Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience - HDR 2014

The Human Development Report 2014 is entitled Sustaining human progress: Reducing vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, and if nothing else has foregrounded two of the key concepts in the current development discourse i.e. vulnerability and resilience.

The concept of vulnerability

In discussing vulnerability, the HDR aims to move beyond the traditional concept of vulnerability that comes from the disaster risk reduction discourse and  which is about exposure to risk and risk management including insuring against shocks and diversifying assets and incomes,    to what it calls ‘human vulnerability’ which is the prospects of eroding peoples’ capabilities and choices.  This definition can be linked to the idea of peoples’ agency, and also to Sen’s idea of entitlement and serve to broaden the policy debate.  But unfortunately, at the outset itself the HDR then reduces human vulnerability to a categorisation of ‘who’ is vulnerable, ‘what’ they are vulnerable to and why (see figure below).   Duncan Green  may find this categorisation useful  but I find it problematic on two counts.

One is that by categorizing the vulnerable into the three distinct groups it ignores the multiple vulnerabilities that people face or the intersectionality of peoples’ identities e.g. poor, widowed women in conflict affected areas in Sri Lanka.  Secondly, by  the way it answers the ‘why?’ question,  it locates the lack of agency, the erosion of peoples’ capabilities and choices and the lack of entitlements  in the characteristics of the vulnerable themselves i.e. limited capabilities, location, sensitive periods in the life cycle etc.   which is dangerously close to ideas of biological inferiority or the undeserving poor and can lead to ignoring the roles and responsibilities of the non-vulnerable actors and institutions  in creating and perpetuating vulnerability and/or developing resilience.

Within the wider concept of vulnerability  the report identifies specific types of vulnerability, that deepens our understanding of how vulnerability is engendered.  Life cycle vulnerabilities  focuses on the cumulative nature of vulnerability and the value of early childhood development.  Other ‘vulnerable groups’ in the life cycle are youth and the elderly.   The existence of ‘structural vulnerabilities’ derives from the fact that social and legal institutions, power structures , political spaces, tradition and socio-cultural norms do not serve the members of society equally. It shows that these structural vulnerabilities are manifested through deep inequalities and widespread poverty which associated with horizontal and group inequalities based on socially recognized and constructed group membership (p5 Summary)  While this vindicates the importance of considering the whole issue of power  (see below),  it is interesting  that in the HDR summary document there is no mention of the role of the market in  creating inequalities. 

The other associated concept, human resilience, is defined in the report as   ‘Ensuring that peoples’ choices are robust now and in the future and enabling people to cope and adjust to adverse events.  It’s important with this definition not to consider these ‘adverse events’ as ‘acts of God’ but also to see what causes them, and how they can be avoided.   The HDR implies  peoples’ choices now and in the future  are constrained by discrimination, unresponsive national institutions and short comings of global governance and suggests that  building resilience happens through  ‘examining universal processes that redress discrimination and focuses on the need for collective action to resolve vulnerability that stems from unresponsive national institutions and shortcomings of global governance’.   The HDR report makes some reference to social movements and trade union action as important collective actions that  can shape policy and political processes in the broader political economy and are important for representing the interests of vulnerable groups. (Box 4.3)  However, this seems to have been dropped from the Summary document, which has no reference to collective action of vulnerable groups and in that sense undermines the agency of these groups.  

 It needs also to be remembered that  ‘unresponsive national institutions’ and shortcomings in global governance,  most often exist to bolster an asymmetrical distribution of power at the national and global level,  and as such it cannot be assumed that the assurance that state, community and global institutions work to empower people which the report considers is at the core of  resilience (p7 summary)  will just happen.

Ensuring resilience

The report  suggests four principles for ensuring resilience, and then goes into making some policy prescriptions.  Examples from Sri Lanka help to both support and question these principles and policy prescriptions.

One of the four principles outlined in the report is the embracing of universalism and the universal provision of basic services.  It proposes treating everyone equal and with equal entitlements, and respecting everyone’s rights. In Sri Lanka, the universal provision of free education and health services has led to high human development indicators, and has worked towards creating a degree of social mobility.   The challenge for Sri Lanka in 2014 is to sustain this progressive measure.   We are seeing this universal system being gradually eroded in terms of investment, quality of services and accessibility.   State financing of health care has remained  at 4 percent of the GDP from 2000 to 2008, which is low compared to the global average of 8 percent of GDP (NHDR 2012, p50 Table 3.5)  Access to public health care is high for mothers and children, but not readily available for diseases specific to the elderly and for non-communicable diseases.  There is also a rising reliance on private expenditure  for financing health care.  Out of pocket expenses as a percent of private health expenditure had risen to  87% in 2008 – which if it continues suggests that poor people may have less access to health services in the years to come (NHDR 2012 p52)  .   The situation is the same for education.   Public investment in education is low and declining and fluctuated around 2/3 percent of the GDP between 2000 and 2010, lower than  the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal and smaller than the average for middle income countries. (NHDR 2012 p52 Figure 4.1 and Table 4.2)

The success of universalism in the provision of health and education services also hides some strong disparities.  The plantation workers in the estate sector have continued to be a vulnerable group despite  targeted interventions, and human development indicators in the areas directly affected by the conflict (e.g. the North and the East) and in districts such as Nuwara Eliya, Moneragala and Badulla show the gaps in the outcomes of universalist policies.

Putting people first is another principle that, despite it being the core message of this as well as all HDRs, continues to be ignored or at least only paid lip service.    One of the problems is that the HDR fails to go beyond addressing the issue of peoples’ rights from a normative perspective.  So we have discussions on how laws and social institutions can explicitly discriminate against women (p 74 HDR 2014) but almost no mention of  those international covenants that governments have signed up to such as the Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or the Beijing Platform for Action .  Sri Lanka has signed up to CEDAW in July 1980.   Salil Shetty in a recent article in the Guardian Professional (Friday 26 September 2014) describes a contradiction between the targets of the MDGs and peoples’ rights.  For instance,  a target for Goal 7, ensuring environmental sustainability,  is to ‘achieve by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’, which, Shetty argues in its implementation without protection of the rights of slum dwellers has actually resulted in many facing the increased risk of forced evictions.  Evidence gathered by the Centre for Policy Alternatives provides a Sri Lankan example. and underscores the importance of bringing rights into the Human Development discourse and the MDG/SDG conversation.

The HDR also makes a strong case for ambitious policies for reducing youth employment such as fast track education and accelerated economic growth which it suggests would close the gap in the supply and demand for young workers.  There is evidence  that contradicts  the possibility of this happening.  Despite economic growth, the vast majority of workers in South Asia are projected to remain extremely poor or near poor in 2017, with 87% earning less than USD 4 per day.  65% of the poor in South Asia are economically inactive i.e. not in the labour market (Vagisha Gunasekera, unpublished) .  It is important to recognize also that growth in employment could be growth of ‘vulnerable employment’.  The growing number of own account and contributing family workers, and casual wage employees  work without formal work contracts, consistent income, access to benefits or social protection and are extremely vulnerable to poverty in times of crises and shocks (ILO in Gunasekera, unpublished).   Women, young people and the lower income classes tend to fall into this category, with about 65% of Sri Lanka’s poor being casual wage labourers (Gunasekera, unpublished)

The third principle is about committing to collective action.  The exposition of this principle suffers from Duncan Green’s question – where’s the politics?    The assumption of benevolent governments, national and international, and a sensitive global and national private sector disregards the power issues of governance, and also the structural violence that is often perpetuated by transnational companies in collusion with national governments.   The full report acknowledges that direct representation, social movements and union and civil society pressures [can] also shape policy and political processes in the broader political economy and are important for representing the interests of vulnerable groups (HDR 2015 box 4.3).   It calls for state institutions to become responsive  by creating a climate favourable to pro-poor action.   However, this is often not the case.  Calls by the World Bank (supported by Governments of the G8 countries) to develop indicators that provide governments and policymakers with information to improve their agriculture policies, so that a stronger, more modern and more productive commercial agriculture and agribusiness sector can emerge will commodify land and to lower tariffs on seeds that will benefit multinational corporations at the expense of the rights of farmers, and the conservation of biodiversity.   The proposed new Seed Act in Sri Lanka for instance assumes that Sri Lankan farmers need ‘protection’ from substandard seed marketers.  But it  will give officials the right to list out and ‘certify’ indigenous varieties of seeds  and to render illegal the activities of collective action, such as the ‘Movement for Indigenous Seed’ whose work in the conservation of seed/paddy varieties over 30 years have been praised by the Ministry of Agriculture (Sarath Fernando,)  

A fourth principle is one of coordinating between states and social institutions. While there is no argument with the principle itself, the assumption that governments and social institutions will act in concert to reduce vulnerabilities and that governments will work to guide markets to reduce the vulnerabilities that the market system produces, is na├»ve at best and ignores some of the realities of the market-driven world today.  Whether it is the commodification of agriculture or the eviction of low-income households as described in the earlier paragraphs, the supremity of the neo-liberal, market driven, economic paradigm precludes governments from acting on behalf of the vulnerable.  There are also global trends of states working together to create vulnerability.  e.g.  the role that  the global arms industry and geopolitics play  in producing local conflicts.  In 2004, the world’s military expenditure was USD 1035 billion, which works out at USD 162 per capita (Saith, 2006)  and as Saith points out, though there is criticism of the military expenditures of developing countries, the role of the richer nations in supplying arms to these countries is not addressed.

Overall then the HDR is disappointing in that it falls into the trap of being presented  in the passive evasive tense (term attributed to Robert Chambers) and not addressing the core of the problems of vulnerability and ensuring resilience.  It   would benefit from a stronger political economy and rights based analysis to lift it out from its ‘normative’ and technocratic framework that assumes a cooperative world in which the interests of the powerful are subsumed  for the common good.  


National Human Development Report, 2012  http://www.undp.org/content/dam/srilanka/docs/localpublications/Sri%20Lanka%20Human%20Development%20Report%202012.pdf

Ashwani Saith, 2006, From Universal Values to Millennium Development Goals: Lost in Translation

See also: Pri's blog: the Human Development Report 2013