The new UN Human Development Report on vulnerability and resilience: ignoring trade-offs and an epic fail on power and politics

I started off reading the exec sum of yesterday’s Human Development Report (UNDP’s flagship publication) with initial excitement, followed by growing dismay. It’s a HDR launchpretty traditional kind of disillusion (I’m a bit of a connoisseur). Allow me to walk you through it.

In a nutshell, an interesting diagnosis and a few good new-ish ideas, followed by a pretty thin proposal for anything resembling a cure, while ducking most of the tricky questions. Recognize the pattern?

Let’s start with the positive. First a good topic: vulnerability and resilience – development fuzzwords that really need examination, clarification etc, in the way the HDR is usually good at.

Despite recent progress in human progress, the report correctly identifies an underlying malaise: ‘a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today—in livelihoods, in personal security, in the environment and in global politics.’

‘Real progress on human development, then, is not only a matter of enlarging people’s critical choices and their ability to be educated, be healthy, have a reasonable standard of living and feel safe. It is also a matter of how secure these achievements are and whether conditions are sufficient for sustained human development. An account of progress in human development is incomplete without exploring and assessing vulnerability.’

HDR fig1Some of its useful contributions:

It proposes a pretty broad conception of ‘human vulnerability’ (presumably to sit alongside the UNDP’s traditional focus on human development), and breaks it down a bit between groups (see first diagram).

It raises the possibility of some kind of multidimensional approach to inequality, pointing out that inequality in healthcare has fallen, whereas disparities in income has risen, while inequality in access to education has stayed roughly constant in recent years.

It points out that the rate of progress in human development has fallen significantly since 2008 (see bar chart).

It highlights the need to think about vulnerabilities in terms of life cycles. People’s vulnerabilities and strengths are cumulative and path dependent. That begins even HDR fig2before birth – babies born to undernourished mothers are less likely to do well in school or later life. Unemployment in youth can derail people for a lifetime.

The logic of this is ‘intervene early’ (see 3rd graph), but this is where I started to get frustrated. The obvious response is, ‘OK, but money doesn’t grow on trees (OK technically it does, in the case of paper money, but you know what I mean). What are you suggesting you do less of? Take money from pensions and spend it on early childhood development’? The nearest it gets to this is saying ‘Spending on health, education and welfare that increases over the life course does not nurture and support capability development during the crucial early years.’ That sounds like a recipe for a spectacular wonkwar between Save the Kids and Helpage, but as far as I can see, the report ducks the potential trade offs entirely.

HDR fig3Similarly it argues for a return to full employment as an economic policy objective. That’s a brave and radical proposal, but fails to acknowledge, let alone discuss, any possible trade-offs between full employment and decent jobs – it wants both (natch).

Finally, where’s the politics? I know it’s hard for UN bodies to talk about power and politics, but this is a pretty dismal example of a technocrat’s charter, assuming a benign, pro-poor government keen to improve (that’s a hell of a big can opener).

‘Building human resilience requires responsive institutions.. in particular states that recognize and take actions to reduce inequality among groups are better able to uphold social cohesion and prevent and recover from crises.’

And what do you do if you have a state that isn’t this kind of paragon? Complete silence: the executive summary (which is all most people read) doesn’t go there. No discussion of how non state actors can influence states, of how to shift incentives, build coalitions with sympathetic fragments within the state, seize the political opportunities provided by disasters (very important in this case). Likewise, no discussion of the politics of ‘turnaround’ – when and why have bad states turned good? There’s a page in the full report (106) on the role of civil society activism and participation, but that doesn’t make it into the exec sum. All in all, an epic fail, epitomized by the widespread use of what Robert Chambers calls the ‘passive evasive’ tense ‘greater efforts are needed’ etc etc.

My heart rose briefly when I saw a subhead saying ‘Deepening progress and collective action’. Great, here comes an edgy section on how change happens in real political systems. Oh, wait. ‘Collective action’ turns out to mean loads of governments agreeing some really kickass post 2015 goals. Don’t get me started on that one.

Now I’m a big fan of the UNDP (and they are more than welcome to set me straight). Maybe this is as far as an official UN report can go, but if so, that’s a shame. And it rather illustrates just how hard it is to talk about power and politics, even for NGOs. But that’s a topic for a future post.

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12 Responses to “The new UN Human Development Report on vulnerability and resilience: ignoring trade-offs and an epic fail on power and politics”
  1. P Baker

    Hasn’t the whole HDI thing had its day?

    Countries at the top are the ones that consume the most fossil fuels hence jeopardize development for all. GNI is part of the calculation and directly linked to unsustainable energy consumption.

    Strange then that they are wringing their hands about vulnerability instead of pointing the finger.

    US is higher than Sweden? UK higher than Japan?

    • Duncan Green

      Good Question: have Big Annual Multilateral Reports passed their sell by date? I’ve got some sympathy with that view – things are more agile, web-based and specific these days. These big annual broadsides seem quite antiquated.

  2. Pauline Rose

    Some great points, as ever, Duncan. Though I wonder if the ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’ bit sounds like you have been talking to donors too much recently? I fully agree with your point about the need to prioritise, but I don’t think this is an excuse for not pushing for the mobilization of additional resources. The 0.7% of GNI target for aid has yet to be realized for one thing.

    I have been disappointed to see much of the media coverage of HDR to be on the HDI league tables – a cheap way to get media attention, rather than trying to communicate the real policy issues that report’s of this kind need to tackle.

    On whether multilateral reports have had their day – having just finished as director of one of these (UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report) I believe they can continue to have an important role to play if they do have clear, evidence-based policy messages and are effectively communicated. But then I am no doubt biased!

  3. Brendan Halloran

    Great post Duncan, I’m definitely in favor of politicizing resilience (and of course, vulnerability). My own take on this topic from earlier this year can be found here:

    I haven’t read the report, but interesting that it frames poor, informal and marginalized populations as vulnerable because of ‘limited capabilities’, without any acknowledgement of exclusionary social and political systems.

    • Cathy Ratcliff

      Absolutely agree with your last point. People who get by, in spite of being poor and socially excluded, have surely got great capabilities that the rest of us could learn from.

  4. Sam Gardner

    Another great post Duncan. With you around we don’t need to write anymore.

    After Easterly his book I just reread “two cheers fro anarchism”(James Scott). The development community in essence sees the world as something that can be planned top down. It ignores that responsive government is all about empowerment: power is rarely given. normally it is taken, and poverty is by definition powerlessness.

    Most development initiatives are based on this planning paradigm: feedback is welcomed, during planning by experts. Not like in the rich countries, where policy is rather the result of feedback than planning.

    In countries with empowered citizens there are safety nets. They are more the result of citizen empowerment than of technocratic planning and HD-reports.

    Whatever, the wheel is turning. After the coordination boom (who remembers “one UN”) the UK is now pushing the crowd of development lemmings and UN-organisations in the direction of resilience. What will be next with the new UK policy coming soon? I don’t think coordination nor resilience is unimportant. But why this ficklyness

  5. Frances Stewart

    In your comment on HDR 2014, you state that the Report fails to allow for trade-offs – in particular between expenditure on early childhood development and on pensions for the old. This comes dangerously near to accepting an Osborn/IMF view of public expenditure, which is both short-sighted and inhumane. The shortsightedness arises because spending more now on early childhood will reduce the need for expenditure on the old in the future: as people who have benefited from early childhood support will be healthier and more productive in their adult (and old-age) lives, needing less resources from the state to maintain their health and better able to finance their own pensions. The inhumanity is represented in the view that the choice should be between expenditure on early childhood and that on the old and poor. Why not a choice between expenditure on arms and social purposes? On luxury consumption and human development? On taxing multinational companies and supporting nutrition for the marginalized? Many countries have made progress at both ends of life, and without sacrificing growth. (Lindert, 2004), among many others, shows that there is no social expenditure/growth trade-off.

    Of course, you are right that making progress on both fronts depends on political decisions, as does every recommendation on development policy. And understanding the underlying determinants of progressive political choices – and even more changing them – is one of the greatest challenges for those of us who work on development policy issues. But we can take comfort from the fact that we are not asking the impossible – as shown by the wide range of countries that have taken pro-human development actions in one area or another and sometimes on many fronts; and by the findings that as countries become democratic and per capita incomes grow there is a strong tendency for governments to favour actions promoting social progress.

    Lindert, P. H. 2004. Growing public : Social spending and economic growth since the eighteenth century, Cambridge, UK ; New York, Cambridge.

    • Duncan Green

      Absolutely take your point Frances, but I do get frustrated by reports that just argue for spending more on everything. Politicians have to make choices on what to spend money on, and how much to raise (and yes, cutting money wasted on arms or tax breaks makes a lot more sense than cutting other social spending), but by ignoring such questions altogether and sticking to a world entirely made up of magical win-wins, we risk denting our credibility.

  6. Claudia Melim-McLeod

    Duncan, I have not read the report, but wanted to flag that although UNDP is rarely in a position to publicly raise issues related to power and politics, it doesn’t mean that the organization does not take them into account at all in its policy and programming work.

    Between 2009 and 2013 I led the development and implementation of the closest thing that UNDP has to a framework to analyse “power and politics”, which we have chosen to call Institutional and Context Analysis (ICA), given the sensitivity to the term ‘politics’ in our work as an inter-governmental organization. The ICA Guidance Note is available online, here: You will notice that some of it is inspired by DFID’s and the Policy Practice’s work, and some by the World Bank’s approach to problem-driven political economy analysis.

    Over the past years, the ICA has been used in a number of countries, and in some cases it has actually led to concrete actions, like the introduction of ethnically mixed police in a fragile country (a key provision of their Peace Agreement), the decision NOT to sign an agreement with a powerful partner that would actually be counterproductive, a public discussion to enhance state accountability in a traditional a monarchy, etc.

    Please know that I am a big fan of your blog and as I have not even read the Executive Summary of the HDR, my aim is not to ‘set you straight’, just to share some information about our work which you and others may not be aware of.

    Finally, I should mention that this is just a personal reply and not an official UNDP response!

  7. Sandhya S.Iyer

    Hi Duncan,

    I see the point that you are raising on the power and politics. But as Frances Stewart has pointed out political will can be a necessary condition but not the only determinent of human development progress. A more substantive analysis of how certain countries have been able to reduced inequalilies in Human Development between 2010-13 as compared to others is equally relevant. Converselly, over 2/3rd countries have experienced worsening inequalities in human development outcomes. Are then trying to say that inequalities in human development reflect growing vulernabilities? I have my reservations in this connotation.

    The concept of vulnerability is also half heartedly presented. In a era when progress on MDGs is yet to reconciled and reductions in MPI are limited as well, one would have expected a substantive integration of failures of reduction in inequalities in human development across various parameters to the notion of vulnerability. I dont see it happen either.

    Additionally, Iam raising a more conceptual issue of the HDR. I find that once again UNDP has generated a new term (structural vulnerability) and presented the same old framework (those who were earlier identified as excluded or marginalised- women, immigrants, indigenous groups and older people). Was there a necessity to recategorise them? Weak conceptualisation has led to lack of suitable methodology to measure. The report runs to a set of discrete indicators for each of the parameters.

    I think over the past two decades repeatedly issues on: universal access to basic social services, especially health and education; stronger social protection, including unemployment insurance and pensions; and a commitment to full employment, enhancing quantum and quality of public spending for human development etc. The analysis presented also seems to have missed the core focus.

    Lastly comparing progress between 2010-13 would be the estimations would rely same time points wherein there is no change in the base values: Education outcomes or health indicators.

    It would have been useful if the estimates were presented for one time point post 2010 and one prior to 2007. Data variability seems to be considered as the last facet of priority in the report.

    Nonetheless a valient effort indeeed.

  8. Akmal

    Since Sandhya S.Iyer mentioned MPI, I would like to take your attention to Statistical Annex of HDR2014. Table 6 of the Statistical Annex provides data for MPI. All seems OK but it says that MPI calculation was based on two types well-known HH surveys and Alkire and Foster (2007) and Alkire and Santos (2010) methodology (see At the same time, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) publishes its MPI (see, which seems different from MPI produced by HDRO. This raises an interesting question: which one is more trustable and why both indexes named in the same way. I understand that this is more statistical work and issue, which could be off topic in this respectful blog.