Human-centric development is about the absence of discrimination and marginalization says Adrian Jjuuko

Only through listening to poor and vulnerable people would we be able to understand what this means. We need to collect people’s stories about how they live their lives and make this central data in our re-articulation of human development.

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.

This interview was conducted by Asun Lera St Clair @AsunStClair

From a perspective reflecting 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 that are important considering today’s challenges?

I think the global human rights debate has not moved forward issues like discrimination and marginalization. What we now need is to think about is how human development should be leading 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 every single day because of problems that are not of their own making.  It is time to take these unreal 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 lack of opportunities that are available to them.  For me, any concept of human development that doesn’t include inherited structural issues is problematic.

When we think of 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, of the reasons that make some people’s lives 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. Us here (in Africa) we grow up with this idea of America as this 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 of what is supposed to be the pinnacle of development. My son was surprised that that could be America. I asked myself: What kind of place is this? America with all the wealth and power has parts of society that are so poor that you cannot even begin imagining it. Then in my own country, Uganda, we have places where people live exactly as you would in wealthy neighbourhoods in Europe or the United States.

Thus, to me the most important thing in this rearticulating human development exercise is to be able to look at the whole of humanity, not just one group of humans who develop 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 to be counted as human beings, with dignity, with 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, 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 defining what it means to reach human development? How can we reach and add their voices in place of listening to 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 the constructions in the catchment are deviating the waters in an unsustainable manner. In short, the rich are building for themselves living spaces completely at the expense of the poor and at the expense of the health of 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 re-articulation of human development.

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

I believe the current situation is a blatant example on 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 affect 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 it, as they primarily use private transport systems. Even when this is very clear in Uganda today when 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 for people like me, lawyers and human rights activists, we are deemed non-essential people to our society.

I am in the office because the police arrested 20 people for violating the COVID-19 regulations, but this in reality was due to their sexuality. These people have  spent 50 days in jail without getting access to a lawyer. After a lot of struggle, the courts agreed and gave us an access order to visit them..Twenty people are 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 of African countries are capitalistic states, but in an uncontrolled manner. We tax the poor and 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 think of why, you remember that every white person has a car. So, roads are wide and yet public transport is inexistent. 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 increasing 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 US being the leader in most issues coming up for debate at the UN. now in 2020 and the US has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council. Now we see threats to withdraw from WHO, in addition to leaving one of the most meaningful multilateral agreements, the Paris Agreements. How is this then possible to exert such influence in a system and then undermine it? And, what does this type of policy behaviour means?

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 decisions makers is to involve the voices of the poor and marginalized. We need to rethink 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 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 dangerous disease.  But poor people live with cholera, HIV, or malaria, and many die from these diseases every single day. The poor have impossible choices also as to how to protect themselves. I can afford to stay at home but my clients, who I represent, cannot afford to stay at home. They are being arrested for being homeless.  When you are homeless, where are you supposed to stay? Thus, for me, the voice of at the very bottom of our societies should be our point of departure. 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 data in our analysis gong forward.  We must be able to understand the 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 airplanes, in America, in London, 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 of human beings that is devoid of discrimination and marginalization. Economic development versus equality is not about a zero-sum game. For me, once we remove discrimination and equality emerges, then we will have the conditions for human development happening at all levels.


Dr. 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 organisation that operates the only licenced and specialized legal aid clinic for LGBTI persons in Uganda

Back to Human Development homepage


Photo by Global Partnership for Education on Flickr

Share: