Human Development vs Washington Consensus

Development Policy20 Feb 2010Marieke Hounjet

Human development is definitely one of the topics to be discussed on an ISA conference. The panel on ‘Human Development – Influence on the Theory and Practice of International Development’ was not about painting an either positive or pessimistic picture of human development, its indicators and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It was rather about seeing what lessons we could learn (related to policy) from a reality check on the impact of the human development paradigm.

I do think that the ISA brings an interesting mix of people together, although I agree with Alexander that this conference remains in the first place an academic event (from and for academics). However, where panellist Craig Murphy (Wellesley College) reminded us of some historical points (the colonial origins of development), and development studies critiques, his fellow panellist Jene Klugman (UNDP) explained in a more pragmatic approach the pro’s and con’s of the Human Development Index and the UNDPs human development strategy in general. Interestingly enough, both agreed that human development allows for an open ended system for people on the ground to work with.

The reality check that both Sakiko Fukuda Parr (The New School) and David Hulme (Manchester University UK) presented reveals more about the idea of human development & the role it plays in the world of international development efforts. Essentially, both authors thought that its actual impact has been very limited and that the growth paradigm prevails. As Fukuda-Parr argues, human development presented the international community with a narrative, and a better argument to its constituencies of what the purpose of development should be, leaving the causes aside. In this sense she warns for a scenario in which ideas like the MDGs start to define poverty, similar to a way in which IQ nowadays defines intelligence. In other words, there is a risk of simplifying a concept so complex as poverty, by means of including mainly material indicators and excluding principles of inequality and non-discrimination.

David Hulme confirms these thoughts by his explanation that ‘business as usual’ was simply easiest for the international community. A particularly interesting part of Hulme’s theory for this lack of impact (on for example the World Bank & IMF) was his idea of change through epistemic communities. For epistemic communities to take up the human development paradigm they would intrinsically have to contradict their traditional way of operation. Epistemic communities succeed after all (think of the neo-liberalists as an example) through a top-down model, elite influence, and this is exactly what human development wanted to avoid. In Hulme’s opinion academics have not been strategic enough, and more focus is needed on strategy and tactics instead of theoretical refinement.

This left me with the following thought. In a way the above means that human development, no matter how well-intended, has been making little headway in battling the Washington consensus. If we look at the academic input for human development, Amartya Sen, someone to be considered amongst the most policy relevant and influential academics in development studies, provided the framework with his ‘development as freedom’. However, as is concluded now, his paradigm shift (a change in policy) did not have the ultimate policy outcome we hoped for. [I have to add a disclaimer here that I am not trying to argue that human development did not have impact whatsoever, it surely did, but it did not change the international development ‘trajectory’ of the major (financial) development institutions.] This provides a painful reality check, because if academics like Amartya Sen cannot do it – who can?