Human development is about connectedness, according to Karen O’Brien, University of Oslo

In this interview, we explore a new understanding of how human development takes into account the character and quality of our connections and relationships and how we relate to each other, and the environment.

During May, the ISC will be featuring essays written by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP. ISC members and your networks are encouraged to participate.

Interview by Asun Lera St Clair @AsunStClair

Karen O’Brien is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. She is also co-founder of cCHANGE, a company that supports transformation in a changing climate. Karen has 30 years of research experience, with an emphasis on the social and human dimensions of climate change and implications for human security. Karen has participated in four reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as part of the IPCC was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Q: How could we rethink our conceptual understanding of human development to be more responsive to today’s situation?

One of the most important aspects of human development to consider today in response to a dynamic and uncertain global context is connection. Not connection as in “linked,” but as in relatedness. Earlier I worked a lot with the concept of human security, which is closely related to human development. Within the context of global environmental change, human security is about individuals and communities having the capacities to respond to threats to their social, environmental and human rights. This work puts humans at the centre of the picture and focuses on how we individually and collectively respond to multiple stressors. But today, when we think about human development and human security, we see a different conceptual understanding emerging. This new understanding takes into account not just how humans respond to external stressors, but the character and quality of our connections and relationships.  It recognizes the importance of our interior development – in other words, the unfolding of our potentials and the recognition of our capacities to relate to each other and the environment in a more resonant, harmonious way. 

Earlier we relied on the Human Development Index, which is based on indicators like life expectancy, education, and per capita income. But there are many other aspects to human development that are not captured in these metrics, yet central to human development. For example, how do we measure whether our actions take into account our interdependence and connectedness? Or measure social consciousness, recognizing that human development within one community, country or region cannot occur or exist at the expense of others?  Rethinking human development involves seeing it in a more collective and connected way, while at the same time situating it in dynamic contexts. This includes climate change, biodiversity loss, growing inequality, or today’s defining context, the COVID-19 pandemic. Human development is about being human and developing without destroying nature and without oppressing other people or limiting opportunities for future generations.

Q: You mention connectedness as a fundamental element of human development, can you tell us more?

Human development has focused on individual well-being within a social context, such as a community or a state. At the same time, it has downplayed connections across societies, and connections with non-human species and with the environment. Much of the development thinking today seems to reflect an individualistic, reductionist, fragmented paradigm that considers people as being separate, rather than connected. This also applies to our relationship with nature. Even though we have been socialized to accept this individualist, disconnected narrative, many people have a deep sense of knowing that this may not be lead to a fulfilling life. I believe this disconnect and tension is at the heart of most of the problems we face today.

In my view, we need a paradigmatic shift in the way we perceive human development. Instead of asking why connectedness to others and to the natural world is important, maybe we should be justifying why we’re not thinking of ourselves in relation to other humans and the environment. Many cultures and traditions see people and nature as connected and continually interacting. These relational issues are fundamental for a rethinking of human development, as humans cannot be healthy if the planet is not healthy. Climate change makes this clear.

We continue to pay attention to and to measure things that are external to human development. And yes, these are important. Health, education, and nutrition are the foundations of human security. But we know from psychology and neurosciences that our brains are wired for connection, and research shows that we feel social pain in the same part of our brains as physical pain.  We often refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and consider self-actualization as important after our security needs are met. What if a realization of our connectedness were taken as the starting point for human development, rather than an afterthought?

If we take connectedness as our point of departure, then we might ask: How do we organize society in a way where you can have both individual and collective thriving?  How do we organize economies and governance systems? How do we optimize our social needs, our healthcare systems, our water systems? The answer to these questions would lead us to think about different types of metrics and different types of stories about what human development is.  In a world of rapid change where we face existential threats, this narrative we lead us to reflect more deeply on what human development actually means? In fact, what does adaptation mean?  If we take connection as a starting point for human development, we would prioritize the well-being of all, and recognize that a lot of the threats to human development and human security are coming from us, not elsewhere.

Q: What do you mean by saying that a lot of the threats originate internally? Why are internal factors so important?

The way we perceive external threats is related to our meaning making, how we view ourselves in the world, and the stories that we tell about ourselves and our future. For example, when we focus on an “us versus others” narrative, we tend to organize our society and economy around the idea of winners and losers, which contributes to growing inequality and exclusion. Paying attention to internal factors means recognizing that we all have blind spots in our worldview. And we’re blinding ourselves to seeing the possibilities and solutions to our global crises. In terms of human development, it is much easier to say that other people need to change, develop, or act differently, when in fact it’s up to each of us to explore our own blind spots by taking a critical look at the filters and the lenses through which we’re currently viewing the world.

What would it be like to widen our circle of care to include “others”? Here I mean the people, species, ecosystems, and generations that we currently treat as if they are not connected or related to us. Humans hold an enormous capacity to care, but we are socialized to focus primarily on ourselves and those who are like ourselves. We have been told that progress and development are about having more, shopping more, experiencing more, and achieving more for ourselves. This creates an internal contradiction, which creates a lot of stress, especially since equity is important to all of us, as a species. Fundamental values like equity, dignity, compassion, and integrity inherently apply to everybody, and once we start to recognize this, we are likely to start prioritizing very different types of solutions.

In short, human development is not only about individual well-being — it includes the well-being of others and the planet.  We tend to equate human development with economic growth and pay little attention to interior growth and our capacity to hold multiple perspectives and act with integrity – a sense of ourselves in relation to the whole.

Q: Who can help create and promote this new narrative of human development focused on connectedness and our inner capacity to situate ourselves on other’s sides and outside us?

Well, I think it is a matter of collective reframing. The stories are already there, we just need to collect them and share them, and to do so together. It’s easy to feel like the work of shifting the paradigm is a big deal, yet in reality the alternative paradigm already exists. Maybe we just need to pay closer attention and listen to the stories from all over the world that capture the essence of human development within this paradigm. These stories are being told every day, but not necessarily in the news. They may be there, but they tend to get drowned out by the noise of the polarizing, “us versus them” narrative.

Take for example now, under the COVID-19 crisis, we do not really hear what is happening in communities in Kerala, where social cohesion and care across society is widespread and many are drawing attention to the rights citizens, migrants, and refugees. Instead, we keep hearing the same stories; in fact, technology enables the perpetuation of the counter narrative, which overshadows the many examples of solidarity we see in the world today. For example, Twitter and the use of artificial intelligence perpetuates this idea of a very polarized and hierarchical world -a view of humans as set against one another. This polarizing narrative is a constructed one, and it is trying hard to silence a narrative that recognizes humans as connected and caring for one another. 

Q: You seem to be suggesting that re-articulating human development is more about creating an enabling environment where we let alternative voices emerge. How can this enabling be done?

I believe this enabling environment emerges when we recognize that there are values behind the choices and decisions that we make, and that they reflect what is considered important to us. Enabling is first and foremost an exercise of making these values explicit.  But rather than focusing only on value conflicts that perpetuate “us versus others” and “culture wars,” we can focus on connecting to the values that enhance human development for all.  This means shifting conversations toward something that would support our human development, not just yours and mine, but everyone’s, including future generations. So, for example, when somebody says they do not care whether the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, because there are important mineral resources beneath it, we need to recognize that this melting has implications for the lives, livelihoods, and future many people, species, and ecosystems. We need to ask “What are the values motivating people to not care about losing Arctic ice?” Whose values count when actions influence our collective human development?

The exploitation of people and resources is not value-neutral, and there is a deeply normative dimension here, as well as a highly political dimension. But again, the alternative voices are already here. Young people today have been born into a world that is obviously globalized and connected. They do not have the same view of the world, nor the same blind spots as those who grew up in the Cold War era. Many are not only open to new paradigms – they are living and being the new paradigm of human development.

Q: To conclude, let’s focus now on a topic that you have worked on a lot, the connection between human development and planetary health. How do you think we can give more theoretical depth and robustness to the SDGs? How do we ensure human development is also about the planet?

If we want to bring sustainability and human development together, we might need to think about different or additional indicators to those currently being used to measure progress related to  the SDGs. The SDGs currently only scratch the surface in terms of what needs to be done. For example, take our responses to climate change (as described in SDG13). This is important, but it’s not just about the technical targets and indicators of this or that that we achieve. It’s also about the manner in which we achieve them, including the quality and inclusiveness of the changes. This includes distributional aspects, but also the deeper human dimensions involved with transformative change, such as what people care about and why. Are we creating a society that works for everyone, or are we contributing only to pockets of sustainability? Are we considering climate change in relation to other issues, or are we addressing problems in a piecemeal manner? Are we reducing vulnerability and risk for everyone, or are we merely deluding ourselves with technical fixes?

To address the connected nature of human development, and maintain the ecological integrity of the planet, we need to align actions with values that apply to the whole system.  It’s important to take a systemic perspective, but also to recognize that people are part of these systems, and that human development is about realizing our collective potential to create a planet where life can thrive, not just for some people and species, but for all.  We cannot continue to promote human development on the one hand, while continuously exploiting humans and degrading the environment on the other.

A core question that is especially visible in today’s situation relates to what really matters to people, and how that can be used to generate equitable transformations to sustainability. In collaborating with Dr. Monica Sharma on radical transformational leadership, I have learned to distinguish frameworks for understanding from frameworks for action. Frameworks for action create results, and they involve conversations and strategies based on values that apply to everyone – such as equity, justice, dignity and compassion. Actions in the political and practical spheres are aligned with these values. A values-based approach recognizes the collective and interdependent nature of human development, and it makes it clear that some of today’s systems lack the integrity needed to promote outcomes that benefit people and the planet. Human development in the context of planetary health calls for personal, political and practical transformations, and every person has an important role to play.


Image by fdecomite on flickr

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