DJ: In his renowned book Development as Freedom, the Nobel laureate for Economics Amartya Sen maintained that economic welfare and political freedoms mutually reinforce each other, that freedom from material deprivation and access to social opportunities such as education and health care depend on and deepen democracy and individual freedom. Your academic work in development studies and your practical work in the UN has also led you to this belief. How accepted is the concept today among the ruling elites of developing as well as developed countries?
RJ: The full subtleties and meaning that Amartya Sen gives to these issues are not very widely accepted, in developing and developed countries alike. Amartya was making some very fundamental points about the purpose of development - strengthening capabilities, broadening choices, emphasising the role of education in the broadest sense of strengthening human capabilities. It is a very broad and deep view of education, not a narrow and instrumental view which is mostly just concerned that a country has enough people who are sufficiently trained to boost economic growth according to existing patterns. I see Amartya’s ideas informing the very concept of human development which has, in certain ways, had a remarkable impact. Sometimes, countries have been inspired by the ideal of strengthening capabilities and broadening choices, but often they have only partially engaged with these issues. Even Bhutan, which claims it is fully adopting a human development approach, is probably only partially doing so.
DJ: In 2006, 36 million people died of hunger and malnutrition according to the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler. The Director-General of FAO Jacques Diouf states that $30 billion a year would be enough to eradicate world hunger, while the total US military spending for 2012 is over $1 trillion. Yet in spite of such harrowing realities, you have affirmed the importance of “leadership, vision, and intellectual long sight” in effecting change, as you once put it. Who, then, do you think are the contemporary political actors who could begin to develop credible initiatives for international disarmament?
RJ: Firstly, estimates of the deaths from malnutrition, from unclean water and from disease all refer to overlapping forms of deprivation. It is difficult to say exactly how much it would cost to change each of these things. But I don’t mind people making powerful and challenging speeches. I’d much rather hear them speak in relation to these things than to listen to crude justifications for the military as a necessary insurance against attack... I do believe that vision and leadership are absolutely critical. Look at the end of the Second World War and the creation of the UN. This process was initiated during the war and was led by Roosevelt, Churchill, and later Stalin as well for his own reasons. In the midst of the war, beginning in 1941 and 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill realised they had to present to the world public a vision of the ‘United Nations’ as a coalition of nations that were prepared to fight against fascism for the values of freedom and common humanity. This initiative eventually led to the creation of the United Nations as an organisation to prevent future wars in a world of law and justice and common humanity. That to my mind was vision, the kind of bold alternative to war and a bold way of thinking about the future that we need today. Sadly there have been few politicians who have shown such leadership. Olof Palme was one...
DJ: Willy Brandt as well...
Yes, I would certainly put Willy Brandt very much in this category of people who understood that the end to war and the creation of peace were issues that went far beyond a narrow concern with the military and disarmament, perceived in isolation from a broader social and economic vision. Also, Schuman and Monnet, the creators of Europe, were subtle and far-seeing in realising that there had to be an economic integration of France and Germany and Europe as a whole, in order to avoid future war - something that, after Churchill, Britain has been very slow in comprehending.
Going back to the question of what might lead to a process of disarmament today, let’s start with nuclear disarmament. I think that citizen activism is still incredibly relevant, as well as some elements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Britain, as one of the smaller nuclear powers, dependent on US support for operating and using them, could and should take some positive steps. I would like to emphasise the absurdity of spending over £80 billion on a new generation of Trident nuclear missiles. But throughout the world, looking at the amounts spent by numerous countries on armies and armaments, it is difficult to see what return they get for spending, say, 3 rather than 2 or 2 rather than 1.5 per cent of their GDP on the military budget. Often this spending is due to the power of the military-industrial complex within the country rather than any military threat from outside. I think the world is open for leadership on this issue. Individual countries show it can be done, such as Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1948, and built it into the constitution in 1949, under the extraordinary leadership of José Figueres Ferrer.
DJ: How does the experience of nations without military forces, such as Costa Rica and Iceland, advance our understanding of the preconditions for human security and well-being? Are they, in your opinion, “free-loaders” which thrive on the security provided by NATO and the US?
RJ: I don’t particularly like the “free-loader” argument. There is a pejorative element in it. I would prefer to emphasize the negative externalities which countries with armies create by having forces which pose threats, real or imagined, and one must remember that many armies in developing countries become instruments of oppression keeping some faction or political group in power. In these situations, getting rid of an army can be liberation for the population, not some cost-benefit calculation about how to get defence on the cheap. This said, reaching such agreements on a regional security alliance or even military assistance from a big power, could be useful if it was combined with an overall reduction in the size and strength of the military. But demilitarisation does require visionary leadership as well as producing benefits. The experience of Costa Rica, of Panama, Iceland, of the 19 countries in total which don’t have an army, is that the freeing up of resources - which would otherwise go to the military - enables better education, health care and so forth. The abolition of the army also reduces domestic pressures, the threats of coups de état and other internal conflicts, especially if it builds citizenship and a much less militarised upbringing of the new generations.
Speaking personally, when I went to a public school in Britain, and was a keen member of the school cadet force, none of these issues were brought to my attention. Had I been brought up in Costa Rica, I’m sure my thinking would have been totally different. I would have had a different education and I would have questioned the necessity and good sense of having an army.
DJ: The Global Peace Index has produced a set of indicators to assess the degree to which different countries and societies have become civilised and peaceful. Some countries, such as Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, Austria, Japan, New Zealand and Canada have consistently received the most favourable ratings. Most of them are not members of NATO. Has there ever been a time during your long UN career when this distinctive set of countries endeavoured to build a solid and longer-lasting independent political alliance on the international stage?
RJ: What I can say from my own experience in UNICEF and UNDP is that the like-minded Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and even for a short time Britain (when Clare Short was the Minister for International Development) formed an international club that strongly supported positive international action for children, for development and the like. Very important in my experience has also been strong individual leadership in these countries. As one example, the distinguished Swede, Nils Thedin, kept urging at the UNICEF board that we should make children “a zone of peace”. I was initially very sceptical about the potential for putting this into practice. But in Central America in the 1980s, when we were promoting national immunisation campaigns, the concept of children as a zone of peace was indeed introduced. We managed to successfully negotiate with both the government and the rebel leaders in El Salvador that there should be days of tranquillity so that all the children could be immunised - in both government and rebel-held areas. Eventually, this de facto ceasefire was accepted as a matter of routine there. Children had been made a zone of peace. That idea later spread to Uganda, Sudan, Lebanon and elsewhere... On the question regarding countries that have done well on the Peace Index, they are countries whose citizens have a much more refined and less belligerent attitude to international politics, and are more ready to think the unthinkable. And then sometimes, like Nils Thedin, be open to establishing a whole new initiative that has worked.
DJ: And yet, these countries haven’t demonstrated enough independent initiative to create a stable, independent political alliance on the international stage.
RJ: Yes, I think that’s where the Scandinavians, wonderful as they are, have never gone the full road. But then there are countries, such as Costa Rica, which have taken the lead and have pressed other countries in the same direction, successfully in the case of Panama.
DJ: The whole of Africa seems to have lost most of its developmental impetus acquired during the ebullient days of early post-colonial African governments. What is your opinion of the continent’s present situation, and how optimistic are you about its near future?
RJ: I’m less optimistic than the World Bank and the IMF, based on some of the statistics they’ve given. If you look at the specifics of GDP data in different countries, a lot of the positive growth figures are driven by oil prices and recent mining developments... On the other hand, I’m less pessimistic than the people who argue that Africa is a hopeless continent. I prefer not to generalise about the whole of Africa and prefer looking at individual countries.
DJ: Ethiopia, for instance, is doing relatively well in terms of gains in education and public health...
RJ: Yes, the GDP has always been overused by the Bretton Woods, but used only as a single indicator by the UN, along with child mortality, percentage of children in education, progress towards the national development goals etc. I would look at some individual African countries that have recently had a good record – Mauritius, Botswana, Mozambique... Others unfortunately only had good periods for a short while in the 1980s, such as Burkina Faso. One should analyse individual countries and admire the leadership of those that have made progress in human indicators. African countries are in a very difficult position, and yet some of them have made impressive advances.
DJ: The one-dollar-one-vote system means that the rich countries control 60% of voting shares in the IMF and the World Bank. The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang informs us that even the World Trade Organization, which is nominally democratic, is effectively run by an oligarchy of the richest countries, that many of the crucial ministerial meetings are held on a “by-invitation-only” basis, and that some delegates from developing countries who tried to attend these closed meetings were even physically thrown out. The UN itself is to a great extent constrained by the sway of a small lnumber of powerful states. Are there any effective voices for the global South today, and on which strategic basis might some new, progressive coalition of countries develop?
RJ: I think we are in a situation that is new and very exciting at the moment, with the growth of China and the growing importance of other emerging economies. We can even see the beginnings of some adjustment of voting in the World Bank and the IMF. It is also particularly important that people are elected to positions within these organisations primarily on the basis of adequate experience and expertise. It seems that the old agreements: “France can have the head of the IMF, the US therefore can insist on its own candidate for the World Bank“, are unfortunately still in force, but we have seen some changes. The World Health Organization has shifted, about ten years ago, to a much more democratic process in which candidates for the post of Director-General are interviewed by the World Health Assembly. We need to move towards that model more generally. Another very important point is that not only the people at the very top but all senior people in the UN should be appointed and promoted through a much more professional selection process. This has happened in UNDP, for example, and it was extended to choosing heads of UN offices at the country level. We have seen some progress and we need to extend that.
You also ask about the new generation of global leaders from the South. I am less informed now that I don’t work for the UN. Within the UN, I can think of a number of strong and outstanding internationalist individuals from emerging or developing countries: Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, and recently appointed as the new head of UN Women. Juan Somavia and Superchai Panitchpakdi, heads of ILO and UNCTAD respectively are other examples of third world leaders who have been giving strong international leadership internationally. Oscar Arias and Lula Da Silva are former presidents of vision and internationalism. Mo Ibrahim of Sudan is a wonderful example of a third world businessman who has made a fortune in mobile phones but who also has a broader vision of development and social mobilization. But where I may agree with you is that the world today seems to have only a few leaders, from North or South, who give a strong lead for international action as essential for meeting the big global challenges of today and for the future. As Joe Stiglitz said, “Global problems need global solutions” – yet too often governments and national leaders think primarily of national actions, even if they recognize the value of global photo opportunities. If the world is to ensure sustainability for the future, to control financial instabilities or tackle climate change, we need national leaders who use their influence and standing for essential global action.
DJ: The Human Development Report, of which you are one of the leading architects, has had a critical role in challenging a constricted public discourse preoccupied with economic growth to the exclusion of other development indicators. Yet even this narrower economic outlook hasn’t been successful in reversing the negative European economic growth trends set in motion by the economic crisis. Is it possible to reconcile your approach, which focuses on the expansion of substantive individual and social freedoms, with the more conventional, mainstream economic aspirations?
RJ: I think there has got to be a fundamental change from the orthodoxy, this preoccupation with growth. That will require a better balance of government action, to have control of the banks, more control of the private sector. I don’t think we are back in the world of socialism vs. capitalism, but we certainly need some real controls on the nature of rip-roaring capitalism - for the sake of all of us. All of these things are important for getting us out of the present crisis, but also, in the longer run, we have got to move away from “affluenza”, in which ever rising consumption is seen as the main goal. We have got to move much more to the quality of life issues and human development concerns, but also beyond a crude understanding of how to increase human capabilities and widen choices. What sort of choices? Amazingly, Keynes wrote in 1929 a short piece The Economics of Our Grandchildren, envisaging a time when growth would have reached a surfeit, when there would be enough. And then, he wrote, people would be free to enjoy the things that are truly beautiful - art and literature, human relations. Money-making, as such, would be seen as what it is – a perversity, which should be allowed in small arenas but we needn’t praise it.
Well, we’re a long way from what Keynes envisaged, but I think this is still the real challenge. Keynes wrote wonderfully that “when we learn to be disobedient to the accountants’ concept of profit, we open the door to civilisation”. That is what is needed. It is not pure romanticism. It is what I think human development would be in the world of the future, when basic needs have been met, but also it’s a world we must get to if we are going to cope with the pressures of climate change, resource limitations and so forth.
DJ: It is possible to concur with this while posing the question whether the realities of astute political strategy do require at least a partial acceptance of this mainstream economic discourse. Might it not be possible to partly reconcile these different aims? After all, it was during the ‘golden age of Keynesianism’ that these mainstream economic targets, especially the rise of the GDP, were much more successfully realised then they are today, in the age of neoliberalism which idolises the GDP and invokes its increase as a mantra.
RJ: My answer to your question would be both yes and no. The current model is indeed severely limited in its economic potential. The golden age of the first twenty-five years after 1945 was not only a golden age for moderate economic growth, it was also a golden age of low unemployment. It was a period of considerable stability. It wasn’t just a period of growth, but of other forms of development as well. It was, for European countries at least, a period of establishing national health services, social security, and so on. Even for developing countries, it was a period of establishing independence, a period of rapid expansion of education, of some of the basic services, and a period characterised by much less corruption in the first ten to fifteen years of independence. So this golden age wasn’t founded on a narrow focus on economic growth, but on a much broader perspective of development. And it was, let’s admit it, based on the control of some of the elements of capitalism and the market. It was Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s that gloried in the abandonment of these things, most importantly the abandonment of economic regulation, which has created many of the problems that we have today.
DJ: During your tenure in UNICEF, OXFAM and elsewhere, you have been involved in work which directly impacts many millions of people. What are the achievements you are most proud of, and your greatest regrets?
RJ: The thing I am certainly most proud of is that in the early 1980s, when Jim Grant was the executive director of UNICEF and I was his deputy executive director, we took as our key goal, A Child Survival and Development Revolution. At that time, 15 million children under five were dying a year, mostly of readily preventable causes. Jim Grant said this was unconscionable because it was unnecessary. So we mobilised in every country for immunisation campaigns, for teaching mothers and families how to reduce deaths from diarrhoea, for encouraging breastfeeding... A whole series of low-cost, simple actions. And these were largely achieved. By 1990, the number of children under 5 dying a year had been reduced to twelve million. By 2000, it had fallen to 10.5 million, and today it is under 9 million. In addition to these achievements in terms of deaths avoided, we also made achievements in terms of mothers and families with a greater chance of seeing their children grow up healthy. That was really wonderful, to be part of that. And to realise that being part of the UN you could witness such practical actions internationally. I didn’t know enough about the opportunities at the UN when I first joined. Many others still don’t. There are extreme opportunities for leadership in the UN, for practical and successful action.
Secondly, I was very lucky to have good colleagues and with them to challenge the narrowness of the World Bank and the IMF in the area of structural adjustment. We promoted the idea of “adjustment with a human face”, and a little bit of that was accepted. But thirdly, I wouldn’t say it was pride, but it is a great privilege to work with the UN, to work with people from different cultural backgrounds, different languages and so forth working together for a common purpose. When asked to introduce themselves around a table, I love to hear UN colleagues state “I’m not from Britain, I’m not from Korea, or Kenya”, I am a citizen of the world. That, to my mind, is a very beautiful thing. It brings to mind the words of Tom Paine who said “My country is the world and my religion is to do good”. In the UN, at its best, we can see this spirit continued and we need to see that cosmopolitan spirit expand.
A shorter version of this interview/conversation was published in the Croatian weekly magazine "Forum".