Insights and Analysis

A Conversation with UN Human Development Report Author Khalid Malik

October 8, 2014

By Blog Editor

Khalid MalikKhalid Malik, lead author of the UNDP Human Development Report, sat down with The Asia Foundation’s Global Communications assistant director, Eelynn Sim, on a recent visit to the Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco and on the heels of the release of the 2014 report.

Before we dive into the 2014 report findings, what do you see as the broader fundamental challenges of human development?

We’re driven by the profound idea that people are the real wealth of nations, starting with our first annual report in 1990. Ever since that time, our analysis of human development has focused on increasing choices that are available to people so that they can live healthy, productive, and secure lives.

Every year, we look closely at human development issues and challenges, but we also identify policies that impact people’s lives. Last year’s report focused on the rise of the South and documented what is happening in the world where a number of people are doing better over the last decade. But, there is an underside to this progress. We are seeing a slowing down and a sense of greater uncertainty. This year’s report digs into the underlying drivers of vulnerability policies that are making a difference in development. The 2014 report, “Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience,” also comes at a critical time as the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals draws near.

The 2014 report warns that 2.2 billion people are poor or near-poor. What are your thoughts on this?

This year, we have a new number: 1.5 billion people living in multi-dimensional poverty worldwide. I want to point out that this number is different from income-based measures of poverty such as the World Bank number of 1.2 billion. When we dug into the data and the 1.5 billion figure further, we discovered that another 800 million people are living just above the poverty threshold. Poverty is declining overall, but what is most alarming is that profound shocks can easily push these 800 million people back into poverty. The reality is that there are a lot of people who you would not initially think are vulnerable but are.

The report also calls for greater emphasis on employment.

Yes, we’ve taken the strong position that now is the time for governments and states to go back and focus on full employment. We argue that jobs are far more important than the wages you get from it. Full employment fosters self-identity and self-respect and increases social stability and family cohesion.

When we look at what happened with the Arab Spring, we were surprised that it took place in countries that had high human development standards – Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt. But these are also places with high unemployment. Growing economic and social tensions – emerging from increasing inequality and a lack of economic opportunities – are likely to continue to fuel social unrest. Citizens today expect more from the state. They expect to be treated better, and expect better life prospects.

This is true not just for Arab countries, but for China as well. When you have 600 million people on the web, there is a huge pressure on transparency and accountability. State institutions have to rise to the occasion. The sense of governance itself is changing very rapidly: accountability is becoming deeply embedded.

How have governments responded to your findings?

Certainly in the last few years, we’ve found a huge growth in interest in the findings, including from governments. We get more than 4 million hits on our website each year. Governments watch our rankings carefully. We can’t tell policymakers what to do, but we can provide analysis and evidence. Take the case of jobs. We need to find better ways of making certain that full employment is a priority for all countries. How you design these policies depends on each country context. So we can provide historical data and analysis to help policymakers.

What role do you see for the international community in achieving sustainable progress?

The world is getting much more connected. When that happens, a country has to look at policies conducted not just within its own borders, but also how regional and global collective action moves us forward. We’ve tried to highlight in the report the worrisome case of under-provision of global public goods. Without these important regional or global mechanisms, we’re limited in dealing with financial crises, disease control matters, climate change, and other transnational concerns fully and adequately. After the Asian financial crisis, there was some discussion to create a regional monetary fund. It is time to look at these things much more carefully.

The Asia Foundation this year celebrates sixty years of working on Asia’s most critical issues. While Asia has undergone an unprecedented transformation, what do you see as notable challenges in this region?

There is a huge amount of promise and challenge in Asia. In the report, we highlighted that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be in Asia. In that sense, Asia is on the move. At the same time, we are seeing different speeds in Asia. In East Asian countries, the demographic is aging rapidly, whereas in South Asia, the population is growing rapidly, especially among its youth. This will have significant prospects for the future.

The biggest challenge for Asia is finding a common purpose, a common spirit of working together. The good news is that Asia has the talent and capabilities and resources to take up these challenges effectively, which can improve the lives of almost everyone in the region. Where Asia goes, so goes the world, in many ways.


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