Empowerment is at the heart of human development

Leena Srivastava argues that alongside empowerment and opportunity, dignity and respect are crucially important in advancing human development

During May and June, the ISC will be featuring content by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP.

Leena Srivastava is Vice Chancellor of the TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi and an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow.

Reimagining human development

Last year’s Human Development Report focused on equity and the importance of going beyond income and averages. The next step would be to focus on empowerment and equal opportunity. Indeed, looking back at the developments during the past three decades, it is apparent that people thrive when they feel, and are, empowered. Consider the issue of energy access as an example: it cannot just be about creating the supply opportunities and leaving it at that. The poor and marginalized need to be empowered actively, the opportunities need to be created consciously, so that these segments of society can access good quality energy in quantities commensurate with their needs, whenever they want.

Alongside empowerment and opportunity, dignity and respect are crucially important  but do not receive sufficient attention. The design of empowerment measures should be such that those who are the target of such measures are able to feel and exercise their rights. Yet, present-day policies and governance, technology development, pathways towards sustainability – indeed, the structure of society itself – are not a priori designed for inclusiveness. Empowering, and treating the marginalized sections of society with the dignity and respect, ensuring their full and equal participation in development, are often an afterthought, as can be seen from the following examples.

Consider driverless cars and robots. Technology firms naturally tend to design and drive these solutions for the richer segments of society around the world, where there is an ageing population coupled with lower pools of labour due to a drop in fertility rates. It is up to Governments then to regulate use/applications to minimize unintended consequences – including the prevention of wealth concentration. However, economic compulsions and stakeholder interests (of a particular kind) render this ineffectual.  The consequences of introducing such technologies, which are aspirational in other contexts, on the poor rarely enter the equation and the poor are left to adapt.

The digital economy too is a case in point – this economy is not designed for the poor, illiterate, ageing or women, for example. The concept of fit-for-purpose does not exist – it is only adaptation. Similarly, even while thinking about preparing and adapting for disasters, the solutions and structures do not apply to all people. The ill, aged and the very young are often missing from the plans. Not wilfully but because design has always focused on the fittest – physically or economically.  

Changing the ground rules

Part of the problem is that the poorer sections of society do not have the capacity to pay and thus there is little incentive in innovating for them. Exiting this vicious cycle requires an institutional mechanism that will prioritize the poor and their needs, as well as ensuring that catering to their needs is remunerative. Only then can the desire to leave no one behind become a reality. Perhaps it is time to institute an equal-opportunity watchdog, for lack of a better word, in the same way as disaster-management agencies have become mandatory in all countries. The core responsibility of such a watchdog would be to ensure inclusivity in all societal endeavours, be it the development and deployment of intellectual property, rules for international trade or the use of public funds for various activities.

Public funds have a role to play in creating equal opportunity and empowerment. Governments support many private-sector activities, and various regulations reward economic activity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is certainly possible to design specific incentives and put in place specific rewards to facilitate empowerment and opportunity creation. This is not about creating a system of reservations or quotas: it is about removing barriers and recognizing that doing so today may lead to rewards tomorrow. That reward should be recognized and rationalized to move towards human development for all.

It is also important to involve the citizens themselves in reimagining human development such that it is inclusive and speaks to their needs and aspirations. Citizen-science approaches could be effective in this regard: Given the right types of questions and the right design, it should be possible to quickly mobilize responses from a wide range of people.

Measuring empowerment and opportunity

Evaluating whether and to what extent people have been empowered is not the same as measuring other aspects of human development: for example, taking a few billion people out of poverty or placing a few million more in classrooms speaks to quantitative performance but not to the qualitative or sustaining nature of performance. That said, it should be possible to come up with indicative ways of evaluating the efforts made for empowering people and creating equal opportunity in relation to that poverty and education data if we moved further up-cycle and investigated the job market and/or the regulatory environment around societal safeguards. The flow of public funds, for example, could be deconstructed to gauge the percentage of the funds that are leading to issues that have direct impact on increased empowerment and opportunities.

Consider intellectual property – for example the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. Typically, one would assume that a resulting vaccine would be available to everyone who needs it. But, as we know, availability by itself does not guarantee accessibility. Something else, something more, needs to be done for that to happen. Again, it should be possible to work this out and create the right types of metrics that enable us to assess whether a particular community has been empowered and provided the requisite opportunities.


Dr. Leena Srivastava is the Vice Chancellor of the TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi – an inter-disciplinary higher education institution focused on sustainable development. Her research in the last three decades has been in the areas of energy, environment and climate change policies primarily at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) where she was previously working as Executive Director. She holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Hyderbad and a Ph.D in Energy Economics from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. 


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