Des Gasper has four suggestions for the rearticulating of human development.

The recently retired professor of Human Development, Development Ethics and Public Policy at the International Institute of Social Studies looks at human development and research, from both before and after initiation of the Human Development Reports in 1990.

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.

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We need a human development (HD) concept that does not ossify and instead plays an ongoing generative and inspirational role in the same way that ‘human rights’ has. I offer four broad suggestions, that link and overlap and that I hope might combine institutional do-ability with stimulating worthwhile advances:

  1. To not fix HD as only a noun, defined as some ‘unique framing’ or longer checklist, and instead think also in verb-terms, of operationalizing themes of humanizing development and of worthy human living. Such a perspective should include, amongst other things:
  2. Renewed awareness of how human development discourse has emerged from traditions of secular and religious humanistic thinking.
  3. To intensively support and learn from local, national and regional human development reports/reporting, including when possible within processes of SDGs reporting and review but also by complementing them. HDRO would support such human development reporting, as its central role, and the annual global report could be based on such reports.
  4. To re-marry HD work with human security analysis, as emphasized by Mahbub ul Haq and undertaken in the earlier years of the HDRO. A ‘human’ lens implies thinking about whole human lives, lived in real time, with reference to the intersecting contingencies and evolving challenges that constitute these lives, not only checking a master-list of ‘dimensions of poverty’.

Strengthening awareness and understanding of ‘social’ as well as ‘human’ is desirable too, but I feel that attention to the above themes can in practice contribute substantially to such awareness and may be more feasible within the organizational spaces of UNDP, HDRO, etc., than would be a head-on addressing of ‘the social’ (cf. e.g. Gasper 2011a). 

I comment on these points in turn. In doing so I try to respond to the first of the questions that commentators in the project are invited to address (reconceptualisation) but also the second and third (major challenges; use of HD work in public discussion and decision-making).  

‘Human development’ analysis can be understood as a perspective on people’s lives and living within societies and the biosphere, not primarily as a formulaic machinery of measurement

The HD concept as instituted in HDRO says development is not to be conceived (mainly) as economic growth but is about the freedoms and wellbeing of persons, enumerated within nation-states. Its main concept of ‘human’ seems to be that of the individual reasoning and choosing person. This gave a rationale for the HDI and the associated indexes, which Haq saw as essential for capturing and reorienting global attention. A capability-based HD concept emphasises freedom aspects of human purposes. Just as the indexes do not exhaust this aspect of human development, Haq and his associates did not consider that the freedoms aspect gave the total relevant picture of being human. Human lives and purposes are more complex. He articulated a bigger picture – including stressing human rights and the contingencies of real lives, daily living and periodic crises, as well as a global frame beyond only the nation-state – in his thinking on human security, human dignity, and global cooperation (e.g.: Haq 1999; Haq & Ponzio 2008; Gasper 2011b). The freedom-centred formulation of ‘human development’ may be seen as not constituting all of ‘human-centred development’ (to adopt the label used often in this project’s website).

Human development discourse dates back far before 1990 or the series of 1980s UNDP/SID North-South Roundtables (e.g., Haq & Kirdar eds., 1986, 1989) which gestated the HDRO version. Haq and his associates drew on long-running streams of discussion and thought that had an appropriate holism and complexity. The creation of a specific, small HDRO in UNDP HQ in New York, separate from other units in other parts of the UN system, and having the HDI and related indexes as a distinctive task and ‘brand’, has over time perhaps had some limiting impacts in relation to that holism and complexity. Counting valued freedoms is not all that we need for thinking about human (-centred) development.

So, second, we need a renewed awareness of how human development discourse has emerged from traditions of secular and religious humanistic thinking

The UNDP human development work grew out of generations of discussion by both secular and religious humanistic thinkers. (Lutz & Luz’s Humanistic Economics, 1988, is one overview.) A concept of “integral human development” (IHD) was adopted by the Catholic Church, to take just one example, already in the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (the development of peoples), and remains a prominent part of its doctrine.[1] Such thinking was paralleled in the work of many secular humanists, both liberal and socialist, with similarly rich intellectual genealogies; thus an IHD concept (though not always using that label) “is shared by several other religious and humanistic traditions”.[2] Various thinkers channelled such human development ideas into international development discussions; for example, Barbara Ward, teacher of Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen in the 1950s (see e.g. Murphy 2006: 243 ff; 2013, 2015), and Denis Goulet, a pupil of L-J. Lebret and a founder of Anglophone ‘development ethics’ in the 1970s.[3]

How to stimulate and nourish a holistic approach to human development in practice? Two natural and feasible steps for HDRO and UNDP, that build on their earlier work, are, I suggest: to re-knit human development analysis and human security approaches, and to continue and intensify promotion and use of local, national and regional reports and cross-report learning. We see the complexity and specificity of living by looking at real situations and life-stories.

Not a global blueprint but a truly global perspective; via human development report-ing at local, national and regional levels

The Steering Committee stresses local specificities (its dimension 5): “global challenges as identified in the SDGs, take multiple forms in different contexts”. Long back, the famous ‘Voices of the Poor’ study established not only that poverty is multidimensional but, consequently, “that poverty is always specific to a location and a social group, and awareness of these specifics is essential” (Narayan 2000: 18). UNDP has through its history had a distinctive openness and orientation to this variety, as a network-based learning-organization not a controlling prescribing power-centre: “UNDP’s story is, ultimately, about a way of conducting relations among peoples and nations” (Murphy 2006: 2; italics in the original). Its “most important work [has been] coordinating and cultivating the network of relationships that allow people in the developing world more and more control over their own lives” (Murphy 2006: 23). Local, national and regional HDRs provide vital spaces for learning about local realities, specificities, complexities and opportunities, including from and via the distinctive local expression and interaction of global forces. UNDP, HDRO and their partners have key roles to play in cross-learning, synthesis and reflection during the SDGs cycles, while avoiding over-simple global messages. “It may be that, as time goes on, the regional and local reports will provide the greatest opportunities both for conceptual breakthroughs and real impact” (Murphy 2006: 258).

One example, written at the same time as Murphy’s hypothesis, was Richard Jolly and Deepayan Basu Ray’s review (2006, 2007) of 13 national and regional HDRs that had adopted a human security (HS) theme. It showed how “broader definitions of human security are operational for both analysis and policy making” (Jolly and Basu Ray 2007: 457). A larger successor study for HDRO of 20 HS-oriented reports (Gomez et al. 2013, 2016) confirmed and extended this sort of learning in many areas. These national and regional reports brought out that what is experienced as insecurity: 1. Is contextual – it arises through the intersections of many factors, hence it varies across persons, classes, localities, times, &c.; 2. Is (thus) partly unpredictable in terms of the threats arising, and must be studied case by case; 3. Is partly culturally and personally subjective – but with objective consequences. So it must be studied in situ, with a flexible approach. This mirrors the Steering Committee’s points 5 (Local Specificities) and 6 (Global Interdependencies). The national and regional HDRs illustrated how to: 1. Identify specific at-risk/missing valuables in specific situations; 2. Measure and map such vulnerabilities, including by production of integrative summary indexes and identification of local ‘hotspots’; 3. Consider felt insecurities, and the discrepancies (of diverse types) between these and the risks recorded in expert measures; 4. Investigate the degree of ability to respond effectively (‘securitability’); and 5. Link with (other) HD ideas (Gomez et al., 2013). Continuation and invigoration of this style of work, in sub-global studies and in comparative reviews, is an ongoing priority.

Human development and human security need to be treated as existential, intellectual and organisational partners/twins

The HD concept and approach should be seen as part of a complementary and interlinked set of needed perspectives that includes human rights, human needs, human development, human security, within an overall UN approach.[4] It should not be seen as a ‘unique framing’ or self-standing enterprise. Not least, an artificial separation between human development and human security analyses should be avoided. The COVID-19 crisis, which will be followed by others of diverse types, is a reminder to recall the integrated perspective outlined by Haq and associates in the 1990s.

Haq argued that “Our fundamental security needs – the needs felt during natural disasters, humanitarian emergencies, periods of social crisis, and war – should not be placed to the side, as if they were something to be addressed separately from ‘development’” (Murphy 2013: 18). He called this combined UN agenda a concern for ‘human security’, secure human development. Some other formulations see human security concerns—vulnerabilities, thresholds of basic need, meaningfulness, psychological/existential insecurity and human connection, environmental stewardship, and peace—as distinct from the freedoms-focus but still as its essential partner not as a separate agenda. Some people like the phrase ‘freedom in security’. The theme of vulnerability is part of a richer picture of the human than only stressing capability and reasoned choice. Serageldin’s background paper notes, for example, a tension between the individualism that could be emphasized in HD formulations and the requirements of social group cohesion, but also the dangers of narrow belongings and loyalties. To his remark that: “A Human-centered Development Paradigm must confront the corrosive effects of inequality”, we should add the need to consider aporophobia (fear, dislike and rejection of the poor and vulnerable), as currently explored by researchers like Adela Cortina and Flavio Comim.

The project’s Steering Committee rightly notes: “multiple, intersecting inequalities and vulnerabilities are pervasive”. It highlights the Stockholm Resilience Centre “notion of resilience as the ‘capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop’), [that] invites [us] to look at differentiated vulnerabilities and capacities to cope and respond to shocks at the individual and household levels”. HS thinking It is not only the long-term twin of HD and a fairly well-established theme in the UN system (e.g., UNGA 2012, UNESCO 2008, Hastings 2009) and elsewhere, it arguably adds some valuable content to ‘resilience’ analyses and has elaborated methodologies for looking at risks and interconnections.

While many agencies and research programmes cover specific aspects—jobs and income security, food, natural environment, health, childhood, ageing, conflict—an integrative ‘secure human development’ perspective is needed, linking multiple stressors. Arguably there are greater returns for HDRO and similar bodies in doing cross-sectoral comparative work, since they cannot outdo and do not need to duplicate what specialist sector agencies do. The Gomez et al. (2013, 2016) study saw four major types of HS-oriented HDRs, including three that were narrower and one that was more comprehensive:

  1. ‘Citizen security’ studies, on security of body and property, viz. one key set of at-risk values; these studies too (e.g., Caribbean HDR 2012) were typically done in a wider-ranging way in regard to threats and solutions than is found in traditional security policy work;
  2. Studies on perceived lead challenges identified for a specific time and place, not presuming that ‘human security’ only concerns security of body and property; for example, on challenges of social cohesion and social disquiet (e.g., Macedonia HDR 2001), or food security (e.g., Africa HDR 2012) but done in a broader way than a conventional food security study;
  3. ‘State-building studies’: reports that centred on a key policy means (e.g., Afghanistan HDR 2004);
  4. Comprehensive mapping studies that essayed comparisons and long-term perspective, identifying an agenda of current or emergent priority topics for in-depth follow-up work. Such studies serve Haq’s and Jolly & Basu Ray’s agenda of cross-sector and cross-method comparison of effectiveness of contributions towards human security. For example (as discussed by Gomez et al, 2013, 2016): rethinking the roles of multiple providers at different levels of insecurity (as in the Latvia HDR 2003); contrasting people’s perceptions of insecurities with the measures given by other indicators including the HDI and expert assessments (e.g., Benin HDR 2011); `studying views on future vulnerabilities as a way to then think about resilience (e.g., as in the Thailand HDR 2009).

These studies show how: “a core of high-priority concerns [regarding] human security can be set after exploring the concerns of people in specific situations rather than before” (Jolly and Basu Ray 2007: 457; italics added).

[1] It built on the work of, for example, Jacques Maritain (e.g., his 1936 book Integral Humanism) and Louis-Joseph Lebret (in numerous books, e.g. The Human Ascent, 1951). The full IHD phrase was adopted later, e.g. in a 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis; but by ‘integral development’ Populorum Progressio already explicitly meant development of all persons and of all the person, as expressed since the 1940s by the group of L-J. Lebret (first drafter of the encyclical) and Francois Perroux. “Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man.” (Populorum Progressio, 14.)


[3] Craig Murphy reported that “Haq, Sen and their closest colleagues all acknowledge that the [proximate] origin of the human development idea is in the work of their most important teacher in the 1950s, Barbara Ward” (Murphy 2015: 165; my addition). Ward was prominent in UN circles (e.g. as lead author of Only One Earth, background document for the 1972 UN Conference on Environment) and Vatican circles (e.g. in the 1966 preparatory committee for the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission), and wrote the Foreword to Haq’s The Poverty Curtain (1976). On her articulation of a fuller picture of human living, see e.g. Gartlan (2010).

[4] See e.g.: UN 2000, 2012, 2015; UNGA 2012; synthesis volumes of the UN Intellectual History Project, Jolly et al. 2005, 2009; and Gasper 2005, 2007.

Des Gasper is a recently retired professor of Human Development, Development Ethics and Public Policy, at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, in Erasmus University Rotterdam (Netherlands). Professor Gasper has made substantive contributions to the field of Development Ethics, including work on theories of well-being, human security and the capabilities approach. He has collaborated in recent years on projects that apply these perspectives to climate change analysis, international migration and the SDGs. He continues working actively on aspects of human (in)security and interpretive policy analysis.

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