Towards a global, pluralistic view of human developments

Conceptualizing and understanding human development requires intercultural dialogue and engagement with other traditions and ways of seeing the world, according to Johannes M. Waldmüller

How should we rethink the concept of human development in the current context?  

As the current Director of the Intercultural Laboratory at FLACSO in Ecuador, I believe that one fundamental element for rethinking human development is interculturality. Interculturality refers to the encounter of different forms of knowledge and language. This encounter requires a process of translation that often leads to misunderstandings. A good example is the term ‘development’. The word ‘development’ as it is understood in the context of development aid and cooperation does not exist in some of the indigenous languages we have in Latin America. The perspective of interculturality will direct our attention to explore the consequences of the lack of such language and the appropriateness of an overarching, single meaning of development. It takes us from a debate on the role of the state or the role of markets in delivering development to an intercultural engagement with other forms of knowledge and ways to perceive well-being.  

Finding common ground for effective translations is crucial to truly advance the agenda of human development, both theoretically and practically. Such an approach will play an important role in rethinking key concepts such as the state or questions such as what social or welfare policies are needed in Latin America. Debating the role of the state in delivering welfare without first contextualizing its meaning in an intercultural framework of thinking cannot possibly be relevant for human development as such conversations remain anchored in a single point of view, the Western point of view.  

The way forward, in my opinion, is to start by building from within small communities, from within rural spaces and villages, to understand the drivers and the elements conducive to human development in these contexts. Somehow, we should be reversing the process of rethinking human development: we should create a community that engages in this mutual learning with translational processes to start with. Then, more abstract structures like a state, social policies or even the collection of relevant data and statistics could be created, after different knowledges have interacted with one another.  

Without this interculturality, talking about human development is an abstraction that will not have an epistemic resonance in many communities. You are saying that the concept of human development cannot be either conceptualized or understood without this sort of dialogue between different ways of seeing the world? 

Yes. This should be a basis for understanding the concept. Martha Nussbaum has worked on the idea of engaging in intercultural dialogue, especially with India. What is really lacking is a theoretical conceptualization of how this dialogue, in a continuous form, should take place. Within the human development approach, we need a proper mechanism and theory about how this engagement and translational process should take place, and whether we could agree on key notions comparing different kinds of cultural traditions or linguistic traditions. 

In a sense you are also saying that we should move away from idealizing the concept of human development as a point of departure. That there are many other things that will be the enablers and the keys to reaching human-centred development

I believe there are several traditions that could be enriching in coming up with a global version of human development, but it is a step further, it is after this engagement with other traditions.  

You therefore recommend intercultural debates and dialogues, as part of the process of rearticulating human development?  

Exactly, and we could even envisage, even though they are known to be very tricky, talks on human developments, plural. Instead of having one approach crystallizing out of this engagement, we could actually talk about several versions of human development according to different places, different historical, cultural backgrounds that have emerged in different contexts.  

In addition, one of the key points, in terms of capabilities to be learned, is the capability to learn from others, to be open to others, developing a sense of care towards others.  

And in this context, we would have some basic needs that will be more or less the same for all human beings, and then we would have a differentiated layer on top of this intercultural understandingis this what you are saying? 

Yes. Even in ontological terms, it is really part of what it means to be human: we engage all the time in translation processes in a broader sense. This is key if we think of the new challenges like disaster prevention, for example. So much has been written about local resilience, vulnerability, etc. But this requires getting in touch with local communities where there might be different conceptions of what works and what does not, and what might still be lacking. We have to find ways of communicating mutually.  

Please tell us more about what will be in your view, potential drivers to get us to this intercultural engagementto enable this conception of human developments in the plural that you are putting forward? And what are the key challenges?  

What would be necessary, for example, is a more thorough engagement with the different philosophical or social traditions, taking into account different linguistics. For example, exploring what the meaning of the ‘state’ or ‘development’ would be when translated into Quechua and Kichwa, which is spoken by at least 10 to 15 million people. Quechua is not a small language, and yet there is no word for development. That is something that has been established purposefully as a translation, but it is not necessarily close to the original, ancestral definition or understanding, of ‘flourishing’ or ‘well-being’.  

I think that public debates should be opened for these kinds of engagements, talking about different traditions and understandings, and trying to find common terms if possible. This way we could talk about human developments that have been agreed upon among many different traditions. This could take place online and/or within an academy and it should definitely take place within the Human Development Capability Association (HDCA).1 The next Capability Conference coming up in New Zealand, ‘Horizons: sustainability and justice’, will be working in that direction, as far as I know, because one of the main organizers actually is a member of an indigenous group.  

Moreover, we really have to do more local exercises and local reports, and create a debate locally in order to be more inclusive. It might be citizens’ engagement, within communities trying to capture everyday conceptions of human development in different senses, but it could also include for instance, the staff working at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offices in different countries. In my experience, and I have been in touch with many of them in Africa and Latin America, except perhaps local staff, most of them have never learned any indigenous languages, and have very remote knowledge of the signification of different kinds of knowledge. This could be part of the human development agenda. 

And what are the remaining challenges to realizing these solutions you mention?  

I think in Latin America, the main issue relates to the fact that people do not sufficiently value their own cultural traditions, and still look up to the US, Europe or other regions. They try to ‘catch up’ on development.  

I think human development has been conceptualized, and also taken up by governments in this catching-up sense, looking at the global ranking. For example, Morocco organized a huge national holiday last year because the country moved up 17 positions in the Human Development Index. But this is not the idea behind the ranking. We tried to counter this tendency from the academic side by bringing in other knowledges and by trying to critically interrogate concepts and engage in the amplification of indigenous worldviews. But unfortunately, the dominant form of looking at development is still very much led by economists, is about economics and is very much looking at the idea of growth. 

As I said, if we had for example, UN or EU offices here in our countries with staff who were bilingual or trilingual, it would be very beneficial. Within UNDP it could be envisioned to have the Human Development Report published in local languages.  

Let me pick up on something you have hinted at but not followed through on. You were saying, for example, that the Human Development Capability Association is already bringing in these discussions on interculturalism with indigenous communities. Do you think that  the capability approachwhich was the basis of the conceptual understanding of human development 30 years ago, has moved conceptually and intellectually in the direction you support, whereas the human development policy and technocratic sphere has become fixated on the ranking; it is somehow stuck? How could we push forward the intellectual trajectory of the concept? 

First, there is a need to better conceptualize certain voids that still exist within the theory as such. What I mean by that is precisely the big issue that we have in all social theory, between more positivistic approaches, and post-positivistic or post-structural approaches. In these big debates, there is this crucial question for human development of how to articulate the individual and the collective dimensions in society. Policy-wise, what we did for a long time, was pushing towards the individual dimension, the methodological individualism in statistics and knowledge creation, but within a setting that remained very positivistic. I think one measure to go beyond that would be to engage in this plural opening-up-to approach to other forms of knowledge in the sense of overcoming these positivistic limitations. For example, in New Zealand – or Aotearoa – and also in Australia, there is a very important movement for indigenous data sovereignty. It follows the idea that indigenous communities and nations should create their own statistics, rather than having the state assembling them; I think they have proposed this to the UN several times.  

We have to design policies that make sense for different sorts of communities and different sorts of cultural backgrounds and languages. This is something extremely necessary in Latin America where we typically have this one-policy approach, though there are major differences within countries.  

I think there is a very interesting body of thought that is extremely rich and has been almost overlooked. Pierre Bourdieu for example, the French sociologist who addressed the question of the interface between the individual and the collective. Starting from the Habitus, talking about the different capitals, this work is extremely rich and it has been under-theorized so far.  

I would like to hear something from you regarding Buen vivir as an example of alternative notions of progress.  

First, I have to make a distinction that is very important. Now there is a ‘Buen vivir’ that was enshrined in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and has been used as a state dogma, and applied for more than 10 years with very contradictory results. But Buen vivir is based on a concept in the indigenous worldview, called ‘Sumak kawsay’ in Quechua, which means ‘living in plenitude’. I think this expresses better the idea because it is not about having a certain standard of living. What it means is that we actually really start to appreciate what we have here locally or anywhere we are, and try to build from that in a very balanced way. The key feature of all the thinking is that we balance constantly, in the spiritual sense of the word balance, the different energies in the world: good and bad, female and male, etc. Basically, we balance nature, material well-being, social and policy support, without trying to push one further than the others.  

And you are saying that this perspective has been failed by a particular type of politics, and I presume a lot of this balance, and the original concepthas not come through? 

Exactly. At the state level this has been captured and it has been translated into a kind of blending with the South Korean development model, with a very strong state funding behind it. This has certainly elevated some people out of poverty and has helped in some sectors, but it has also led to quite authoritarian forms of democracy or limitations to democracy, while indigenous communities continue to promote other concepts. This Buen vivir is a twisted version that has been mixed with other approaches. What is interesting is that the states (Ecuador and Bolivia) have constantly made references to human development, arguing in favour of their version of Buen vivir, while indigenous communities would reject it, calling for Sumak kawsay, this plenitude and balance, which implies limitations. I try in my publications to put it forward, as a different body of knowledge that is there but has not been used.  

Maybe to concludeyou could speak about environmental issues and the link to intercultural dialogue?  

Certainly, environmental issues from the indigenous communities’ point of view is putting ecosystems first and then human beings. There are indigenous communities in the Andes who would say the meltdown of glaciers is not caused necessarily by CO2 or pollution. Rather, it is due to the fact that we humans have stopped talking to the entities; in previous times you would have rituals to honour them, we would present them with gifts. 

You could just discard this, and say it is a very fine spiritualistic way of seeing things. But it exists and presents a different relationship to the environment. It is an idea of not only enjoying the environment; it adds a layer where one actively contributes, talks, cares for the environment in a much broader sense. In this view the environment is crucial and it is like another individual. The different ecosystems are other individuals that we have to consider if and when we want to draw up equations of human development or human well-being.  

In this approach we need to learn to relate to the environment in different ways, honouring it in a proper way, instead of simply preserving it or thinking of it in very anthropocentric terms. We should preserve life as such. And humans and nature have the same dignity somehow. Both Ecuador and Bolivia have enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions, in this sense. I think this has inspired many other countries. I know of over a hundred communities in the US that have included the rights of nature in their constitutions, and local constitutional holidays in countries like Colombia, New Zealand, India, etc.  

Do you wish to try to define human development in your own terms? 

Maybe along these lines… If there is a pluralistic, global version of human development, that would be human developments


[i] The Human Development and Capability Association was launched in September 2004 at the Fourth Capability Conference in Pavia, Italy.


Johannes M. Waldmüller is Visiting Professor at FLACSO Ecuador, in the Dept. of Development, Territory and Environmental Studies (2019-2020), and Associate Research Professor in the Dept. of Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito.

Photo via: https://johanneswaldmuller.weebly.com/


Cover Image: Arienne McCracken via Flickr.

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