Can developing countries enjoy fast economic growth and political freedom? Does the provision of decent health care and education in such countries stimulate or restrain wealth creation? Amartya Sen addresses these two momentous questions in respect to India, a democracy which endures mass illiteracy and rudimentary social security, and China, a country with high levels of education and health care, but little regard for libertyby Amartya Sen / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
The Chinese and Indian economies together encompass two-fifths of the human race. So remarkably high rates of economic growth in China since its reforms of 1979, and the prospect of excellent performance from the Indian economy since its recent reforms, have received a good deal of international acclaim. It is right that they should do so. And yet there are momentous problems on the social and political side of development that seem to be consistently evaded in India and China. The obstacles are not the same in the two countries-indeed the basis of weakness of each is to a considerable extent the source of strength of the other. China has achieved much greater success in expanding basic education and health care for all, and India has been much more protective of civil and political rights than China. Yet leaders in both countries seem strangely smug about their respective shortcomings-sometimes vocally so.
Consider two recent international episodes. The first concerns India, the second China. In late September 1994, at the annual meeting of the “group of 77” (an organisation which represents the governments of developing countries), the official Indian position involved an attack on “the concepts of sustainable human development and of human security.” A senior cabinet minister, speaking on behalf of the government of India, described the focus on human development as a “derailment of our basic purpose of development co-operation.” Priority would have to be given, in this view, to focusing on economic variables, rather than on “human development,” including both health services and basic education.
What made this pronouncement particularly interesting was the fact that it came right in the middle of an epidemic of plague in India, then in the headlines at home and abroad. More generally, with half the people illiterate and many more without secure health care, the official disdain for giving any kind of priority to “human development” (including education and health care) for the population amounted to a hard political message. I shall call this principle the “postponability of social-change and human-development”-or posh for short.
The second episode goes back to the Vienna conference on human rights in the spring of 1993. Several developing countries objected to putting much emphasis on human rights. They made the case for giving priority to “economic rights,” concentrating on fulfilling elementary economic needs. Even though China’s poor record on human rights made her an unlikely occupier…