Kevin Watkins on inequality – required reading

March 22, 2013

Brit aid rocks; economists’ letters; out of order; gods v condoms; what did dev pundits get wrong?; carbon taxes; land grabs + bent pols in Malaysia: links I liked

March 22, 2013

The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. Synthesis > novelty in a big new UN report.

March 22, 2013
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Of the big reports that spew forth from the multilateral system, some break new ground in terms of research or narratives, while others usefully recap HDR2013_Coverthe latest thinking on a given issue. Last week’s 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, falls into the latter category, pulling together the evidence for a tectonic North-South shift in global economic and political affairs, summarizing new thinking on inequality, South in the North etc and asking what happens next. If you’re currently sunk in the depths of Europessimism or US political stalemate, you may find such an upbeat story refreshing (or even disturbing). You can read the exec sum online, but it doesn’t seem to allow you to cut and paste (v annoying for lazy bloggers like me).

Some useful numbers to demonstrate the extent of the shift: From 1980 to now, developing countries’ share of global GDP rose from 33% to 45%, their share of world goods trade from 25% to 45%, and South-South trade as a % of the world total rose from 8% to 26%.

How has this happened and so what? The HDR’s approach is to learn from the success of 18 of the more than 40 countries in the developing world that have done better than expected in human development terms in recent decades, with their progress accelerating markedly over the past ten years. Not just China and India, but countries like Turkey, Ghana and Mauritius. Again, nothing new there – the Growth Commission had a go at that five years back – but still infinitely preferable to maths-led regression-tastic nonsense that ignores history and politics.

Compared to the Growth Commission, the HDR’s conclusions are more interventionist, and more political. The Report identifies 3 main drivers shared across the success stories:

1. A proactive developmental state

2. Tapping into global markets

3. Determined social policy innovation

On the role of the state, successful countries ‘share some key characteristics. Most were proactive “developmental states” that sought to take strategic advantage of opportunities offered by world trade. They also invested heavily in human capital through health and education programs and other essential social services. More important than getting prices right, a developmental state must get policy priorities right. They should be people-centred, promoting opportunities while protecting against downside risks.’

In case you missed it, that’s a not-very-subtle two fingers to the Washington Consensus and its preference for ‘getting the prices right’.

Oops, wrong South

Oops, wrong South

The report points to some downside risks that threaten this progress: ‘short-sighted austerity measures, failures to address persistent inequalities, and a lack of opportunities for meaningful civic participation.’ But overall, as the South rises, the focus will shift to ‘long-term challenges shared by industrialized countries of the North’ – both commonly shared issues like ageing and jobs, and collective action problems like climate change.

Its recommendations for continuing this amazing progress include

1. Developing countries need to move their focus from ‘growth first’ to human development

2. Enhanced South-South learning and integration

3. Greater representation for civil society and the South in the international system. Global institutions have not yet caught up with this historic change (the international system’s loss rather than the BRICS’). China, with the world’s second largest economy and biggest foreign exchange reserves, has but a 3.3 percent share in the World Bank, less than France’s 4.3 percent. India, which will soon surpass China as the world’s most populous country, does not have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. And Africa, with a billion people in 54 sovereign nations, is under-represented in almost all international institutions.

And in a nice table-turning touch, the report ‘urges the convening of a new “South Commission” where developing countries can take the lead in suggesting constructive new approaches to effective global governance.’

Nothing earth-shattering, but a useful exercise in synthesizing the evolving understanding of development and repositioning the multilaterals within it. So what have I missed?

And here’s the rather frenetic animated version


  1. Another point of view on the same shift: “Theory From The South. Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa” by Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff

  2. Hello Duncan,

    You are the first talking head in the Getting Critical ‘experts’ opinions on the UNDGs for the Shape the Future campaign run by Oxfam for UK kids.

    You may have noticed that there are no voices from Southern organisations or voices that are critical of the UNDGs among those ‘experts’. Also the amin focus of several of the ‘experts’ is that the UNDGs are about ‘us’ forcing Southern governments to look after their people properly.

    I have highlighted this to Oxfam Education and they have confirmed that this does not worry them.

    Are you happy to be part of a comapign that is aimed at making UK kids believe the experts are all from the North and that the problems are all in the South?

  3. I see you too have no problems with Oxfam prodcing resources that airbrush voices of the South or voices critical of the UNDGs from the picture. Creating a new generation of Oxfamistas seems to be far more important than educating a generation properly.

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