The Human Development Concept

Human Development is a development paradigm that is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means —if a very important one —of enlarging people’s choices.

Fundamental to enlarging these choices is building human capabilities —the range of things that people can do or be in life. The most basic capabilities for human development are to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community. Without these, many choices are simply not available, and many opportunities in life remain inaccessible.

"The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people's choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives."

Mahbub ul Haq
Founder of the Human Development Report

This way of looking at development, often forgotten in the immediate concern with accumulating commodities and financial wealth, is not new. Philosophers, economists and political leaders have long emphasized human wellbeing as the purpose, the end, of development. As Aristotle said in ancient Greece, “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.”

In seeking that something else, human development shares a common vision with human rights. The goal is human freedom. And in pursuing capabilities and realizing rights, this freedom is vital. People must be free to exercise their choices and to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Human development and human rights are mutually reinforcing, helping to secure the well-being and dignity of all people, building self-respect and the respect of others.

Origins of the Human Development Approach

The Human Development approach arose in part as a result of growing criticism to the leading development approach of the 1980s, which presumed a close link between national economic growth and the expansion of individual human choices. Many, such as Dr. Mahbub ul Haq, the Pakistani economist who played a key role in formulating the human development paradigm, came to recognize the need for an alternative development model due to many factors, including:

• Growing evidence that did not support the then prevailing belief in the “trickle down” power of market forces to spread economic benefits and end poverty;

• The human costs of Structural Adjustment Programmes became more apparent;

• Social ills (crime, weakening of social fabric, HIV/AIDS, pollution, etc.) were still spreading even in cases of strong and consistent economic growth;

• A wave of democratization in the early 90’s raised hopes for people-centred models.

Many of its key principles, however, can be found in the writings of scholars and philosophers from past eras and across many societies.

As of 1990, the human development concept was applied to a systematic study of global themes, as published in the yearly global Human Development Reports under the auspice of the UNDP. The work of Amartya Sen and others provided the conceptual foundation for an alternative and broader human development approach defined as a process of enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human capabilities (the range of things people can be and do) and freedoms, enabling them to: live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge and a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community and decisions affecting their lives.

"Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it."

Prof. Amartya Sen
Professor of Economics, Harvard University
Nobel Laureate in Economics, 1998

Human development has always been flexible and “open-ended” with respect to more specific definitions. There can be as many human development dimensions as there are ways of enlarging people’s choices. The key or priority parameters of human development can evolve over time and vary both across and within countries.

Some of the issues and themes currently considered most central to human development include:

Social progress - greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services.

Economics – the importance of economic growth as a means to reduce inequality and improve levels of human development.

Efficiency - in terms of resource use and availability. human development is pro-growth and productivity as long as such growth directly benefits the poor, women and other marginalized groups.

Equity - in terms of economic growth and other human development parameters.

Participation and freedom - particularly empowerment, democratic governance, gender equality, civil and political rights, and cultural liberty, particularly for marginalized groups defined by urban-rural, sex, age, religion, ethnicity, physical/mental parameters, etc.

Sustainability - for future generations in ecological, economic and social terms.

Human security - security in daily life against such chronic threats as hunger and abrupt disruptions including joblessness, famine, conflict, etc.

"Human development and human rights are enshrined in today’s world. But they have not yet become the core values of our reality. The stability and success of any country will not be secure until we are able to spread the benefits in a more equitable manner. The obscene wealth of the few cannot be at the expense of the hungry and the destitute."

Reverend Desmond M. Tutu
Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town

History of the Human Development Report
The Human Development Report (HDR) was first launched in 1990 with the single goal of putting people back at the center of the development process in terms of economic debate, policy and advocacy. The goal was both massive and simple, with far-ranging implications — going beyond income to assess the level of people’s long-term well-being. Bringing about development of the people, by the people, and for the people, and emphasizing that the goals of development are choices and freedoms.

Since the first Report, four new composite indices for human development have been developed — the Human Development Index, the Gender-related Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Measure, and the Human Poverty Index. Each Report also focuses on a highly topical theme in the current development debate, providing path-breaking analysis and policy recommendations. The Reports’ messages — and the tools to implement them — have been embraced by people around the world, evidenced by the publication of national human development reports at the country level in more than 140 nations.

The Human Development Report is an independent report. It is commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and is the product of a selected team of leading scholars, development practitioners and members of the Human Development Report Office of UNDP. The teams were led by Mahbub ul Haq and Inge Kaul from 1990 through 1994; by Mahbub ul Haq and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr in 1995, by Richard Jolly and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr from 1996 through 2000, and by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr from 2001 through 2003. In 2004, Kevin Watkins joined as Director of the Human Development Report Office, thereby taking the role of Lead Author for the Reports of 2005 until 2007/2008. As of 2008, Jeni Klugman is the Director and Lead Author of the global Report.

The Report is translated into more than a dozen languages and launched in more than 100 countries annually.

Access the list of global research themes
The Regional, National and Sub-national Reports

Human Development Reports (HDR) at the regional, national and sub-national levels take the human development approach to the regional or country level and are prepared and owned by regional and national teams. They both feed into and draw upon the data and analysis of the global Report. Over 600 regional, national and sub-national reports have been produced so far in over 140 countries.

National reports place human development at the forefront of the national political agenda. They are tools for policy analysis reflecting people's priorities, strengthening national capacities, engaging national partners, identifying inequities and measuring progress. As instruments for measuring human progress and triggering action for change, regional reports promote regional partnerships for influencing change, and addressing region-specific human development approaches to human rights, poverty, education, economic reform, HIV/AIDS, and globalization.

As policy advocacy documents, they have introduced the human development concept into national policy dialogues — not only through human development indicators and policy recommendations, but also through the country-led and country-owned process of consultation, research and report writing.

As advocacy tools designed to appeal to a wide audience, the reports can spur public debates and mobilize support for action and change. They have helped to articulate people’s perceptions and priorities, and have served as a source of alternate policy opinion for development planning across varied themes.


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