The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World - Ehsan Masood (2016)

Chapter 6. “As Vulgar as GDP”

“Look, you are a sophisticated enough guy to know that to capture complex reality in one number is just vulgar, like GDP.”

—Amartya Sen to Mahbub ul Haq (1989)

The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment would result in the birth of an unusual kind of UN agency. Instead of building schools, promoting peace, or boosting trade, the newly appointed environment ministers in the UN’s Environment Programme were there to apply the brakes to the kind of lightly regulated industrialization that has given the world our present style of economic growth. And that would make its existence a precarious one. In his two years as its executive director, Maurice Strong would have to negotiate with many governments that had not wanted the new agency to exist and remained determined that its mandate remain limited.

But the UN’s Environment Programme would survive and grow. Two decades after its creation, UNEP and Maurice Strong would help launch a cascade of sister agencies geared to individual aspects of environmental protection and more sustainable growth. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (headquartered in Montreal) exists to try to slow down the rate of species extinction, which is presently higher than at any time since the last great mass extinction. And it is through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (based in Bonn) that countries have agreed to take practical steps to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

The UN Environment Programme would join a family of institutions that, like many families, is complex, byzantine, and political. I’ve spent a good deal of the past two decades navigating parts of its organizational chart and I remain in the dark on many things. The UN’s main administrative heart is New York, where the secretary-general is based and where all of the representatives of the member countries sit in a grand parliament called the General Assembly. New York is also where the more powerful representatives of the five permanent nuclear weapons states (the United States, Russia, China, France, and the UK) sit in a group called the P5. Nothing of substance gets done in the UN unless a majority of the P5 agree.

Member states on the whole use consensus to decide who gets the top jobs. However, this generous spirit of sharing has its limits. Europe and America, for example, retain the right to choose the leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank,1 and America also has a strong say in appointing the head of another UN agency, one of the largest, in fact, which is based in New York: the UN Development Programme, or UNDP, and that is where we go next in the story of GDP.

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Whereas Maurice Strong’s mission would be to attack conventional ideas on growth on environmental grounds, Mahbub ul Haq would use the discipline of economics to continue on his journey to dethrone how we measure growth using GDP. The Human Development Index, which he helped devise, is the one that has come closest to dethroning GDP. And, as we shall see in this chapter, Haq wouldn’t have been able to do it without UNDP, or without its US-appointed Silicon Valley venture capitalist administrator, William H. Draper III.

In 1985, when Ronald Reagan was at the start of his second term as president, Republican Party grandee Bill Draper was preparing to retire from his job as chairman of America’s Export-Import Bank and much looking forward to returning home to California and retaking the reins of his venture capital business. And then, as he told me in an interview in May 2013, he received a call from the White House. The president wanted him to take up the job of Administrator at UNDP, in effect the organization’s chairman.

“I told the White House that I wanted to go home,” he said. “They said: ‘Well there’s this job that’s opened up, which we think you’d be good at,’” he says with a chuckle. “I’d never heard of UNDP, but they said that I would be the No. 2 person at the UN.”2

Draper wasn’t sure what to do, and he phoned a few of his friends for advice. They included then secretary of state George Shultz and the future president and sitting vice president, George H. W. Bush. Bush, Draper reveals, wanted him to stay on in Washington and join his election campaign team in time for the 1988 presidential race. But Draper declined the offer from the elder Bush and accepted the new challenge. He exchanged his outsize Washington, DC, office at the bank for a more modest affair in New York, but one that came with an opportunity to spread freedom and free trade throughout the developing world, which no self-respecting Republican could possibly turn down.

To many UNDP insiders, Draper’s appoinment was a surprising, if not a shocking, choice to lead UNDP.3 It shouldn’t have been, as the agency had often been led by prominent figures from the US. The White House clearly wanted an Administrator from the private sector to promote enterprise and free markets, in the UN, and across the developing countries. And Draper fit that job description perfectly. That said, Draper, moreover, had some knowledge of how to pull the world’s poorest into the middle class. His father, William Draper Jr., was a diplomat and had been involved in implementing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe with US aid after World War II.

As he got to know the contours of his new beat, Draper says he knew he needed someone with a radical mind to bring in new ideas. He wanted to shake things up a bit at an agency that Republicans might have looked on, with some justification, as a den of socialists. It is true that many on the left of politics are never happier than when spending public money and often have little or no experience of creating wealth themselves. Draper needed a fellow free trader, an outsider to UN politics, who was available to start straightaway.

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In 1988, more than a decade after the Stockholm environment conference and two decades after his “twenty-two families” speech, Mahbub ul Haq was preparing to pack his bags and once more return to the United States. For the previous six years, Haq had been back working in Pakistan, this time as minister for finance in the government of military dictator General Mohammed Zia ul Haq. But his time with Zia had been cut short when Zia was killed in an unexplained air crash on August 17, 1988. With the president were a slew of generals as well as several US diplomats including the American ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel, all of whom died. Mahbub ul Haq was also due to join the party, but pulled out. Richard Jolly, then working for the UN children’s fund UNICEF, was with Haq earlier that day and recalls what happened:

“Bill Draper and I were on a mission to several countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.” They were traveling with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and their itinerary included lunch with General Zia and his cabinet including Mahbub ul Haq on the day of the crash. “Mahbub was supposed to join the president afterwards for the flight—but for some reason did not,” Jolly says. Later that day the presidential party was returning to Islamabad, having watched a demonstration of the M1 Abrams tank which the Pakistani military was planning to buy. Shortly after take-off their plane started to behave erratically before it nosedived and exploded on impact. “How history might have been different if Mahbub had been on that flight,” Jolly says.4

There’s an interesting paradox in the life of Mahbub ul Haq. Some of his greatest achievements have been made possible by working for Big Men. His first patron in the 1950s was military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan. When that era gave way to civilian rule, Haq went to work for another alpha male, Robert McNamara at the World Bank in Washington, and then for General Zia after the military coup in 1977. This ability to do business with strong leaders may well have been partly because Haq was a disrupter, someone to whom bureaucratic processes might not have come easy. His was also the kind of temperament that Bill Draper was looking for in his own mission to disrupt UNDP. Once Haq landed in New York, the two met again, this time in Draper’s office. Draper, eighty-seven and a canny spotter of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, told me he virtually gave Haq a job on the spot.5

With his almost fifteen years of Pakistan policy-making experience supplemented by seven years working for Robert McNamara at the World Bank, Mahbub ul Haq knew there was no getting around organizing economies according to any measure other than GDP. And yet he longed for something different and more appropriate as an indicator of economic well-being. As reform of GDP wasn’t an option for Haq, he instead pitched to Draper his idea of a new index that ranked countries alongside their GDP but also ranked them according to things that were important but that GDP ignored. Haq was looking for an index that could take into account quality of life, citizens’ level of education, and their life expectancy at birth. “Any measure [GDP] that values a gun several hundred times more than a bottle of milk is bound to raise serious questions about its relevance to human progress,” he would later write.6

Draper says, having heard the concept, he was hooked, though he says what attracted him to this idea was not so much its assault on GDP as its in-built promotion of competitiveness. By constructing a global league table of how countries were performing on the new index, “you could get countries to compete so they [have an incentive to] rise up,” he says.

I’ve tried to picture what Draper and Haq would have made of each other at that first or second meeting. Draper will have been used to being pitched a disruptive idea—it’s what happens every minute in Silicon Valley. And at the same time he will have seen in Mahbub ul Haq an entrepreneur capable of fulfilling Draper’s mission to shake up a settled bureaucracy, introduce the idea of competitiveness in developing nations, and give UNDP a bigger global profile.

And yet Haq wouldn’t come at any price, Draper says. “When I asked him to come and join UNDP,” the author of The Poverty Curtain told him, “‘I can’t live on a UN salary.’” Draper says, “When I heard that I said: ‘There’s gotta be a way to make you live in New York.’ So I made him a consultant—consultants are paid per day, so when you add up their fees, it’s much larger than my own salary.” Draper says Haq was “worth every penny” and that hiring him had been “the best investment I ever made at the United Nations.”7

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So in 1989, at UNDP headquarters in New York, Mahbub ul Haq was back in business under the patronage of a venture capitalist with strong ties to the Reagan White House. He had the title of special adviser to Bill Draper, a small office, a budget, and a guarantee from Draper of total editorial independence. With these conditions met, Haq sought out his old Cambridge pal Amartya Sen.

More than three decades had passed since Sen and Haq had met on their first day as undergraduates while walking toward the same economics class at Cambridge. In the intervening years, Haq’s great skill had been in translating and interpreting ideas from academia into practical policy. Sen, on the other hand, had chosen to remain in the university system, becoming a distinguished professor, first at the London School of Economics and then at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard, later winning the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in understanding how famines are caused.8

The two, however, had grown apart in their approach to policy making, so when the call came, Sen, then professor of economics at Harvard, wasn’t much impressed with what he was hearing. Sen believed that the UN, with its slow pace of decision making and need to keep everyone on board, would not likely give Haq the freedom to devise an entire new index. He also felt that UN bureaucrats would interfere in Haq’s work, and he later told an interviewer, “I kept on telling Mahbub that there is only so much freedom you could have.”

Perhaps more critically, Sen was opposed to the Human Development Index’s core idea, which was to cram complex and unrelated phenomena into a single index. For Sen, reducing the complexity of human welfare and quality of life to a single number amounted to repeating all the mistakes of GDP. “I didn’t really want it,” he said. “I didn’t want one number. I told Mahbub: ‘Look, you are a sophisticated enough guy to know that to capture complex reality in one number is just vulgar, like GDP.’”9

Sen might have thought the matter finished, but Haq, experienced at getting his way with generals, pressed his case. He understood that GDP’s weakness, its relative simplicity, is also its strength, in that it is easy for the nonexpert, for politicians and journalists, to understand. He also knew from his experience of the reaction to his “twenty-two families” speech that lists and league tables of the rich and the powerful can help to generate controversy, what today we would call “buzz.”

Haq wouldn’t give up, and he continued to woo his old friend. “Amartya, you’re quite right,” Haq said. “The Human Development Index will be vulgar. I want you to help me to do an index which is just as vulgar as GDP, except that it will stand for better things.” The pair continued to talk. “I still remember having really a rather great time,” Sen would later say. “He had this favourite Chinese restaurant and we would go there and spend hours chatting away. And something emerged from this.” Sen was on board and joined a team of the leading development economists that Haq had assembled, including Meghnad (now Lord) Desai of the London School of Economics, Frances Stewart of the University of Oxford, and later Paul Streeten, who had worked with Haq at the World Bank.

As is the case with GDP, the Human Development Index is a compromise, as well as being an approximation of something more complex. Haq wanted a measure that rewarded countries where citizens’ “basic needs” are fulfilled. Sen in addition wanted to reward countries that provided their people with what he called the “capability,” or freedom, to be able to make their own development choices. These choices included their desire to live long lives, to learn, to have a comfortable standard of living, to have a satisfying job, to live free from pollution, and to be free to live wherever they chose.

Haq gathered his team for an all-day meeting in New York in September 1989 to iron out differences and find consensus. There was agreement, Stewart told me in an interview in July 2014, on the first two components of a new index, namely, education and life expectancy. However, counting incomes was more controversial. “I was skeptical,” she says, and reveals that alternative options that were discussed included inequality and the state of nutrition, which she personally favored.10 The problem, however, was that in those days data on inequality and nutrition was incomplete or of poor quality. Moreover, she recalls, the formidable Sen was determined to include incomes in the index, as ignoring them would have been too radical a step for mainstream economists and policy makers. He was worried, Stewart says, that without a financial measure, the HDI wouldn’t be taken seriously and, worse, that it was likely to be ignored if it didn’t.

The team settled on three components for the index:

Life expectancy was chosen as a marker for a long life;

Adult literacy was an indication of the desire to learn;

Per capita income was chosen as a representative number for all of those things that money can buy.

With the components in place, the next hurdle to cross was working out a method for calculating the index itself, and here the problem was just as serious as choosing what to include. At least in GDP, each of the variables can be measured in a common currency. Government spending, consumer spending, and business investment are all expressed in currencies such as dollars and so can be added together. But such a calculation isn’t possible in the Human Development Index. Adult literacy is measured as a percentage, life expectancy in years, and per capita income is denoted by money. They cannot be added together. Trying to work out the sum total of education and life expectancy is like adding up apples and pears. So what to do? In searching for a solution, Sen hit on the idea of measuring each of the three variables on a scale of 0 to 1. The highest mark for each category is 0, and the lowest that a country can attain is 1.

The index is then calculated by working out an average for the three individual category scores and then subtracting this number from 1. For example, a developed country with high human development, such as Canada, will have a Human Development Index of 0.9. This will be worked out by taking an average score of 0.1 and then subtracting that from 1. Countries with the lowest human development will have an HDI closer to 0.

As the argumentative academics moved slowly toward agreement, their guardian angel Bill Draper was keenly monitoring progress from his corner office. “We would meet every week, sometimes every day. I kept saying to Mahbub, ‘Keep it simple. The message has to be clear,’” he told me. As to the message’s content, Draper kept to his word. Not only did he not interfere, but he also protected Haq and his team from the interfering reflex of individual governments (especially the US government, parts of which will no doubt have felt that Draper had gone native) but also from the prying eyes of individual UNDP staff keen to know what was in the index, when the project would be launched, and whether they could influence it. “A lot of times decisions get bottled up at the top,” he says. “But when you allow decisions lower down, they are usually better.”11

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The spectators didn’t need to wait long. The first Human Development Report and Human Development Index were launched in a worldwide media storm the following year, 1990, in May. The opening lines of the 1990 report, partly reproduced here, are a summary of Haq’s experiences of the previous three decades:

The use of statistical aggregates to measure national income and its growth . . . have at times obscured the fact that the primary objective of development is to benefit people. There are two reasons for this: First, national income figures, useful though they are for many purposes, do not reveal the composition of income or the real beneficiaries. Second, people often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in . . . growth figures: better nutrition or health services, greater access to knowledge, more secure livelihoods, better working conditions, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, and a sense of participating in the economic, cultural and political activities of their communities. Of course, people also want higher incomes as one of their options. But income is not the sum total of human life.12

Readers flocked to the report’s back pages of statistical tables, where there were more than a few shocks in store. The top spot went to Japan, with an HDI of 0.996, followed by Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. These nations were the world’s best in terms of literacy, life expectancy, and income per head. The bottom rung was populated exclusively by West African states: Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone.

The biggest surprise, however, was the United States. American readers of the Human Development Index had to scan lower down the first page before spotting their nation in nineteenth place with an HDI score of 0.961. America was tied with Austria, lower than Spain, Ireland, and Belgium, and only two places higher than communist East Germany. America’s position was attributed to low levels of literacy and life expectancy relative to those of other developed countries. But the shock was amplified by the fact that in 1990 the United States had the world’s highest per capita GDP and was expected to be at or near the top of the HDI list too. Haq and his team found themselves in the eye of a storm, but at the same time they couldn’t have found a better example of their central thesis: that countries that experience high levels of growth are not the same as those with high levels of quality of life.

Draper, according to some, found himself defending the report from attacks and particularly (though by no means exclusively) from the administration of George H. W. Bush, who had become president in 1988. There was a view in Washington, says Sir Richard Jolly,13 who later succeeded Haq as HDI principal coordinator, that the index gave credit to countries that had higher levels of public spending, in effect, that it rewarded socialism—Cuba was forty-four places higher on the HDI compared with its GDP ranking.

Jolly recalls a tough conversation between Haq and Draper regarding Cuba’s elevated status in which Draper said to Haq: “How could you do this? My friends in Congress will kill me.” Haq is reported to have replied: “Bill, your reading of the table is wrong.” He then added: “The question is not why is Cuba so far ahead in [human development], but why is it so far behind in GDP.” Cuba’s lowly GDP ranking, said Haq “shows the price of socialism.”14

Draper has a different recollection and denies having any pressure put on him from the White House (or elsewhere). What is not in doubt, however, is that the Human Development Report and the Human Development Index were a direct challenge, not only to GDP, but to what is known as the Washington Consensus. We need to remember that the index was launched at a time of deep economic and debt crises, not unlike the time of this writing, except that the countries in the midst of austerity (then known as structural adjustment) were mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Export earnings were falling and debt was rising as these countries turned to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the two Washington-based international financial institutions, for help. In return, these institutions demanded a reduced role for the state, leading to lower spending on basic needs such as health and education. It is this consensus that the HDI stood against, as the 2010 report, the twentieth edition, makes clear:

By the early 1990s the Washington Consensus had attained near hegemony, and mainstream development thinking held that the best payoffs would come from hewing to its key tenets of economic liberalization and deregulation. Many Western countries were also reducing the role of the public sector in the economy and lightening regulation. Privatization affected rail and postal services, airlines, banking, and even utility networks. From the outset the Human Development Report explicitly challenged this orthodoxy.15

While Haq and his team congratulated themselves on a job well done, preparation was well under way for the second and subsequent editions. Haq was not at all precious about how the index had been compiled and was open and encouraging to amendments and innovations. In later years the team would add mean years of schooling to the education index alongside adult literacy. This was partly so that they could differentiate better those countries at the top where literacy levels are 99 percent or higher. More recent reports have tended to include a larger dashboard of indicators, a modification Sen advocated from the earliest years. They also briefly included an index of political freedoms, partly to counter perceptions that the HDI seems to reward some dictatorships.

At the same time, Haq and his team encouraged national and regional human development reports as a way of embedding the concept firmly in national policy making; they also actively helped countries to improve their systems for collecting social data. The first national human development report was produced by Bangladesh in 1992, and since then, more than 700 have been published by practically every UN member state. Among the more popular, with more than a million downloads, were a trio of Arab Human Development Reports that were published beginning in 2003. Written by an expert team from the Arab world, the first of these reports, Building a Knowledge Society, highlighted publicly the parlous state of knowledge (literacy, education, scientific research, book publishing) in Arabic-speaking countries compared with countries with similar levels of income. Stung by the very public nature of the criticism, the leaders of several Arabic-speaking nations responded by kicking off a wave of university building and extra spending on research and development.16

The impact of the index and the Human Development Reports has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. In the twenty years since the first Human Development Index, the average global HDI increased to 0.68 in 2010 from 0.57 in 1990. All but 3 of the 135 countries for which HDI is measured have a higher level compared with 1990. Crucially for the project team’s thesis, those countries recording the biggest gains in life expectancy and education are not necessarily those with the biggest increases in economic growth rates. Meghnad Desai and Richard Jolly both say that few if any members of the project team, with the exception of Haq, anticipated the level of attention the HDI has received; nor could they foresee the effect it would have on countries and how the reports would influence development planning in both good and more questionable ways.

Top Movers in HDI, Health/Education and Economic Growth, 1970–2010

Health/Education

Growth

HDI

1. Oman

China

Oman

2. Nepal

Botswana

China

3. Saudi Arabia

South Korea

Nepal

4. Libya

Hong Kong

Indonesia

5. Algeria

Malaysia

Saudi Arabia

6. Tunisia

Indonesia

Lao PDR

7. Iran

Malta

Tunisia

8. Ethiopia

Vietnam

South Korea

9. South Korea

Mauritius

Algeria

10. Indonesia

India

Morocco

Source: Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan/UNDP, 2010).

Improvements in health/education are measured by the deviation from fit—how well a country does relative to other countries starting from the same point. Improvements in income are measured by the annual percentage growth rate in per capita GDP.

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Books and essays have been written about the work of Haq following his untimely death in 1998 at the age of sixty-four. But Haq left no memoir, did not keep a diary, and there is, as far as I am aware, no full-length biography. The few clips from YouTube (courtesy of United Nations TV) are a rare treat for the analyst or historian. According to his friend and colleague Shahid Javed Burki, a former senior executive with the World Bank, Haq seemed to deliberately want to absent himself from history: “Mahbub was not concerned with keeping a record for the way his thinking had developed or was developing. He never saved the papers on which he wrote in neat and elegant longhand. He never filed away the correspondence he received and the replies he sent back.”17

Mahbub ul Haq did, however, write Reflections on Human Development, published shortly before he died. But neither this nor an edited collection of essays published in 200818 offers real clues into the reasons for one very crucial aspect of his thought and actions: this is his failure to engage, or lack of interest in engaging, with the policy processes surrounding GDP. If Haq truly wanted to dethrone GDP, then he must have surely known that he would have had to get inside the complex political-cum-statistical world that is how that index is constructed. He would have needed to engage with offices for national statistics and their representatives at the United Nations, just as Richard Stone had done. He would have had to co-opt, build alliances and confront the skeptics, as Maurice Strong had done. But this he never did, or so it would appear. The HDI, for all its successes, had no discernible impact on the dominance of GDP as the world’s principal and most sought-after measure of economic well-being. It is my contention that one reason for this is the reluctance, if not the failure, of Mahbub ul Haq and his team to get under its hood.

Given Haq’s open hostility to the GDP, relations between his team and the UN team looking after GDP were, not surprisingly, frosty, recalls Richard Jolly. GDP methodology is controlled strictly by an organization called the Statistical Commission of the UN, which oversees how GDP is calculated and gives advice to governments. It is rare for institutions linked to the UN to criticize one another in public, but in 1999 the commission’s members took the unusual step of passing a resolution taking HDI to task on technical grounds, which is a polite way of saying “We don’t agree with what you are doing, and we think you are wrong.” Jolly recalls being informed about the meeting the day before it was due to happen. “I was told they would be discussing the HDI and they wanted me to be present to hear—and reply—to their criticisms.” Over time the UN’s statistical commission kept its distance “when it became clear that the HDI had so much popular support.”19

And yet, given the dominance of GDP and the fact that it is embedded deep in the policies of a country’s most powerful ministry (finance), reform will never happen without some level of buy-in from the prime ministers and presidents, finance ministers, central bankers, civil servants, and heads of national statistics offices, who collectively keep the faith.

Haq, to my reckoning, made little or no lasting effort to build bridges with these groups. If he did, there’s no trace in his written publications or those of his colleagues. Understandably, the established UN Statistical Commission, with its distinguished history going back to Richard Stone and its position of authority, saw the HDI as an upstart competitor and regarded its inventors as a freelance operation.

Not only did he not seek a dialogue with the GDP’s guardians, but Haq also appears to have been antagonistic to those environmentalists with whom he shared a common mission (such as those whom we met in the previous chapter). Haq was of the generation of planners and policy makers from developing countries who saw environmentalism as a threat to their ability to prosper, and he took the view that countries need to get richer first, move more people out of extreme poverty, before they can think of spending money to protect “less important” species such as plant and animal life—just as happened in the developed West. Haq once criticized efforts to tackle climate change by saying that “global warming and other ‘loud’ emergencies are yet to kill anyone.” His UNDP colleague Paul Streeten writes that he got into trouble with the green lobby “when Mahbub wanted to say that development means enlarging the choices, not of trees, but of people.”20

One reason may well be that their argument was not so much with growth as with GDP as a proxy measure for growth, as indicated at the start of the second Human Development Report: “Just as economic growth is necessary for human development, human development is critical to economic growth. This two-way link must be at the heart of any enlightened policy action.”21

Haq couldn’t see this, but the idea that environmental protection is a bit of a Western luxury was going out of fashion even during his own lifetime. Human-induced global warming had been confirmed by some of the world’s leading climate scientists by 1996.22 And the fact that industrialization was directly contributing to the fastest decline in species since the last great mass extinction was also known. There was also a credible body of literature challenging the belief held by Haq and others that countries need to get rich first before they can go green.23 Today, top policy makers in countries all over the global South (including Brazil and China) are much more serious about green issues. Yet the old view remains core to the work of the Human Development concept. It is ironic that Haq and his friends criticized the principle that growth automatically leads to improvements in quality of life, but they remained stubborn in their refusal to accept that same critical philosophy when it came to growth and the environment.

Haq was clearly good at building teams, picking the best people, making them want to work for him, and then getting the best out of them. His colleagues say that he was inspirational. He was also used to getting his own way, largely because he chose to work under powerful patrons. They protected his ability to operate without interference and in return he kept his word to them. For Pakistan’s generals he delivered on his promise to create economic growth in the nation’s early years. For UNDP’s Bill Draper he delivered on his promise to create a bold new product that encouraged competitive behavior. He successfully disrupted the UN agency’s internal systems and at the same time gave it a much bigger and a global profile.

The approach that both Draper and the generals adopted is well used and well suited to managing creative types. Competent managers who work in media industries and those who work at the top of elite-level sport such as major league baseball or premier league soccer need to be given the right resources and then left alone and trusted to get on with the job. But if Haq really wanted to dethrone GDP, he needed to do more than insist on editorial independence and the right to stand up to powerful nations. Haq needed to bang on doors and build coalitions with groups who might initially not agree with him, which it appears is something he gave insufficient attention to.

To Haq’s great credit, HDI remains in vigorous health as a concept and as a set of indicators that all countries now take very seriously. Its annual publication is a firm fixture on the international policy calendar. But Haq’s failure to accommodate others in his anti-GDP tent, and his premature death, probably set back his bigger cause. Environmentalists and more green-minded economists, as we shall see, remain determined to supplant GDP on the grounds that continuous economic growth is a recipe for continuous environmental degradation. It is to our collective loss that Mahbub ul Haq, a man with prophetic vision, dizzying analytical ability, and magnetic leadership qualities, was unable to see this and felt unable to work with them to realize their joint dream.