Gross Human Product

SARA ENGRAM

May 23, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Quarter after quarter, year after year, economists churn out the numbers. Gross National Product, currency movements, per capita income, trade balances -- these are the statistics that chart the progress of nations.

But what of the progress of people? Where in all the charts and graphs do we learn what life is really like for people in Malawi or France or Mexico? What kind of life can a child born in those countries expect? What are the chances of getting an education and a job, or of enjoying the basic amenities of life?

Four years ago, Dr. Mahbub ul Haq brought these questions to world attention by persuading the United Nations Development Programme to sponsor the first annual Human Development Report. That document, published in 1990, carried a simple but revolutionary message: It is not sufficient for governments to pay attention only to economic growth; human development is equally important.

The fourth Human Development Report, due out this week, continues to press the issue.

The notion that the welfare of people -- and not just the progress of economies -- should be integral to any development strategy has struck a responsive chord.

In some countries, it has struck a nerve as well. Pakistan, where Dr. Haq served as minister of finance and planning before joining the U.N. agency, was stung by its place on the first report's Human Development Index. The index, a feature of each report, ranks countries using a formula that combines life expectancy, educational attainment and basic purchasing power.

For years, Dr. Haq says, Pakistanis felt they had bragging rights over India, with statistics showing that their country had 50 percent higher income than their neighbor and rival. But in terms of human development -- the distribution of wealth and benefits -- India came out better on the index. The ranking shattered Pakistan's complacency, Dr. Haq says, and prompted a review of the country's priorities.

The annual reports have also sparked a fresh debate among industrialized countries that donate aid to the developing world. Many donors are revising their criteria for development assistance, making human development an important new emphasis. The new priority goes beyond simply alleviating poverty to an emphasis on the broader participation of people -- including women -- and a more equitable distribution of the benefits of development.

As Dr. Haq sees it, human development, rather than simply economic development, is the ideal strategy for stabilizing a post-Cold War world yearning for democracy.

It also works to counter the less tangible threats to national security that now characterize world affairs. The new dangers are not insurgencies that threaten a precarious balance of world power, but rather ethnic conflicts, terrorism, pollution and migrations across borders of people desperate for work.

Traditional military strategies aren't very effective against these kinds of threats. In fact, the 1991 report showed that an imbalance between military spending and social spending contributes to political instability.

The report noted that no new money would be needed to finance human development programs if military budgets were pared down to realistic levels. Its assertion that military budgets could be trimmed by $50 billion in order to finance human development sparked a lively debate among foreign aid donors that continued into last year's Group of Seven summit in Paris.

Dr. Haq suggests that the ratio of military spending to social spending is a good predictor of future trouble spots. In 1980, for ++ instance, Iraq led every other country in its ratio of military to social spending -- putting eight times more into military expenditures than into the welfare of its people. Somalia was second, with its government spending five times more on the military than on its people. Nicaragua was third, with a ratio of three to one.

The problems caused by those misplaced priorities glare us in the face -- the Iraqi aggression that sparked the Persian Gulf war, the breakdown of order in Somalia and the years of civil strife in Nicaragua.

These days the ratios are generally lower. But Vietnam and Egypt still spend about three-and-a-half times more on the military than on human development, while Laos spends three times as much.

In a world where the borders of Cold War animosities have blurred into less definable threats, the process of asking and answering new questions about countries and about people is yielding important insights into political turmoil.

Now the challenge is to use that information to redefine notions of national security and to shape strategies for a stable world.

K? Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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