Obituary: Mahbub ul Haq

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The Independent Culture
MAHBUB UL HAQ was an outstanding economist and a visionary social thinker.

His work has brought about a major change in the understanding and statistical accounting of the process of development. The series of Human Development Reports produced by the United Nations Development Programme, which was initiated by Haq in 1990, has had a profound effect on the way policy- makers, public servants and the news media view social and economic advancement. Rather than concentrating only on a few traditional measures of economic progress (such as the gross national product per head), "human development" accounting involves a systematic examination of a wealth of information about how human beings in each society live (including their state of education and health care, among other variables).

Haq, who was Pakistan's best-known economist (aside from his being one of the most distinguished practitioners of applied economics in the world), was born in pre- partition Punjab in 1934. As a young teenager he saw the turmoil and massacres associated with the partition of the subcontinent in 1947: his own family narrowly escaped being butchered. The nature of the sectarian violence left a last- ing impression on the robustly independent mind of the young boy.

If ignorance is the enemy against which he battled most (the Human Development Reports were merely the principal munitions he employed in this battle in the last decade of his life), his total rejection of sectarianism, bigotry and social hatred played a major part in the development of his universalist outlook, including his passionate belief in the importance of "equality of life chances" for all, as the guiding principle behind his global reports. His Bengali wife, Khadija Khanum (known to her friends as Bani), herself an applied economist of much talent and dedication, has been a fitting partner of Mahbub ul Haq in his struggle against both sectarianism and ignorance.

Haq did his first degree at Punjab University in Pakistan, followed by another BA - rapidly earned - at Cambridge University, then a PhD at Yale University, which was followed by post-doctoral work at Harvard. After returning to Pakistan, he became the chief economist of Pakistan's planning commission at a remarkably young age. Despite being, inevitably, a pillar of establishment, Haq retained his healthy scepticism of the process of planning of which he was in charge.

When I visited him and Bani in Pakistan in the spring of 1963 (we first met in 1953 as fellow undergraduates at Cambridge), he explained to his Indian friend both his successes and failures, with almost equal pride. While the successes reflected the use of applied economic reasoning, the failures too called for economic and social investigation, with the need to diagnose barriers that make progress so difficult: the deeply unequal pattern of land holding, the stifling grip of a small number of families ("the 20 families") on business and economic affairs, widespread illiteracy, and the counterproductive dominance of traditional rules and regulations to which the political elite was entirely wedded.

As the sun set on a magically bewildering Karachi, Mahbub's voice rose and his intense analysis was rivetingly heretical. (The fury of his eloquent scepticism was ultimately broken, on this occasion, by his infant daughter Toneema's non-verbal but effective insistence that enough was enough, it was time for music and we must all listen to her favourite song.)

Some of this far-reaching and wide-ranging analysis found elegant expression in his first book, The Strategy of Economic Planning, published later that year. This was a major contribution to development studies, which also contained, among many other things, one of the first systematic accounts of the widening economic gulf between East and West Pakistan - an issue that would receive much attention soon afterwards.

From 1970 to 1982, Haq worked in international agencies, primarily the World Bank, where he was not only the director of the Policy Planning Department, but also became a chief economic adviser to Robert McNamara, then the president of the bank, with whom he established a remarkable alliance in working out strategies of poverty removal. In the years between 1982 and 1988, Haq was back in Pakistan, and served variously as a cabinet minister for finance, planning and commerce. The following year he returned to the world of international organisations - this time as Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator.

It was in this capacity that he launched the now famous Human Development Reports which have been published annually since 1990. He gathered around him a dedicated team of social scientists, including a group of like-minded economists who served as consultants, such as Paul Streeten, Gustav Ranis, Keith Griffin, Frances Stewart, Lord (Meghnad) Desai, Sudhir Anand, among others. By the time he returned to Pakistan in 1996 to establish the new Human Development Centre in Islamabad, he had the satisfaction of seeing that the Human Development Reports were already well-established and well- respected across the world.

What is so special about Haq's approach to development as reflected in the Human Development Reports? The "Human Development Index" (the so-called HDI), which these reports made into something of a flagship, has been remarkably successful in serving as a measure of development, rivalling the gross national product (GNP). Based on three components, viz. indicators of basic education, longevity and income per head, it is not exclusively focused on economic opulence (as the GNP is), and it certainly has served to broaden empirical attention in assessing the process of development.

However, the HDI itself is a very limited indicator of development. The Human Development Reports contain much more information on a variety of social, economic and political features that influence the quality of human life, and Haq's basic approach must not be identified simply with the use of HDI, seen on its own. The main contribution of these reports has been a remarkable expansion of the informational coverage of economic and social development through a variety of systematic indicators and through detailed critical analysis.

Haq himself had been initially unsure about using a crude index like the HDI, but soon persuaded himself that the dominance of GNP could not be broken by a whole set of tables (people would still go back to the unadorned GNP when it came to providing a summary measure of development). "We need a measure," he once explained to me, "of the same level of vulgarity as the GNP - just one number - but a measure that is not as blind to social aspect of human lives as the GNP is." Haq hoped that not only would the HDI be something of an improvement on - or at least a helpful supplement to - the GNP, but also that it would serve to broaden public interest in the other variables that are plentifully analysed in the Human Development Reports.

Since some commentators have seen Haq as primarily an "anti-GNP" theorist, it is also important to examine the limited sense in which that description is accurate. First, while he was most sceptical of the use of GNP as a "sole indicator" of development, he was not opposed to including it among other components of HDI. Indeed, the income variable in the make-up of the HDI does exactly that. Second, Haq's opposition to over-reliance on the GNP was partly based also on the unjustified pessimism that it tended to generate. While a poor economy may take a very long time to become a rich country through GNP growth, the conditions of human living can be changed much more rapidly through intelligent policy-making. In an insightful passage in The Strategy of Economic Planning, he thus identified the basic issue:

If India and Pakistan manage to maintain an annual growth rate of 5 per cent and pass through roughly the same "take-off" period as Rostow identifies for many of the Western countries, the per capita income after another 20 years will be no higher than the present-day per capita income in Egypt.

In contrast, by properly targeted social intervention, life expectancy of poor countries can be rapidly brought quite close to those of the richest countries in the world. Similar achievements can be made in other fields as well, such as basic education. And all this can be done without adversely affecting the growth of GNP itself. Indeed, Haq was much involved in working out precisely how this can be best achieved (curbing military expenditure was among his top priorities), and his contributions to the measurement of development were ultimately geared to these policy issues.

Mahbub ul Haq had an optimism that was infectious partly because it was so well reasoned. I saw him last when he came to visit me in Cambridge a few months ago and we talked not far from where we had first met in 1953 as undergraduates. Aside from his cure for the world, he outlined his special hope for South Asia: to cut military expenditure drastically. The subcontinental nuclear explosions, which occurred soon afterwards, have not exactly advanced that programme. But, as reasoned critiques emerge, Mahbub may win yet.

Amartya Sen

In the early 1950s, writes Tam Dalyell, those of us who did Part II of the Economics Tripos at King's College, Cambridge, were hugely privileged in our supervisors - Nicholas Kaldor, Director of Studies, Harry G. Johnson, and Robin Marris; sometimes, we were handed to the truly formidable Joan Robinson, author of The Economics of Imperfect Competition, then writing her The Accumulation of Capital; and occasionally sent to the professorial fellows of the college, Richard Kahn and Richard Stone.

When he first arrived, his contemporaries thought Mahbub ul Haq was shy, to the point of being mouse-like. Then it soon dawned on us how utterly wrong we were. In his slow, soft voice, he began to take on Harry Johnson, the huge and daunting Canadian theoretician of International Trade, later to be Professor at the LSE and Chicago, arguing the finer points of the trade cycle theories of Roy Harrod, Michal Kalecki and Franco Modigliani. We marvelled at his intellectual nerve.

Mahbub had the guts to tell Nicholas Kaldor that his proposal for an Expenditure Tax, with the aim of helping to establish a welfare state, was unsuitable for India and Pakistan, where the great need was capital formation, and an all-out growth philosophy. Mrs Robinson, deploying the case for Chinese Maoist economics, held no terrors for him; he told her that her views and the Chinese experience were inappropriate to the subcontinent.

When I asked the visiting American professor of the year, Milton Friedman none other, to tea in my rooms to meet the King's College undergraduates in the faculty, it was Mahbub who kept our end up, in the general defence of King's Keynesian welfare economics. To defy Milton Friedman was a feat. We were just proud of him. He was our Mahbub.

Outside King's, Mahbub was a member of Professor Sir Dennis Robertson's Political Economy Club, which met weekly in Trinity. At first hand, I can say the dons from other colleges considered him a star of the future, not least because it was quite clear that he actually wanted to do something for the developing peoples of the world.

In 1955 Mahbub, unable to return to Pakistan, spent the short vacation, reading, at my house in Scotland. My mother, who had lived in India, was entranced by his beautiful manners, and even more by his intense curiosity about the British in India. He wanted to know what made her and other women of the British political class in the subcontinent tick - but he did it in a gently humorous way. A phenomenally quick digester of a book, he would select a volume at night from our shelves, often pretty Blimpish stuff, and talk about what he had read the following morning.

He had a capacity to understand two sides or many sides of every story - a capacity which he clearly retained whenever we met over the years and which he used for the good of the peoples in many parts of the world.

Mahbub ul Haq, economist: born Punjab 22 February 1934; Director, Policy Planning Department, World Bank 1970-82; Planning and Finance Minister, Pakistan 1982-88; Special Adviser, United Nations Development Programme Administration 1989-96; married Khadija Khanum (one son, one daughter); died New York 16 July 1998.