Why voting doesn't mean starving: Poor countries need not forgo human rights to prosper, argues Partha Dasgupta

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, which begins today in Vienna, will be the first concerted attempt by world leaders to identify an appropriate direction for human rights work now that the Cold War has ended. One of the new considerations concerns the relationship between human rights and economic development. This question is now considered so central that even institutions such as the World Bank are introducing human rights considerations into their discussions.

Human rights are a primary good and they possess intrinsic value. The issue, though, is whether the protection and promotion of human rights have a beneficial effect on economic development.

Over the years many have argued that they have. They have said that liberal-

democratic institutions afford people wide scope for using their knowledge and talents. This, they have said, offers people the best chance of furthering their projects and purposes. Conversely, they argue, authoritarianism thwarts both private and communitarian aspirations.

These arguments, however, are often doubted when applied to poor countries. The doubters say that at the earliest stages of economic development, societies face a trade-off: if citizens desire economic betterment, they must forgo civil and political liberties. It is now a commonplace, for instance, to point to Singapore and South Korea as evidence that authoritarianism not only is able to delivereconomic betterment, but also is a necessary condition for it. 'Food before freedom' is just a vulgar form of the thought that human rights are a luxury citizens in poor countries can ill afford.

There are probably no final answers to these questions. But it is now possible to go beyond mere speculation and studies of individual countries when addressing them. For some time, political scientists have been constructing indices of political and civil rights in more than a hundred countries on the basis of a wide battery of indicators that are designed to characterise the extent to which citizens enjoy such rights. In parallel, organisations such as the World Bank have been collating annual international statistics on a variety of socio-economic indicators, including national income per head, life expectancy at birth, the infant survival rate and literacy.

Admittedly, international statistics on these matters are known to be subject to wide margins of error. Observing all due caution, though, it is now possible to embark on quantitative studies on the links between human rights and economic development.

Recently I looked at countries which, in 1970, were 51 of the world's poorest; that is, countries with the lowest per capita incomes. They are overwhelmingly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. I studied their civil and political rights indices and their socio-economic indicators for the decade of the Seventies. It emerges that, on average, those countries in the sample which had better records on civil and political rights also enjoyed greater improvements in national income per head, life expectancy at birth and the infant survival rate.

This finding is consistent with the liberal-democratic viewpoint that has shaped much of the social, economic and political philosophies of the West. It is also consistent with the European experience since the end of the Second World War.

There was, however, one rogue index. In my sample, those countries with better records on human rights during the Seventies performed worse, on average, in improving literacy. I have no compelling explanation for this oddity, except to suggest perhaps that literacy has been used by a number of states to promote the acceptance of established order.

One of the arguments repeatedly used to counter the ethical force of findings such as those I am reporting is that political and civil rights indices merely reflect the well-known liberal obsession with the individual; in other words, they are culturally specific. At the UN conference, we can expect to hear from many representatives of established orders in poor countries that their religious and cultural assumptions must be respected, and that common standards for human rights ought therefore to be resisted.

It is not easy to know how best to respond to this. Perhaps the most direct response is that a concern with income per head and mortality tables (which rulers and elites everywhere regard as relevant statistics) reflects just as great a concern with the individual.

In any event, the following are uncompromising facts: it is individuals who suffer from malnourishment, who fall ill, who grieve, who bear children, who have no political voice, who are prevented from having any ambition, who are tortured, and who die. It is fatuous to make a plea for one sort of concern and not for the others.

My findings are statistical. It is simply no good to argue against their force by citing a small number of countries where citizens have had their political and civil liberties severely restricted, and where economic growth has been spectacular - then to cite India as a case in contrast.

There is no policy prescription deriving from such examples as Singapore and South Korea. It is absurd to tell citizens to establish a one-party system or locate for themselves reliable and efficient dictators. 'Good authoritarianism' cannot be willed by citizens and bad authoritarian regimes are hard to get rid of.

A central problem with authoritarianism is its lack of incentives for error-correction. A pluralist political system has a chance of providing political competition. This is one of its chief virtues. Of course, if civil order and general civic responsibility have broken down, there is no prescription to be had, one way or the other.

It is important to stress that the correlation between socio-economic development and human rights that I have reported do not imply causation. The data do not tell us that democracy and civil liberties promote economic growth. They do, however, give the lie to the claim that citizens of poor countries must forgo these freedoms if they desire economic betterment. This is surely something eminently worth knowing.

The author is professor of economics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. He is the author of 'An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution', to be published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, later this month.

(Photograph omitted)