IT IS, of course, fitting that the United Nations celebrate diversity. The hundreds of flags in front of itsheadquarters, and the 365 languages into which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights istranslated on an official UN website, are just two symbols of the institution’s commitment to theworld’s ethnic mosaic. But this week’s Human Development Report, from the United NationsDevelopment Programme (UNDP), takes the commitment to diversity further. Released each yearsince 1990, the Human Development Reports provide an update on the fight against poverty aroundthe world, each time with a new theme. This year’s report ties two themes together, arguing thatrespect for diversity is integral to development. State-builders in countries like Iraq and Afghanistanwill no doubt be thumbing through the report with interest, in the hope of learning something abouthow to make fractious ethnic groups work together for prosperity. It also offers them an opportunity toshare their views: this year, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, contributed an essay.Diversity and development might seem to sit oddly together. But they are intimately linked, and thereport seeks to show that they are not related in the way many people assume. The UNDP’s pressrelease says unambiguously that “there is no evidence that cultural diversity slows development”, anddismisses the idea that there has to be a trade-off between respecting diversity and sustaining peace.Some of the world’s richest and most peaceful countries are historically multi-ethnic, such asSwitzerland, Canada and Belgium. And most of the world’s richest countries are now the destination ofimmigrants from around the world, making America, Britain and other wealthy nations hugely diverse.But there is some evidence that diversity has costs. In a recent book, “The Size of Nations” (seearticle), two economists show that managing ethnic diversity is expensive, as governments must dealwith the demands of groups competing for scarce resources. In the United States, a study has shownthat people are willing to pay more for services like education if they can live with people more likethem in ethnicity and class. In other words, people place a value on being with others like them. Multiethnicnations have been breaking apart recently (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia); few countries havemerged during the same period, and those that have were ethnic mates (East and West Germany,North and South Yemen).
A quick look at the Human Development Index (HDI), released each year in the report, seems tosupport the idea that diversity has its costs. In the bottom 35 countries ranked as having “low humandevelopment”, all but three are in vastly diverse Africa, where borders drawn by colonialists showed norespect for tribal, linguistic or religious identities. Meanwhile, while single-ethnicity states are rare (just30 countries in the world do not have a religious or ethnic minority that constitutes at least 10% of thepopulation), they are strongly represented at the top of the HDI: places like Norway, Sweden, theNetherlands, Japan, Ireland and Austria.One of the authors of the report, Stefano Pettinato, acknowledges that diversity can be a source ofproblems. But the report’s intention, he says, is to reject the simple causal link that diversity hampersdevelopment. He points to rich countries that are also diverse, whether by history (Belgium,Switzerland, Canada) or massive immigration (America, most prominently). Yes, he says, ethnicityplays a role in the conflict and corruption that plague African development. But it is unscrupulouspoliticians who take advantage that are to blame—not diversity itself.The report recommends several political strategies for coupling diversity and development. One is“asymmetrical federalism”—the type of constitutional arrangement seen in Spain and Canada, whereregions dominated by a cohesive minority (like Québec or the Basque country) get special localgovernmentpowers that others do not. This both recognises the region’s distinct identity and binds itto the central state. After all, the authors point out, most people in Spain’s minority regions seethemselves as both Spanish and Basque (or Catalan or Galician)—not just one or the other. Givingthose overlapping identities constitutional form can be one way to stabilise a diverse country.However, it can also give rise to resentment among the majority—be they anglophone Canadians orCastilian Spaniards—over the privileges of minorities.The authors of the report argue for several other policies to protect and promote what they call“cultural liberty”, with certain caveats. For example, they support affirmative action, which, they say,has led to an increase in the number of black professionals in America, and has helped ethnic Malaysin Malaysia and various minorities in India as well. But they lightly question the wisdom of letting suchpolicies become entrenched, asking for example whether the children of affirmative action’sbeneficiaries should themselves be eligible for a helping hand.The authors also propose treating “cultural goods” differently from other kinds when discussing trade.They give some of the oft-cited statistics about the cultural dominance of a few countries—forexample, that America accounts for 85% of films screened worldwide. Their assumption is that, left toraw market forces, products from smaller cultures would be drowned out of the market. But ratherthan proposing restrictions on, say, importing American films, the authors propose allowinggovernments to take positive action to boost the production of their local fare. (Some tradeagreements treat such support as an illegal subsidy.)While the report is full of feel-good language and social-science jargon, like “participation exclusion”and “living mode exclusion”, it is an interesting first stab at marrying diversity and development, twosubjects not often found side-by-side. The report is, by its own admission, short on data about justhow bad the problem of cultural exclusion is around the world. But it estimates, probably not toowildly, that one in seven people in the world is a member of some kind of disadvantaged minority.When engineering a new constitution, founding fathers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations underconstruction, as well as those who would advise them, would do well to take the suggestions of thisreport to heart.
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