Speaking in front of hundreds of students last Friday, former Wesleyan Economics Professor Francisco Rodriguez returned to campus to present the 2009 UN Human Development Report. Rodriguez recently completed his first year as Head of Research on the Human Development Report, an annual report on human development around the world.
“I never thought that I would present the Human Development Report from the pulpit of a church,” Rodriguez joked as he began his presentation in Memorial Chapel.
Every year, the Human Development Report focuses on a different topic—last year the subject was climate change. This year the report focused on the theme of migration.
“We view being able to choose where to live as a key element of human freedom,” Rodriguez said. “Development is about expanding people’s opportunity, people’s freedom. It’s not only about the freedom to move to another society, but the freedom to stay in yours.”
Rodriguez tied together the theme of migration and the greater problem of socio-economic inequality.
“The world distribution of opportunities is extremely unequal,” Rodriguez said. “The poorest often cannot move at all, and if they do it is under dangerous conditions.”
Rodriguez argued that the opposition to migration that exists around the world is shaped by misperceptions of its consequences.
“Mobility has the potential to enhance human development among movers, stayers, and the majority of those in destination places,” Rodriguez said. “There are large, unrealized gains.”
Rodriguez offered a core package of reforms which could increase the ease of migration. He suggested opening the channels that allow people with low skills to seek work abroad, ensuring basic rights for migrant workers, reducing the high costs of migration, and offering more opportunities for migrants in their countries of destination.
Rodriguez approached the issue of migration from multiple perspectives, a skill that he says he honed while teaching at the University.
“I think something that I learned when I was teaching at Wesleyan—I couldn’t conceive of things like economics courses as being just about economics,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of the way in which I reclaim my International Economics course that I taught at Wesleyan had to do with trying to put people at the center. That experience of understanding and conveying knowledge about economics, not from economic principles, but by thinking about people first, is really the key to development. In fact, the number of Wesleyan grads who actually come to work with us at the team are a big addition to the process.”
Rodriguez first learned about the Human Development Report during his time as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Before coming to Wesleyan, Rodriguez was the Economic Affairs Officer for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations, and then became Chief Economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly under the administration of President Hugo Chavez from 2000 to 2004. Rodriguez then taught economics at Wesleyan from the fall of 2006 until the spring of 2009, when he took leave to work on the Human Development Report.
“When I learned that there were some people looking for change, for a renewal of the team, I became very interested.” Rodriguez said. “I had read the Human Development Report when I was an undergraduate. When I was at Harvard, one of my professors was really interested in that, so I learned a lot about the approach. I started talking to some people who thought that I might be a good fit for this position, so I looked to that and here I am.”
Rodriguez plans to continue his work with the Human Development Report this year.
“There are several things to look at,” he said. “One of them is trying to understand how the world has changed since the first Human Development Report was published. Now if you look back at the first report, it’s very interesting, because it presented this human development index which looked at education and health but it also said there are a lot of other important elements – it could be inequality or self-respect, but at that moment it basically said there are a lot of indications on the extent to which we can measure these sort of developments more than just concentrate on them.”
The upcoming 2010 report will mark the 20th anniversary of the report.
“We’re at a different level 20 years later,” Rodriguez said. “We have been able to develop much better measures. Part of what we do in the report is not only measure these aspects of human development, but try to understand how looking at these different elements makes you see a different story. It changes your perspective on how the world works.”
Dr. Susan Gzesh, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, and Michael T. Klare, Defense Foreign Policy Correspondent for The Nation and the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies, spoke alongside Dr. Rodriguez.
Gzesh argued that migration should be a basic right- and should be protected by international law.
“Put humans into the discourse of development,” Gzesh said. “There is self-interest and universal interest in making sure that all humans have the right to a dignified life. You can take human rights agreements and say that they make the same arguments. They also embody treaties that are international law that nations have committed themselves to.”
According to Rodriguez, however, a growing gap in equality throughout the globe has prevented many people from realizing their full capability and finding opportunity.
“If you look at aspects such as inequality, you find that in most places in the world inequality is increasing,” he said.
Both Rodriguez and Klare discussed the looming hurdle of keeping development sustainable. Klare highlighted the impact of resource scarcity and environmental decline on continued development, while Rodriguez discussed sustainability.
“Yes there have been improvements in human development. But these improvements aren’t sustainable,” Rodriguez said. “In the current way that we are producing goods, the big picture is going to change. There will still be a picture of progress. But there are going to be very significant signals of danger and alarm that we will not be able to sustain this progress.”