Dr Mahbub ul Haq
(February 22, 1934 to July 16, 1998)
An outstanding economist and
a visionary social thinker
‘You see things that are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’
These words by George Bernard Shaw are a true reflection of a heretic among economists: Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq. In the field of development economics, Dr Haq was regarded as an original thinker and a major innovator of fresh ideas. He was listed in a book as one of the fifty key thinkers on development, along with such greats as Karl Marx, Thomas Malthus and Mahatma Gandhi.
Described as “the most articulate and persuasive spokesman” for the developing world, he was indubitably an economics genius of modern times. His accomplishments are many which range from his work in United Nations as well as a leading policymaker for Pakistani finance. He is recognized for the fact that he was a visionary Finance Minister whose five-year plan of 1960-65 for Pakistan was used by South Koreans to establish their country on modern lines. This was the second Five-Year Plan of the country which was acclaimed the world over as a great growth story.
Born on February 22, 1934, Dr Haq had impeccable academic credentials. He 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, while still in his 20’s, became the Chief Economist at the Planning Commission of Pakistan.
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 1980’s, under the late President Mohammad Ziaul Haq, Dr Haq served as Minister for Commerce, Planning and Finance. He moved to Washington and the World Bank in 1988.
The founder of the Third World Forum, a panel for discussing development issues, Dr Haq was also an adviser to the Brandt Commission, which looked into economic relations between rich and poor nations.
When he was in what he called the “western citadels of learning” of Cambridge, Yale and Harvard in the 1950s, there was, he said, a “tacit assumption” in economics that the real purpose of development was to increase national income. Haq shaped the development philosophy and practice in the four decades from the 1960s to 1990s, shifting the focus of development discourse from national income growth to people and their well-being, monitoring its progress through the Human Development Index (HDI) he created in 1990. It is a tool used by the United Nations Development Program to measure the wealth of nations by the level of living standards their citizens have attained. He argued that poor countries failed to prosper because they neglected the basic development of their people. He was particularly concerned with the countries of South Asia; his own, Pakistan, and India. Both were well down in his index, below even Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. South Asia, he wrote in 1995, was sinking “into a quagmire of human deprivation and despair”. He was shocked that it had fallen behind sub-Saharan Africa, to become the most deprived region in the world. It was “tragically comic” that India and Pakistan, after “bleeding their economies” to pay for arms, “beg and submit to all sorts of conditionalities from international lending institutions”. Such painful observations did not endear him to the governments of the subcontinent.
After leaving the United Nations Development Program, in 1995, Dr Haq returned to Pakistan to establish the Human Development Center for South Asia with the help of his wife, Khadija Khanum, an economist. Measures of human progress in the region, especially in India and Pakistan, had begun to slip badly.
“After producing seven global Human Development Reports, I had to face the sad reality that the real challenge to human development lay back home, in Pakistan and South Asia,” he said in an interview, adding that “South Asia has been sinking fast into a quagmire of human deprivation and despair, emerging as the most deprived region of the world.”
The force of Dr Haq’s ideas and passion compelled his audience, particularly the South Asian policymakers, to look deeply into the reasons behind the disconnect between economic growth and people’s well-being. However, his views did not make him popular in many developing countries, nor in some Western capitals, where he also criticized foreign aid policies and domestic social programs.
James Gustave Speth, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said, ”I don’t think anybody did more or even as much as Mahbub did to bring balance back to development thinking when everyone else was worshiping at the altar of GNP growth.”
Globally Dr Haq’s legacy of humanizing economics by giving a human face to economic development, and bringing poverty concerns to the centre stage of the development agenda will long endure. So will his concerns for income and capability gaps between the rich and poor within and among nations. Dr Haq untiringly advocated for better development cooperation for the 21st century, a less brutal process of globalization, a system of global institutions that will protect the vulnerable people and nations, a cut in military spending to free resources for social development, a more transparent and ethical national and international system of governance, and a compassionate society. His legacy is also that he seldom talked about issues without providing a concrete point by point blueprint for action.
A great analyst and critic of global poverty, Dr Haq died at the age of 64 in New York on July 16, 1998. In an obituary published in The Economist, the write paid him tribute in the following words: “Just as Lee Kuan Yew emerged from the confines of Singapore to become the seer of Asia, so Dr Haq became accepted as one of the visionaries of international development.”
The writer is a legal consultant.