Dr. Mahbub ul Haq- prominent economist of Pakistan

The life, career, and achievements of Dr. Mahbub ul Haq

Dr. Mahbub ul Haq was a Pakistani economist and international development theorist who developed the Human Development Index with his friend Dr. Amartya Sen as an alternative to GDP. Mahbub was a rare combination of a thinker and a doer. He was a former Minister of Finance in his home country of Pakistan, and he was acutely aware that theoretical debates were insufficient and that we needed to think about policies that made a difference in people’s lives. He was also Pakistan’s Finance Minister from 10 April 1985 to 28 January 1986, and again from June to December 1988.

He received a scholarship to Cambridge University after graduating from Government College Lahore with a degree in economics. Following that, he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University and did postdoctoral research at the Harvard Kennedy School. Throughout the 1960s, he returned to Pakistan to serve as the Planning Commission’s Chief Economist. He moved to Washington, DC in 1970, following the fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, to serve as the World Bank’s Director of Policy Planning until 1982, where he played a key role in reorienting the World Bank’s approach to assisting low-income countries’ development. He returned to Pakistan in 1982 and became Finance Minister in 1985, overseeing a period of economic liberalization. In 1989, he returned to the United States to serve as Special Adviser to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Administrator William Henry Draper. At the UNDP, Haq was instrumental in the creation of the Human Development Report (HDI), which measures development based on well-being rather than income alone. In 1996, he returned to Pakistan and laid the foundation of the Human Development Center in Islamabad.

Early Life and Education

On February 24, 1934, Mahbub ul Haq was born in Gurdaspur, a pre-independence Punjab province that is now part of the Republic of India. He came from an “Urdu-speaking family.” During his adolescence, he witnessed religious violence and forced migration in the aftermath of Pakistan and India’s independence in August 1947. He and his family narrowly avoided being killed aboard one of the refugee trains bound for Pakistan. The nature of the religious violence had an indelible impact on Mahbub ul Haq.

Haq earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Government College Lahore in 1953. He was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he earned another BA in the same field. Haq earned his BA at Cambridge alongside Amartya Sen, with whom he formed a close, lifelong friendship. After his scholarship was renewed, Haq went to the United States to pursue his doctoral studies at Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D. in Economics. Later, in 1960–61, Haq did post-doctoral research at Harvard University.


When he returned to Pakistan in 1957, at the age of 23, he became Assistant Chief of the Planning Commission, which was preparing its first Five-Year Plan. Influenced by dominant economic thought in American academia, Haq advocated capitalism as the economic foundation of the national economy and assisted the government in implementing free-market principles to boost the economy. When General Ayub Khan’s military government took power in October 1958, it embraced this approach wholeheartedly. By the 1960s, Haq, as the Planning Commission’s Chief Economist, was giving speeches all over the country in support of these economic policies.

While the international community lauded Pakistan as a development model, Haq became concerned that the distribution of growth’s benefits was not going well. Rapid economic development made Haq’s team question the long-term viability of such a growth pattern, and he became more supportive of heavier taxation of the asset-owning classes. In an April 1968 speech to the Applied Economics Research Centre at the University of Karachi, Haq claimed that “22 industrial family groups had come to dominate Pakistan’s economic and financial life-cycle and that they controlled about two-thirds of industrial assets, 80% of banking assets, and 79% of insurance assets in the industrial domain.” Dawoods of the Dawood Group, Saigols of the Saigol Group, Adamjees of the Adamjee Group, Colony, Fancy, Valika, Jalil, Bawany, Crescent, Wazir Ali, Gandhara, Ispahani, House of Habib, Khyber, Nishat Group, Beco, Gul Ahmed Group, Arag, Hafiz, Karim, Milwala, and Dada were among those named.

These revelations played a significant role in mobilizing millions of people in a massive grassroots protest movement that led to the overthrow of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in March 1969. Following Ayub’s demise, Haq accepted an invitation from World Bank President Robert McNamara to serve as his Director of Policy Planning. During his tenure (1970–82), Haq influenced the Bank’s development philosophy and lending policies, shifting emphasis to poverty alleviation programs, and increasing allocations for small farm production, nutrition, education, water supply, and other social sectors. 

While working at the World Bank, Haq was approached by Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to join the Ministry of Finance, but he declined due to his strong opposition to Bhutto’s nationalization program. In 1973, Bhutto invited Mahbub to return to Pakistan and work with his administration to develop a strategy to lift a large number of Pakistanis out of poverty and stagflation, but their major differences convinced Haq not to return.

In 1982, at the request of General Zia-ul-military Haq’s government, Haq returned to take over as Director of the Planning Commission. Haq was appointed Minister of Planning and Development in 1983. According to Parvez Hasan, “under Mahbub’s direction, the Planning Commission became once again a lively place and began to exert a powerful influence on social sector issues, such as education and family planning, which had been largely neglected during the Zia years.”

President Zia oversaw a partial return to democracy in 1985 with so-called ‘non-party’ general elections, and Haq was sworn in as Minister of Finance, Planning, and Economic Affairs in Mohammed Khan Junejo’s PML government. Haq is credited with significant tax reforms, economic deregulation, a greater emphasis on human development, and several poverty-relief initiatives. Despite this significant increase in social spending, Haq was forced to resign in January 1986 as a result of protests against his reforms. He was reappointed Finance Minister in Gen. Zia-ul-caretaker Haq’s administration after he dismissed the Junejo government in May 1988. Haq’s term ended when the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto was sworn in following the November 1988 general elections.He was appointed Special Advisor to UNDP Administrator William Draper in New York City in 1989 to produce the first Human Development Report. As Project Director, Haq pioneered the concept of Human Development and the Human Development Report.  He oversaw an international team of scholars, including Amartya Sen, Paul Streeten, Inge Kaul, Frances Stewart, and Richard Jolly, who produced annual Human Development Reports. In 1996, Haq established the Human Development Center in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a policy research institute dedicated to organising professional research, policy studies, and seminars on human development, with a special emphasis on South Asia. Following his death, the Human Development Centre in Islamabad was officially renamed the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, with Mrs. Khadija Haq as president, in recognition of his contributions.


Haq died on July 16, 1998, at the age of 64, in New York City, leaving behind his wife Khadija Haq, son Farhan, and daughter Toneema.

  • Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, stated that ‘Mahbub ul Haq’s untimely death is a loss to the world.’ 
  • According to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, “probably more than anyone else, (Mahbub) provided the intellectual impetus for the Bank’s commitment to poverty reduction in the early 1970s.” His one-of-a-kind contributions set global trends and focused attention on South Asian social realities, urging all of us to look into the dark corners of our social milieus.’
  • Prof Amartya Sen (who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998) was a close friend of Dr. Mahbub ul Haq, and said about Mahbub ul Haq.

“Mahbub ul Haq as a person was much larger than all the parts that combined to make him the person he was.  He was, of course, an outstanding economist, a visionary social thinker, a global intellectual, a major innovator of ideas who bridged theory and practice, and the leading architect in the contemporary world of the assessment of the process of human development. These achievements are justly celebrated, but going beyond the boundaries of each, this was a human being whose combination of curiosity, lucidity, open-mindedness, dedication, courage, and creativity made all these diverse achievements possible.”

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