Belgium, Canada and Switzerland.

Equally puzzling is the U.S. positioning in terms of certain social indicators, where it would be supposed that America's extraordinary industrial base and high income levels would put it at the top of the heap.

Instead, in the report's "Profile of Human Distress in Industrial Countries," which measures drug crimes, reported rapes, prisoner numbers, etc., the United States is only seventh. Disturbingly, the report shows that the United States has the highest rate of reported rapes, prisoners and divorce rates, all new forms of "human distress and alienation."

Throughout history, nations seldom have paused to help one another. Rather, they have sought endlessly to destroy and plunder one another. Then, in historic counterpoint to the wars of this century, the industrialized countries, led by the United States, began to aid the development of other nations. Until now, that process clearly took the form of aid from the top nations to those at the bottom.

What this year's watershed report says, in short, is that the whole question of development -- which now inspires the energies of the world the way warfare and conquest formerly did -- is dependent upon far more complicated, interwoven factors.

While much of the formerly communist world and the Third World is infatuated with the "marketplace" as the answer to all their gnawing problems, the report warns of too intemperate a love affair with it.

"It is very well to say that the market will take care of everything," Dr. Mahbub ul Haq, the brilliant Pakistani developmentalist and author of the report, told me in a wide-ranging interview at the United Nations. "Markets can deliver efficiency, but they cannot deliver justice."

He argues for a carefully balanced program of development, focusing on human needs, a program that is different for each country. He warns that, by pushing market development too fast at the expense of balancing human needs, you get only the social explosion of a Tiananmen Square in China -- which is what could still happen in Eastern Europe.

In addition, high incomes, as in the United States, are no guarantee of a society's well-balanced development.

"It is logical now that we should be talking about peoples and not just economies," Haq went on. "The story of development was told so many times in a language of economics that nobody could understand it.

"If we think about the real story of development, it is how it transforms individuals. Income may be a very good slave but a very bad master. We have to go beyond income. Why is it that some societies have a high income and a low development?"

Part of this, in the United States, he said, is that, while the United States has a "tremendous ability to clean and regenerate its institutions," it comes out surprisingly low on the development lists because of other factors related directly to people and "peoples."

"It is a tribute to the United States that it is willing to take the world's 'huddled masses,' " Haq went on, "but then you have to invest in them. They come carrying their own system, and it is lower than yours."

The report focuses, of course, on the increasingly dim hopes of the developing world (the report urges cutting off aid to those countries that spend more on the military than on education). But for the first time, the focus also swerves to the supposedly developed countries.

"We know now that freedom is not a luxury," Mahbub ul Haq says. "It is a necessity for growth. If you suppress freedom, you suppress creativity, sources of growth, individual initiative."

This is wonderful for America, the wellspring of these ideas, to hear. It also fills one with sadness and perplexity that the United States, the vehicle that must carry through "America's" historic mandate, should have become so sadly slack in its job.

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