Meanings of Development have varied dramatically across time. Islam defines development as human development; many cultures defined it in terms of advances in learning, philosophy, arts, etc. For Great Britain, development was sea power, access to energy, etc. When it became World Leader after World War I, the USA changed the definition to GNP per capita.

History is the conquest song of the victors. It is not that definitions are randomly chosen according to current fashion. Instead, the dominant powers define development in such a way that ensures that they are considered to be the most developed. They choose criteria which glorify, honour, and praise them, and avoid tests according to which the powerful look terrible.

Choice of criteria matters a Lot. Whatever is considered as the criteria for development, everyone strives to achieve this. If philosophy and literature are the criteria, everyone will work hard in these fields. If poverty elimination is the highest priority, people will work on that. Post WW2, both Turkey and Japan were losers, and both chose their development paths. Turkey decided to imitate European culture as the goal, while Japan chose science, technology, mathematics and medicine. Because Japan picked the right goal, it forged ahead, while Turkey was left behind because it picked the wrong target. Because the world leaders today have defined development in terms of GNP per capita, nearly all countries in the world are trying to achieve wealth, and this is considered the highest priority for development.

Use of GNP per capita as the most critical criterion for development is extremely harmful. It leads to bad policy decisions. A large number of criticisms have been made of this criterion; see, for example, Fitoussi, Stiglitz, and Sen Commission Report on the “Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”. This measure ignores depletion of natural resources, degradation of the environment, a breakdown of communities, and many other factors which have a major impact on human welfare. The sole focus on money produced in markets ignores essential parts of development. In particular, it is entirely insensitive to poverty, and indicators of human social welfare, such as health and education. Because this is the central criterion, the sole measure of progress, nations ignore aspects not measured by it and concentrate on policies which will increase wealth only.

Pakistan in the 1960s pursued free-market growth-oriented policies, which provides a practical illustration of the effects of pursuing the wrong goals. While growth did increase, the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and did not affect the lives of the vast majority, who were exploited for the benefit of the rich. This effect, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, has been observed wherever free-market policies focused on GDP per capita have been applied. Based on his experience, Mahbubul-Haq created the Human Development Index as an alternative measure. He argued that we must take into account at least education and health, in addition to GNP, to have a more reasonable standard of development. Since then, his followers have extended this to the capabilities approach, which considers many more dimensions of poverty. The key insight of Mahbubul Haq is that development is primarily about the enrichment of human lives; wealth is only useful as a means for this purpose, and not as an end-in-itself. Even though this seems like an obvious principle, it is radically in conflict with dominant ways of thinking about economic growth and policies today.

A radically different perspective on development is available from the teachings of Islam. Every human being is born with amazing potentials for excellence. As the Quran states, if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the entire humanity. The meaning is that each human has the inherent potential to change the course of history, affecting the lives of billions. Many revolutionaries throughout history have done, most importantly our own Prophet Mohammad SAW. The correct way to measure development is to assess the extent to which we allow a human being to realise their full potential – the capabilities with which s/he is born. The realisation of this potential does not require high standards of living. Desert dwellers with very primitive housing, food, and amenities can achieve excellence in conduct and character, as demonstrated by the early Islamic period. If we switch to an Islamic model for development, our primary focus would be to ensure that no one in Pakistan goes to sleep hungry. We would ensure that a quality education is freely available to all, with the poorest child getting precisely the same opportunities as the children of millionaires. Provision of basic needs, health and housing, would be the collective responsibility of all.

Against this dream and vision, it is frequently argued that Pakistan is too poor to afford universal provision of basic needs. This is not true. The material means are adequate, but the sense of community is lacking. The Quran states that “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favour of Allah upon you - when you were enemies, and He brought your hearts together, and you became, by His favour, brothers”. In this world of materialism and individualism, we are being taught to pursue personal pleasures, without any social responsibilities. It is this creation of love for each other, the feeling that all children of Pakistan are like my children, and it is my responsibility to ensure that they receive the love and affection that is required to nurture and nourish them. Today, the greatest obstacle to our development is our divisions and hatred along religious, linguistic, racial and other lines. At the heart of Islam is the feeling that we are like one body, where everyone feels the pain of others. If we can create this love, the material means to realise our dreams and visions will follow quickly.


The writer is the VC of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.