Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Growth has no value unless it improves people’s lives: Selim Jahan

  • Shoumik Hassin,
    Published: 2017-04-18 01:05:09 BdST

UNDP Human Development Report Office Director Selim Jahan

Economic growth has little value unless it improves the lives of all, says UNDP Human Development Report Office Director Selim Jahan.

“Economic growth doesn’t have any absolute value unless it is related to the welfare of people,” he told in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Jahan, the lead author of Human Development Report 2016, explained the value of using the Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of progress and the ways in which it counteracts the preoccupation with economic growth, which often pushes people to the periphery of development concerns.

“In the 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank developed structural adjustment programmes for Asia and Africa, aimed at restructuring the economies to help them become more stable and to accelerate growth.

“But they failed to address some fundamental questions: the growth of what? Growth for whom? And growth by whom?

"... The richness of economies is important, but it should not come at the cost of the richness in human lives. At the end of the day you have to see whether it adds to the wellbeing of people.”

The HDI thus provides a measure of degree to which people can live long and enjoy creative lives, the extent to which they can seek and gain knowledge and their standard of living, which Jahan says are universal values.

UNDP Human Development Report Office Director Selim Jahan

UNDP Human Development Report Office Director Selim Jahan

“We analyse how these topics affect the lives of the people; whether it improves their lives, whether the benefits are equitably distributed, whether it is environmentally sustainable.”

Jahan, however, acknowledges the HDI is not a perfect measure.

“I often say: the Human Development Index is as vulgar a measure as GDP per capita, but it isn’t as blind to the broader aspects of human development.”

In this year’s report, Bangladesh ranks 139th out of 188 countries, moving up three spots.

“Bangladesh has done very well in terms of certain social indicators such as life expectancy, under-five mortality, the maternal mortality rate, gender equality,” said Jahan.

There are even more promising signs, according to him.

“If you look at the value of the index [for Bangladesh] over the past 25 years, it has more than doubled. It shows the consistency of progress in the economy and the people over that time,” he said.


“If you look at the index, there are 14 countries with comparable per capita incomes to Bangladesh, but they are all below it in the ranking. This means Bangladesh has been very successful in translating increases in income into improvements in human lives… That should be celebrated.”

As a Bangladeshi, Jahan admits this makes him quite happy.

“I am still very much a small-town boy [from Bangladesh] … whenever I see Bangladesh is improving and doing well I feel very proud.”

Jahan also discussed the country’s problems, including the recent rise of militancy and violent extremism.

“I always try to relate it to the question of identity,” he said. “As long as we accept people with multiple identities and respect those identities, there won’t be any tension.

"But if I decide, for example, that I am a man and am defined only by that identity and decide it is superior to that of others then I will begin to  disrespect the rights of women, be abusive toward them and stop listening to them.”


“It is the same thing at state level. If a state respects, protects and promotes its diversity there is no problem. But, if a state believes it is defined by one identity and forces everyone to conform, it leads to extremism.”

Jahan thinks the human development paradigm could be helpful in imparting the necessary values in this context.

“Human development talks about knowledge, about universal citizenship and taking a global view. It says every human life counts and every human being is equally valuable.”  

On the whole, the researcher is hopeful about the Bangladesh's future.

“When I look at Bangladesh I see a society that has had a secular tradition over centuries, with people of different beliefs, religions and ethnicities coexisting peacefully. I think society as a whole still upholds those principles and values.”