Let me say that I am glad be here. Book launchings are akin to wedding ceremonies. They can be exaggerated affairs. At their best, they are a time of celebration.  And this is no exception, and I must add, is well deserved. We have before us an impressive piece of work on a theme of singular significance and one which is a veritable feast of ideas, insights, analysis and information. Obviously, because we all have our pet preferences and political or intellectual interests, we are likely to complain that our favourite concerns have not been given the importance they deserve. But that is almost always unavoidable.  However, all said and done, we have here a worthy successor to previous Human Development Reports and another stellar contribution by UNDP

What I intend to do is this:  (a) to set this report in the context of past and current development thinking, (b) to say a few words both on the form and substance of the report, and (c) to share with you a couple of concerns I have as an African and as a student of development policy and practice.

First, the intellectual context. Some of you may not be aware of the near-revolutionary nature of the Human Development concept and the paradigm shift it unleashed.  I was brought up in the neoclassical and Keynesian tradition of equilibrium and disequilibrium economics. As a young and fresh PhD student, I was fascinated and seduced by the beauty and elegance of theoretical and mathematical economics, though, I am embarrassed to admit, with little understanding of how it related to the real world. The economics we learnt was about the perfectly-functioning  market economy, homogeneous consumers and producers, production functions amenable to mathematical manipulation, capital-output ratios, etc but hardly about poverty, much less the poor and what to do for or about them. It was only later, long after graduate school, that I was for the first time introduced in the ILO  to development economics in a more down-to-earth and relevant way. This was in part thanks to my mentor Professor Dharam Ghai, a fellow African and a lead researcher in the ILO at the time, who came up with the concept of the Basic Needs Approach to development, which argued that the purpose of development policy in developing countries should be to provide for basic needs. We were thrilled, but sadly only for a short time. The ILO has a very complex and daunting structure of conflicting interests which basically disabled the organisation from pursuing the idea aggressively, until finally it abandoned it altogether, to our shame and regret. Fortunately, the idea had captured the likes of the late Mahbub ul Haq, a former minister of Finance in Pakistan and later a World Bank official, who embraced and handsomely and widely propagated the concept. He later moved to UNDP from where he, along with other distinguished political economists like Professor Richard Jolly, expanded and refined the concept and eventually articulated it as the Human Development approach to development. We should applaud the UNDP for its intellectual and political courage and persistence.  In my view, the Human Development concept and the reports it spawned are perhaps the single most important and intellectually refreshing idea in development economics over the last three or four decades.

Now a few words about form. This is a conceptually coherent report with a clear set of recommendations, written in elegant language. As those who have worked in the UN system know, the UN’s contribution to world literature is its mastery of the art of ambiguity and obfuscation in drafting.  Of course we know why, but it can sometimes take a laughable and even bewildering form. What is however remarkable about Human Development Report 2014 is its clarity, simplicity and directness.

My third point concerns a subject of fundamental and far-reaching implication for Africa’s future – the status of children and young people. Children and young people under 18 constitute some 47% of the population in Africa and as high as 50.5 % in Ethiopia.  This can be a fantastic opportunity but also a potential tragedy.  This is because Africa’s children remain the most disadvantaged in the world. They die young and those who survive their first five years end up with a life characterized by multiple deprivations of extreme poverty, hunger, malnutrition and under-nutrition,  to mention only a few. Just look at the figures on stunting: Some 33% of Africa’s children and 44% in Ethiopia are stunted; some 29% of Ethiopia’s children are underweight. Why does it matter it so much?

Events in the early years of a child’s life have a profound and lasting impact on subsequent trajectories of human development: they affect the brain structure and subsequent performance at school. Cognitive, social, emotional and language competencies are shaped by early experiences. A study cited in the Report found that 15-year old Ethiopian kids who experienced food shortage at age 12 scored lower in cognitive achievement; rural Ethiopian 15 year old boys scored 7.4 of 20 on a math test compared with Vietnamese boys who averaged 18.1! Girls scored even worse. So because of malnutrition and multiple deprivations in early childhood years, our children, especially those in the lowest wealth quintile, are and grow to be both physically and intellectually less developed than their peers in other countries. I ask, how can we build a dynamic and resilient Africa with a child population that is poor in body, spirit and intellect? If we in Africa are serious about human development and building a dynamic economy, we should embark on a policy of extensive investment in early child development focusing particularly on food provision and school feeding programmes. Human development begins with child development. Africa should put early childhood development at the heart of its development agenda.

My final point:  Accountability. Without in anyway detracting from the intrinsic worth of this report, what is striking is that the messages contained in this report are quite frankly not that new:  Attack absolute poverty and keep it at zero; adopt a policy of universal provision of basic services; strengthen social protection systems; assure full employment. They are all familiar policy prescriptions.  But, we need to ask, why is it then that, notwithstanding our pleas stretching over several decades now, these injunctions are not adopted as overriding policy goals ?  Why is it that countries have not adopted a more active human development policy? Why is it that countries, developed or developing, have not pursued full employment as an overarching societal or economic goal?

The report shows that it is not a matter of resources. It argues quite convincingly that the policy objectives it sets out are within reach of the capabilities of even poor countries. Our own studies on child wellbeing in Africa show that the child-friendliness of governments is not related to levels of development. There are poor countries that are most child-friendly, and rich ones that are not. So if it is not lack of resources or access to gold or diamond or oil that explains the lack of commitment or action, what then is it?

I am told that the technical definition of madness is to be doing the same thing time and again and expect a different outcome. We cannot continue with the same old habit of the same though sensible policy prescriptions ad infinitum.  If we are to advance the Human Development agenda, and move beyond advocacy, we have to find out why countries are not pursuing it. What are the constraints to action? How can we break the bottlenecks? In short, how can we get governments to be more accountable? Only then will we be able to translate the Human Development discourse into an active and guiding policy practice. The task before UNDP, before you, before all of us is to go beyond advocacy and to get governments to move from the era of rhetoric to the era of accountability.


UNDP(2014). Human Development Report 2014, “Sustaining Human Progress: Addressing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience”.  UNDP.

ACPF (2013). The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2013: Towards greater accountability to Africa’s children. Addis Ababa: The African Child Policy Forum (ACPF).


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