Human development is about the absence of discrimination and marginalization

Only through listening to poor and vulnerable people can we understand what human development means. We need to collect people’s stories about how they live their lives and make this central to our rearticulation of human development, says Adrian Jjuuko.

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).

From a perspective that reflects your work on law and human rights in Africa, how should we rethink the concept of human-centric development? What do you think are the key issues, considering today’s challenges?

I think the global human rights debate has not moved issues like discrimination and marginalization forward. What we now need to think about is how human development should be helping us to address inequalities among different groups.

The inequalities we face in the world today are enormous. We have a substantive number of billionaires with huge influence in the world, people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, and then we have large numbers of people who cannot feed themselves from day to day because of problems that are not of their own making. It is time to take these differences seriously.

The current system makes you think that if people are poor, it is their own fault. I believe otherwise. I think it is because of the lack of opportunities available to them. For me, any concept of human development that doesn’t include inherited structural issues is problematic.

When we think of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), when we think of how much income people have, we end up in some sort of a contest comparing how equal or unequal countries are. But we also have to think of the reasons why countries are poor, and why people continue to be trapped in poverty. Part of this is due to the widespread idea that there is only one way to be developed.

Just last night I was watching an old romantic comedy named Coming to America with my son. For us here (in Africa) we grow up with this idea of America being a wonderful place. The movie juxtaposes a fictional African country, Zamunda, and New York City, in the United States. The main character, Akeem Joffer – the crown prince of Zamunda – travels to the United States in the hopes of finding a woman he can marry. He ends up in Queens, disguised as a student, and rents a very modest apartment. The movie shows the surprising wealth inequalities and bad living conditions in a country that is supposed to represent the pinnacle of development. My son was surprised that they were in America. I asked myself: What kind of place is this? America with all its wealth and power has parts of society with unimaginable poverty.  Then, in my own country, Uganda, we have places where people live exactly as you would in the wealthier neighbourhoods of Europe or the United States.

Thus to me, the most important thing in this exercise to rearticulate human development is to be able to look at the whole of humanity, not just one group that develops as others are left behind. How can we say some parts of the word are developed when other parts of our planet are full of people who cannot even afford clean water or have access to food? Some people are poor because of structural issues. I’m not saying that everyone should drive a Ferrari. But they should have the best chance in life, be able to stand up and be counted as human beings, with dignity and freedom. To me, this distinction between the haves and the have-nots is totally outdated and it is in fact a trap that perpetuates the differences. Moreover, these high-level distinctions do not enable us to see people for who they are, their culture and their way of living. Where are the perspectives of what is to be developed from those living in villages in Africa or in Asia? How can we engage them to help us define what it means to reach human development? How can we hear their voices in addition to those of academics and experts?

You are also concerned with environmental issues. What is the role of sustainability in this rethinking of human development that also includes the voices of people and not only experts?

Environmental degradation and climate change are super-important issues in many African countries at the moment. To me the question we need to ask is: for whom are all those natural resources? To whom do governments respond when they create polices about environmental exploitation? We are collectively destroying the environment that supports us, and in doing so we are failing to create social equality. Rather, this exploitation of natural resources is simply making a few people very rich. To me, this is the tragedy, and this is the main problem.

Take Lake Victoria, the biggest freshwater lake in Africa. We know this fabulous body of water and the life it supports will be gone by 2070, and this is primarily because rich people are building in its catchment areas. At the same time, many people living in in Kampala are losing their property because of floods. Scientists tell us the reason is because the water has nowhere to go, as construction in the catchment area is diverting the water in an unsustainable manner. In short, the rich are building living spaces for themselves at the expense of the poor and the environment. At the same time, in public discourse, there is no link made between the degradation of the environment and the poverty of people. To me justice ought to be a key component of any rearticulation of human development.

Can you elaborate more on what you see as the key challenges for human development today?

I believe the current situation is a blatant example of how inequality is one of the biggest threats to human development. Look at what is happening in Uganda today with COVID-19. The virus is supposed to be affecting all of us. We have right now a nationwide lockdown, but in reality, this affects primarily, the poor. At first there was a ban on public transport. Yet we know that wealthy parts of the population do not use public transport, as they primarily use private transport systems. When public transport was banned, they made exceptions for essential workers, and among that category bank workers were included. This means in Uganda today banks and insurance companies are considered essential whereas people like me, lawyers and human rights activists, are deemed non-essential people to our society.

I am in the office because the police arrested 20 people for violating COVID-19 regulations, but this in reality was due to their sexuality. These people have spent 50 days in jail without access to a lawyer. After a lot of struggle, the courts agreed and gave us an access order to visit them. Twenty people are now suffering in jail without any due process, with COVID-19 being used as the excuse.

Maybe the problem is simply capitalism more than anything else. A system where banks remain open instead of organizations that help the poor is truly problematic. I think unbridled capitalism is an issue that is very critical for all of us. Most African countries are capitalistic states, but in an uncontrolled manner. We tax the poor, less so the rich, and then we do things that only facilitate the interests of the elites. Africa’s richest city, Johannesburg, is devoid of public transport. And when you wonder why, you remember that every white person has a car. So, roads are wide, and yet public transport is non-existent. The same thing is happening in Uganda right now. They are constructing more and more roads for the rich when a vast majority of people have no means of transport. Yes, unbridled capitalism is a problem.

Governance is also a key issue. We are witnessing the derailing of democracy, and to me this is a key challenge to human development. Populism is triumphant in too many parts of the world, and democracy is suffering. In Tanzania, a populist president has refused to take stern action against COVID-19. Those most affected do not have a voice, they cannot speak, they cannot be heard. It is almost impossible to engage in democratic processes as even if people do vote, their choices are not respected or taken into consideration.

Another key challenge to human development is the weakening of the UN system and the demise of multilateralism. In 2011, I was present during the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions, and I could see the United States leading on most issues that came up for debate. Now, in 2020, the US has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council. We also see US threats to withdraw from the World Health Organization, in addition to leaving one of the world’s most meaningful multilateral agreements, the Paris Agreement. How is this possible? To exert such influence in a system and then also undermine it? And, what does this type of policy behaviour mean?

If we look at the African Union, this intergovernmental organisation is also becoming more conservative, driven by interests that facilitate exclusion rather than inclusion. If the UN system fails, if intergovernmental cooperation fails, we are in trouble and human development will suffer.

In light of these challenges, how can we make human development more influential for policy and decision-making?

I believe the most important way in which to make human development a priority for policy and other decision-makers is to include the voices of the poor and marginalized. We need to rethink the involvement of people and participatory processes.

In these types of debates, often purely academic, what we now practice is tokenism. We need to include people from the Global South because we need voices from there. Usually, when we do that, that voice is not the voice of the poor but that of some privileged person living in the Global South.

We have to make people understand that every single person is entitled to her basic rights. Many governments are completely against this because it means that when people are empowered, they will speak and make demands. But this is where we should focus our attention, reaching and empowering the grassroots to voice their concerns and their views, and to be in charge of their human development. I don’t know how to do that. But we must hear their voices, as poor people live with impossible choices.

We are now, for example, being told that COVID-19 is a dangerous disease. But poor people live with cholera, HIV and malaria, and many die from these diseases every single day. The poor also have impossible choices to make to protect themselves. I can afford to stay at home but my clients, who I represent, cannot. They are being arrested for being homeless. When you are homeless, where are you supposed to stay? Thus for me, amplifying the voices of people at the very bottom of our societies is critical. This debate about rearticulating human development should not be left to academics and elites alone. Everybody should be able to engage through their own grassroot structures and communities. We need to collect people’s stories about how they live their lives and make this central to our analysis going forward. We must be able to understand cultural dynamics in many parts of the world, to see people’s potential and priorities. We cannot base our view of the world on the elites and the upper middle classes, for whom culture is about consumption and flying in airplanes to America or London and in Uganda. If we don’t appreciate other people living their own lives and the differences among people, then what remains is an elitist idea.

Thank you very much for these important insights about the centrality of the perspectives poor people themselves have about human development. Taking this as your point of departure and to conclude, what would be your own definition of human-centric development today?

I would define human-centric development as living conditions devoid of discrimination and marginalization. Economic development versus equality is not a zero-sum game. For me, once we remove discrimination and equality emerges, then we will have the conditions for human development at all levels.


Adrian Jjuuko is a Ugandan human rights lawyer, researcher and activist. He is the founder and Executive Director of Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), an organization that operates the only licenced and specialized legal aid clinic for LGBTI people in Uganda.

Cover image: by Global Partnership for Education on Flickr

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