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Reflections on Human Potential and Resilience: A Response by Peter Gluckman

A commentary on Ismail Serageldin’s essay: “Reflections on constructing a human-centred development paradigm” by Peter Gluckman, President-Elect of the ISC.

I will focus my brief comments on a few aspects of Ismail’s valuable contribution, noting that I have already had the opportunity to comment on an earlier draft. I have spent much of my career in developmental medical sciences focusing on individual health and wellbeing. But more recently my work has been at the interface between evidence and public policy with an extensive focus on issues of societal wellbeing. When human development is looked at through the lenses of these experiences, one develops a somewhat different view of what human centred development might represent. I will highlight that perspective but of course, a holistic approach must consider multiple views simultaneously. I know Ismail wrote his piece as a provocation and equally my short contribution is intended not to debate, but rather to complement and add to our overall understandings.

Human centred development must evolve from the earlier human development paradigm that has dominated for the last 40 years. That paradigm was very much influenced by the overriding political focus on enhancing governance, improving economic development through classical free market approaches and, in some countries, through development assistance. These components remain critical to the global agenda, but that earlier and more narrow framing underestimates the need to give greater focus on the three words, ‘human’, ‘centred’ and ‘development’. Lifted out of the de facto economic paradigm, the phrase ‘human development’ takes on the additional meanings that it has always held for medical practitioners, teachers, social and aid workers and related sectors.

The addition of the word ‘centred’ is critically important in assisting that elevation. It highlights a shift in the starting point of conceptualization, putting the individual and their human network as the centre of focus rather than projecting them as a capital to be invested in. Indeed, recent lessons from reducing economic theory to practice show the folly of reducing everything to a conceptual rationality, when the reality is that the many aspects that make us as a species of upright apes what we are, with emotions, beliefs, culture and values are critical to understanding human centred development. Indeed, to discuss human capital (a term I am most uncomfortable with) without a broader understanding of the meanings inherent in those two words is limiting.

The problem with the ‘human capital’ frame

The whole concept of interchangeability between four capitals makes me uneasy in the extreme even if it is only being claimed to be used as a heuristic. First, the relative value of each ‘capital’ (if they could even be valued) is not constant as the contexts in which they might be evaluated change and evolve. It further implies the clearly flawed presupposition that humans are valued strictly for their economic productivity and that their value can be determined primarily from estimating the investment in their health, education and nutrition. The many highly contested debates that have gone on in different policy and actuarial settings as to how one values a human life show how limited a concept it is in practice. The argument to invest in education is not primarily one based in an econometric analysis. Intrinsic cultural and moral values and imperatives of education are seldom considered in the theoretical models that classical economists love.

By contrast, governments have realities to address, for which the present COVID-19 crisis provides a compelling illustration. They have to make decisions to address the economic, political and social costs of shutdown on one hand, and the realities of the many real human tragedies that the pandemic has created and might yet create, on the other. Urgent decisions must be made with very imperfect knowledge to inform them.

What some might term human capital, is effectively a function of the investment in, and the development of what I would reframe as a more meaningful concept, the potential of each individual. Further by focusing on human centred development and on optimizing human potential, we are compelled to more immediate action, whereas the sustainability agenda too often is perceived over a longer timeframe. Indeed, as Serageldin states:

“sustainability as opportunity therefore translates into providing future generations as much if not more total capital per capita than we have had ourselves”

Certainly, we want every generation to be better than the last, but a focus on human potential as opposed to humans as capital, allows a greater focus on the current generation which is critical and urgent. And as both the natural and social sciences teach us, human factors in any one generation have major effects through biological, social and environmental processes on the development of the next. Indeed, there is a significant body of inter-disciplinary research devoted to studies of intergenerational effects on human potential whether these are the developmental origins of physical and mental health and disease 2 to intergenerational patterns of poverty and social dysfunction.

Reframing the question: ‘How can we promote human potential?’ rather than ‘How can we measure human capital?’

It is important to have a definition of human potential that can be generally accepted. The term can be appropriated by an individual discipline (e.g. medicine or education). But I would define it as a holistic term that reflects the ability of every individual to grow up with minimal disadvantage due to developmental and environmental and structural3 factors such that as an adult they reach their fullest potential as members of society.

Of course, ‘fullest potential’ is always going to be a somewhat contested term, but it could be seen as the integration of concepts encapsulated in traditional formulations of human capital with those encapsulated within concepts of wellbeing. But the question is how do we create the circumstances in which individuals can reach their fullest potential?

The answer to this question can be informed at least in part if one defines optimal human potential as the state that can be achieved by ensuring that an individual passes from one developmental stage to the next with no adverse experiences in prior stages that have detrimental consequences in subsequent phases of life. The developmental stages to usefully think about span generations and include pregnancy4, neonatal and infancy, childhood, puberty and adolescence, young adulthood and parenthood (18-35 years), mid-adulthood (35-55), late adulthood and old age.

The evaluation of optimal human potential must consider multiple components, among which are:

  • Health: a maximum healthy life span.
  • Mental health and emotional and behavioural elements: such that the individual can have stable and valued relationships, eusocial behaviour and is able to engage meaningfully in society.
  • Educational opportunity that supports individuals to reach the full extent of their capacity.
  • Meaningful interpersonal relationships in a social context that supports autonomy and agency and ensures the full range of human rights.

While this analysis focuses on factors affecting developmental stages for individuals, the development process itself is affected by broader structural factors at macro, meso and micro scales. Thus a human-centred development paradigm needs to consider each level. At the macro-level economic and political factors are key and Serageldin has addressed these. In turn at the meso-level issues such as housing, sanitation, employment, protection of the family unit and freedom from domestic violence, conflict and abject poverty are critical and, in turn, at the microlevel of the individual their development, education, health, relationships and opportunities are critical.

I would argue that when looked at through the lens of the individual, it is clear that a developmental life course approach is the only realistic way of assessing human potential in a time frame that can be practically affected by policy and investment.

I would conclude that human centred development requires evaluating it through both senses of the word ‘development”. Firstly a life course approach which allows assessment of those factors positively or negatively affecting human potential and which lead to potential societal costs if less than optimal These might be reflected in deficient educational achievement, unemployment and low earnings, fragile relationships, interaction with the justice system, poor physical health, alcohol and other addictions, a shortened productive and healthy life span etc. Heckmann5 amongst others has written at length on these issues. Secondly, as Ismail discusses, the more traditional policy makers’ definition of human development essentially focuses on the broader contextual dimensions in which the individual lives. Clearly these two perspectives interact and we should therefore focus on both rather than having development policy settings focus dominantly on one.

The multidimensional and totally interdependent nature of human potential (and thus human-centred development) means that its measurement is complex. The usual approach has been to use singular measures of a single dimension at a single point of time; e.g. employment, high school graduation rates, youth crime rates, welfare burden etc. This is of limited value because of the interactions, and in some cases interdependence of key variables such as mental health and family violence. These are often poorly measured or are not considered at all. Some integrated indices have been developed for international comparison – e.g. the OECD Better Life Index6 and the Human Development Index7. But these are not sufficiently granular to monitor policy programmes and are nearly always adult based and generally evolved from an economic framing .Thus they miss a key point – if we want to intervene and proactively affect human-centred development we need indices for each plastic life stage – birth, school entry, high school entry, high school exit, and status at 25 years. Only then can there be adequate monitoring of programmatic intervention and within a policy-relevant time interval. This is where some new thinking and reframing is needed.

Serageldin discusses at some length the concept of ‘social capital’. Again, the economic metaphor has limitations which I will not explore in depth as Serageldin has includes a critique of this concept. Many of the issues I raised above have parallels in the use of such terminology. Again, it is clear we must focus on the individual, family and social network within their current and evolving context.


Later in his piece, Serageldin refers to resilience briefly. Resilience is a word that can have multiple interpretations. A functional definition might be “resilience relates to the ability of a society or individual to adapt or transform positively in response to significant transitions or threats to its wellbeing arising either internally or externally and which may or may not be anticipated.”8

It is important to recognise that this concept is important at both an individual and societal level. Every society and every individual faces both endogenous and exogenous influences that can impact on their resilience. Rapid and cumulative change is now the norm affecting demographic, economic, environmental, cultural, social and individual wellbeing. Technology drives much of this change directly or indirectly, but pandemics and natural hazards have considerable impact too, as we have seen.

Not every individual responds to a stressor in the same way. There is a growing body of evidence relating individual psychological resilience to the individual’s developmental path. The building blocks of individual resilience are laid down in early childhood and built on through childhood and adolescence. Mental health issues are rising globally at a rapid rate globally, and we need to give greater attention to understanding, measuring and intervening to ensure psychological resilience is enhanced. Clearly many exogenous influences such as poverty, conflict, oppression and family violence compound and interact with internal capacities and the consequences will vary according to the resilience of the individual and their support network and that support network is defined in part by both their proximate and more distal social contexts. The challenge of human centered development is to find contextually relevant strategies to enhance individual resilience, for confronting change is inevitable.

Many factors impact on the resilience of a society and as Serageldin eloquently points out in his opening stanza, humans are social animals and the societal structure in which each of us live is critical to our wellbeing. But the nature of that social group has changed dramatically in recent decades – it is large, more diverse, generally somewhat fractured, very different in structure and for many partially virtual in nature. The research centre that I direct, Koi Tū – the Centre for Informed Futures9, and the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA),10 which I chair are jointly leading a global project exploring the many factors that interact to promote or impede societal resilience11. Trust in each other and our institutions is central. Resilience and social cohesion are concepts that are closely dependent on trust in governance and in other members of society, freedom from violence and oppression, greater social justice and less manifest inequality and perceptions of fairness. Other factors point to the challenge of the online world, its impacts on misinformation, polarization, decline in civic discourse etc. And yet at the same time technology is, as Serageldin points out, key to our future.

Final comment

This note is written in the midst of an unprecedented existential threat to all societies. One in which it has become clear that evidence and decision making need to be more effectively linked both within and between jurisdictions. Trust in government will be sorely tested in this crisis and societal resilience may be strengthened in some places and reduced in others depending on how pandemic evolves in each country. Has science and evidence been well used or ignored? Societal resilience will be greatly affected by the answer to this question. But the COVID crisis also highlights many issues confronting us and which are the focus of this essay. Resilience, sustainability and human-centred development are all linked. In the reset that will be part of recovery from this crisis both global and national institutions should take the opportunity to reflect on.

Human centred development when considered in terms of human potential and individual resilience and wellbeing will be tested by other existential threats – those of climate change, sustainability, environmental degradation, poverty and conflict. Self-empowerment and a focus on what does affect the individual and their proximate and distal environments across their life course will be key to the societal and individual resilience that we will all need. An economic lens remains critically important but an integrated approach that does put human at the centre of the paradigm is essential if we are all to transition to better places.

Notes and further references

  1. The author wishes to thank Kristiann Allen of Koi Tū, the Centre for Informed Futures for her critique of early drafts.
  2. This field is generally labelled in the biomedical community as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHAD) and is a very vibrant area of research.
  3. Environmental factors include the family context, nutrition, stress, infection, violence etc. Structural factors include racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia and the like, that might be implicitly baked into laws and institutions and that have the potential to stop individuals reaching their potential. Example: girls not being allowed to attend school.
  4. In the DOHAD field, the preconception phase is generally included as there is an emerging body of research suggesting that both the quality of the gametes that will fuse to form the embryo may be affected by parental factors through epigenetic mechanisms.
  5. See for an extensive body of work.
  6. See
  7. See
  8. See
  9. See
  10. See
  11. See
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