Developmental universalism: Shifting the focus from the wellbeing of economies to the wellbeing of humans

By Ojijo Odhiambo via The Daily Trust


Following the national launch of UNDP’s 2016 Human Development Report (HDR) titled “Human Development for Everyone” on April, 17 2017, I have had the honour to participate in no less than six in-depth interviews organized by various media houses in Nigeria. 

From these, I have realized that Nigerians are justifiably concerned about the country’s ‘poor’ score in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), calculated at 0.527.

The relatively low ranking at 152 out of 188 countries, which places the country in the category of ‘Low Human Development Countries (LHDCs) is also evidently, a source of concern. 

This reaction is understandable, especially when juxtaposed against the remarkable growth rate registered during the 2000s, the relative size of the Nigerian economy and the country’s strategic role in regional geo-politics.

Indeed, the concern is a clear testimony to the level of ambition of not just the policy and decision makers, but also of the general populace regarding where they want to be and what they feel is Nigeria’s rightful standing in the community of nations.

In the media interviews my argument has been that what is at issue is not so much the low HDI score or ranking, but rather the relatively slow pace of progress in human development.

Quite clearly, the development process has by-passed a large segment of society and there are a myriad of factors which continue to hamstring the advancement of girls and women; persons with disabilities; migrants, internally displaced people and refugees; people living HIV and AIDS as well as other marginalized segments of society.

As may be appreciated, the 2016 HDR focusses on the central theme of ‘universalism’; that is, the realisation of human development for all. No one should be left behind.

It provides nuanced policy propositions for overcoming existing barriers to achieving universalism such as the lack of voice and discriminatory laws; cultural practices and societal norms; inequality in access to basic services and incomes as well as the increasing concentration of wealth and opportunities in the hands of very few people; rising nationalism; and identity politics and exclusion, all of which are issues which even countries ranked higher up the global HDI scale are grappling with.

The report posits that, with the right investments and interventions, it is possible to address lingering deprivations; deepening inequalities in income and access to productive resources and opportunities; emerging threats to development such as violent extremism epitomized in Nigeria by the Boko Haram insurgency.

Contrasted to the 1950s - 1980s period, the development discourse has shifted radically from about 1990 when the first HDR was produced. Development is increasingly being viewed, not from the prism of health of economies or from a geographic perspective, but rather, from the perspective of the people’s wellbeing and their fundamental, inalienable human rights.

Nigeria has made commendable progress in terms of the ‘wellbeing of the economy’ with the Gross National Income per capita of US$ 5,443 which is higher than comparable figures for Tonga (US$ 5,284) with a HDI of 0.721 and ranked 101 globally and Samoa (US$ 5,372) with a HDI of 0.704 and ranked 104 globally.

There is need however to move beyond the ‘wellbeing of economies’ to the ‘wellbeing of humans’ by critically examining whether people live long and healthy lives; have access to education, acquire necessary knowledge and skills; and whether they live decent lives and can afford the things which their societies value.

While improving economic welfare is often necessary for improving the wellbeing of humans, it is certainly not sufficient. The optimal condition is to translate economic wellbeing into the wellbeing of humans.

Enhancing opportunities and instituting affirmative action for girls and women who constitute 50% of the total population throughout their lifecycles is critically important in ensuring the wellbeing of humans and the universalism of human development.

Girls and women face a plethora of challenges throughout their lifecycles; from infancy to old age.  At infancy, the girl-child is often subjected to neglect and in extreme cases, infanticide while the net enrolment rate is lower than for boys in both primary and secondary schools.

Getting girls to complete secondary education would spur tremendous benefits beyond basic literacy and numeracy, enhance skills acquisition and lead to halving of the under-five mortality rate, currently estimated at 89 deaths per 1000 live births.

The same pattern of discrimination is repeated in adult life where women have insufficient access to health care, especially reproductive health, invariably leading to high maternal mortality ratio estimated conservatively by some national authorities at 243 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Linked to high maternal mortality ratio and a general high disease burden is the drudgery of care work, often unquantified; unremunerated and presenting a huge cost to society in terms of lost opportunities for learning, skills acquisition and a fully productive participation in the labour market.

The UNDP Africa Bureau recently estimated that gender inequality in the labour market alone costs the continent some US$ 95 billion annually.

From the negative growth recorded in 2016, the Nigerian economy is projected to grow by 2.19% in 2017 and thereafter increase steadily to 7% by 2020.

Future growth must however be inclusive, driven by high and multiple impact interventions such as school feeding programmes for poor households and those facing humanitarian crisis; investment in sectors with greater multiplier effects such as women’s economic empowerment and girl-child education; job creation and putting money in peoples’ pockets to enable them improve their livelihoods.

Growth must also be resilient since the world we inhabit today is prone to economic and ecological shocks and vulnerabilities which can reverse all or part of the gains and progress made in human development. As was noted in the 2014 HDR, success is never automatic and gains are not necessarily permanent.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework provided useful lessons and growing conviction that though the development challenges facing the country are huge and inescapable, they are not insurmountable.

Between 1990 and 2015, the country registered commendable progress in poverty reduction; universal primary education; improving maternal mortality; combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Concerted effort, new ideas and greater innovation will however be needed if the country is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The SDGs offer great hope, optimism and promise for a better future for all. The Government is firmly in the driver’s seat and has taken a number of critical steps to mainstream the SDGs into the national policy; planning and budgeting; and monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Accordingly, stakeholders need to seize the moment to change the developmental trajectory and position the wellbeing of humans at the very centre of the development process. In the words of renowned American writer William Arthur Ward (1921 -1994, ‘the pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’

Developmental universalism is, indeed, possible and no one should be left behind.

*Ojijo Odhiambo is the UNDP’s Economic Advisor for Nigeria

Grant Hall