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A Hindu-Muslim Friendship That Helped Shape How the World Measured Poverty


One half of a friendship: Amartya Sen, the renowned Indian economist and a Nobel Prize winner, at a meeting in Brazil, 2012. 

They were two young men studying at Cambridge University when they met in the wake of the bloody Partition of British India. One was a Kashmiri-born Muslim and the other a Hindu-born Bengali. But the two, Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen from India, soon formed an intellectual bond and deep friendship.

“It was an autumn morning in early October 1953 and Mahbub — elegantly attired (indeed I would say, nattily dressed) — was walking rapidly down King’s Parade on his way to the first lecture of the term by the redoubtable economist Joan Robinson,” Sen recalled in 1998, speaking at a memorial service for Haq, who had died that year at 64. “I was also going there, and we were both rushing a bit since we were a little late . . . and we began a conversation. It is my good fortune that the conversation that began, somewhat breathlessly, 45 years ago continued throughout our lives.”

This year, 2018, marks two decades since the death of Haq but his work lives on in the UN’s annual Human Development Report.

After Cambridge, their career paths diverged, with Sen becoming a distinguished academic at Cambridge and Harvard, and Haq taking on a series of Pakistani government positions and international service. In the 1970s, he was director of policy planning at the World Bank and economic adviser to its president, Robert McNamara, before returning to Pakistan in the early 1980s to become the country’s finance minister.

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Sen and Haq never lost touch, and their collaboration over the years, as well as their individual research and prolific writing, would bring a profound change in how the UN and the world would redefine and better understand poverty.

Sen’s eulogy at the UN in October 1998 lauded Haq for “the courage and creativity of his ideas.” A day earlier, it was announced that Sen had won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, and he told reporters at a news conference that he wanted to dedicate the award to Mahbub.

And Mahbub ul Haq, an economist from Pakistan, who helped create the UN Development Report, assessing how poverty affects daily life. 

“Mahbub ul Haq was one of the most distinguished — and humane — practitioners of applied economics in the contemporary world,” Sen said at the memorial service. “He was a visionary thinker, whose work has brought about a major change in the assessment and accounting of the process of development.”

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Sen added that as a teenager Mahbub had been caught in the violence of Partition that almost destroyed his Muslim family and the experience left a lasting impression. “If ignorance is the enemy against which Mahbub battled most, this was combined with a total rejection of sectarianism, bigotry and social hatred,” Sen said.

Farhan Haq, Mahbub’s son, who is now the deputy spokesman of the UN secretary-general, recalled in an interview how his father had talked about the symbolism of the 1950s at Cambridge for young South Asian scholars, who met and talked about the future. “Specifically, they did it in the land of the old colonial occupiers,” Haq said. “That’s significant.”

Mahbub told his son that while at Cambridge, E.M. Forster, the author of “A Passage to India,” the powerful and still-controversial 1924 book on colonialism and racism, gave a talk to South Asian students.

“Forster said to all these young South Asians: ‘You are building your countries, you will be the generation that really makes history,’ ” Farhan Haq said. “My father was struck by this. You don’t know what sense of obligation the British had for what they had left behind. But Forster wanted to instill pride in all the Indians and Pakistanis he saw. My father was part of that generation who thought, ‘We’re going to make these countries right — a better place than England, if we can.’ “

Mahbub ul Haq and Sen shared a nagging frustration at how the world measured livelihoods, relying on the established data such as GNP and GDP. Farhan remembers his father wondering aloud, “What’s the point of economics if all it does is generate growth?”

But the world then was hung up on established data like gross national product, gross domestic product and national economic growth. The question Sen and Haq grappled with was how to build a system to compete with the World Bank-IMF consensus, using new indicators that would “ascribe value to things like education and health that would actually make life worthwhile,” Farhan said.

In 1989, Mahbub ul Haq, as a special adviser to William Draper, the administrator of the UN Development Program, persuaded him to test the first Human Development Report and an accompanying Human Development Index. The report, which Sen and other economists were also involved in creating, would measure the progress of nations not in macroeconomic terms but rather in the day-to-day lives of people. (The latest report is due out this spring.)

Its judgments could be brutally frank, and numerous UN member governments objected.

“The report was a daring venture,” Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, formerly of UN Development Program and now Professor of International Affairs at the New School in New York, wrote in the 2006 book “The Elgar Companion to Development Economics.”

“This was unprecedented in UN reports that scrupulously avoid criticizing governments,” Fukuda-Parr wrote. “The report dared to rank countries by the Human Development Index that estimated the progress of a country in expanding the capabilities that individuals have to lead lives to their full potential.”

In 1996, Mahbub ul Haq established the Human Development Center in Islamabad. After his death, his widow, Khadija Haq, also an economist and an advocate for women, took over the center, which is now based in Lahore. Farhan’s sister, Toneema, another economist in the family, is now at the World Bank, following in her father’s footsteps.

Much of South Asia, unlike East and Southeast Asia, still does not rank high in human development, especially in the lives of women.

“My mother and father both worked on women’s issues,” Farhan said. “The problem is a regionwide problem. It’s not restricted to any religion: Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists. Basically, we’re trying to work our way out of an extremely hierarchical, extremely traditional society, where certain people are deemed to be worth more than others.” Farhan’s wife, Ethel Brooks, is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and an internationally recognized expert on the Romani people.

In the generations that have passed since those optimistic years shared by South Asian scholars at Cambridge, amity between Indians and Pakistanis has been strained by wars, political tensions and nuclear one-upmanship. Farhan, who was born in Washington D.C., recently heard that an Indian journalist at the UN was refusing to be briefed by “that Pakistani.” It is not a rare occurrence.

Haq takes some solace in a story he tells about UN peacekeepers from India who ran into trouble in Congo. “They were besieged by a militia,” he said. “They were embattled and called for air support from Pakistanis. The Pakistanis provided it. I thought to myself, it’s only happening when they are facing a common threat in Africa. But suddenly you have Indians and Pakistanis relying on each other for their mutual safety. And I thought, the UN achieved that much at least.”

This article originally appeared in India Abroad. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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