Four suggestions for the rearticulation of human development

Des Gasper looks at the evolution of the human development discourse before and since the initiation of the Human Development Reports in 1990. He makes suggestions for rethinking the concept, such as seeing it as part of a set of interlinked concepts that include human security, and emphasising the need for local- and national-level human development reporting.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

First, ‘human development’ analysis is a perspective on people’s lives and living within societies and the biosphere

A capability-based concept of human development emphasizes the aspects of freedom of human purposes. Mahbub ul Haq and his associates did not consider though that the notion of freedoms exhausted the relevant picture of being human. He articulated a bigger picture, in his thinking on human security, human dignity and global cooperation. Haq and his associates drew on long-running streams of discussion and thought marked by an appropriate holism and complexity. The creation of a specific, small Human Development Report Office (HDRO) in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) HQ, separate from other units in the UN system, and having the Human Development Index (HDI) and related indexes as a distinctive task and ‘brand’, has over time perhaps had limiting impacts in relation to that holism and complexity. Counting valued freedoms is not all that we need for thinking about human(-centred) development. This leads to the second suggestion.

We need a renewed awareness of how human development discourse has emerged from traditions of secular and religious humanistic thinking

Arguably the UNDP human development work will benefit from revisiting how it grew out of generations of discussion by both secular and religious humanistic thinkers. A concept of ‘integral human development’ (IHD) had already been adopted by the Catholic Church, to take just one example, in the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (the development of peoples), and continues to be significant. Such thinking has been paralleled in many secular humanist streams, both liberal and socialist, with similarly complex genealogies. Thus, an IHD concept (though not always using that label) is shared across various religious and humanistic traditions. 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, and Denis Goulet, a pupil of L-J. Lebret (first drafter of the Populorum Progressio) and a founder of Anglophone ‘development ethics’ in the 1970s.

How in practice to nourish a holistic approach to human development? I suggest two natural and feasible steps for HDRO and UNDP that build on their earlier work: re-knit human development analysis and human security approaches; and 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.

A truly global perspective grows out of human development reporting at local, national and regional levels

UNDP has through its history had a distinctive openness and orientation to network-based learning. Local, national and regional HDRs provide vital spaces for learning about local realities, specificities, complexities and opportunities, including in the expression and interaction of global forces. UNDP, HDRO and their partners have major roles to play in cross-learning, synthesis and reflection within and in parallel to the SDGs cycles. One good earlier example was Jolly and Basu Ray’s 2006–2007 review of 13 national and regional HDRs that had adopted a human security theme. A 2012–13 successor study by Gomez et al. of 20 human security-orientated HDRs confirmed and extended learning in many areas. The reports brought out how what is experienced as insecurity (1) is contextual – it arises through the intersections of many factors, so varies across persons, classes, localities, times; (2) is (thus) partly unpredictable in terms of the threats arising/perceived, and must be studied case-by-case; (3) is partly culturally and personally subjective, but with objective consequences, so must be studied in situ.

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

The human development concept and approach are part of a complementary and interlinked set of needed perspectives that includes human rights, human needs, human development and human security, within an overall UN approach. 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, is a reminder to recall the integrated perspective outlined in the 1990s by Haq and his associates. Haq called for an integrated UN agenda, expressed as a concern for ‘human security’, or secure human development. Some other formulations see human security concerns – vulnerabilities, thresholds of basic need, meaningfulness, psychological/existential insecurities, human connection, environmental stewardship, peace – as distinct from the freedoms focus but still as its essential partner and not a separate agenda. The theme of vulnerability is part of a richer picture of the human than only stressing capability and reasoned choice. Many agencies’ programmes cover specific aspects, but an integrative ‘secure human development’ perspective is needed, linking multiple stressors. As suggested also by the work in some of the best national and regional HDRs, cross-sectoral comparative studies may offer the best returns for HDRO and its sister sections in UNDP/UN HQ, rather than a duplication of what specialist sector agencies do.


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.

Cover image: by premasagar on Flickr

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