Human development is about freedom

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr argues that we need to go back to the big, visionary ideas at the heart of human development 30 years ago, the idea that human development is about freedom – about having the ability to live the life one has reason to value

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).

You were Director of the HDR Office for 10 years and have been very active in maturing and expanding the concept of human development. With that long-term perspective, what should be, in your opinion, our conceptual understanding of human development today?

In my opinion, the most important thing is to start with the fundamental concept of human development. It was articulated by Mahbub ul Haq when he worked closely with Amartya Sen to create the HDR in 1990. Its premise was to define development as a process of expanding choices, and a process where the agency of people plays an essential role. The title of Sen’s book, Development as Freedom, published several years later, encapsulates this concept. Over the years, we seem to have lost sight of this original vision. However, before I expand on the reasons for this change, I would like to start by discussing the major challenges that face the contemporary world.

As Mandeep Dhaliwal of UNDP pointed out during a recent webinar at The New School (The New School 2019) the pandemic comes on top of two other crises: the crisis of climate change and the crisis of inequality. These crises are highly inter-related. It is evident in the way that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected low-income and marginalized population groups, exposing many of the deeply entrenched structural inequalities and the weaknesses in our institutions to protect public health. We experience this daily while living in New York. African American and Latino populations are disproportionately affected. These disproportionate effects are partly because of where they work – such as in healthcare, transport or food distribution, providing indispensable services to the whole community.

 But the problem is also systemic and reflects weaknesses in the health system that leaves many without access to insurance. Thus, it leaves many with underlying conditions vulnerable to COVID-19. Moreover, there are disparities in the quality of care. The incidence is higher in areas served by the less well resourced ‘safety net’ hospitals compared to the higher-income areas that are served by private hospitals. These are the same populations that are also vulnerable to employment losses and life consequences and depend on social protections such as unemployment insurance and other social provisions that provide universal and equitable systems for basic human needs, from health to education, housing and nutrition.

The effects of the policy response – social distancing and lockdown – are also unequal. Many argue that it is particularly problematic in developing countries where the poor are simply not able to social distance, and where the effects on food security are dire. A study in South Africa shows that the country’s social distancing measures have favoured the high-income white population. For the majority of the African community, the measures have had perverse and negative consequences.

We have known for a long time that unequal health outcomes are not only due to biology and medicine, but also to social determinants, the conditions in which you live and work. However, I want to emphasize that these social determinants are not immutable. They depend precisely on the strength of our institutions – health systems, transport systems, safety nets and so on. 

The unequal human consequences of the pandemic are also rooted in the structures of the global economy. I have been teaching a course on ‘Human rights in global fashion’. We explored how the workers at the bottom end of the global value chain are hit the hardest. The pandemic led to a sharp drop in production. That is not surprising. What is distressing is that when orders were cancelled, many of the big fashion brands pushed costs to the suppliers. The factories then either had to close or could not pay workers their wages and were left with the goods made to the brands’ specifications. This happened even when the contract required payment; but the brands declared force majeure. It highlights the unequal power structures in the global supply chain.

A final example of the interlinkage between inequality and the pandemic’s human cost is the challenge of the universal vaccine as a global public good. When a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it needs to be mass-produced, globally distributed and priced affordably. These conditions will not be possible with the current business model for pharmaceutical innovation and pricing under a monopoly patent. Inevitably, countries will be bidding against each other to get their hands on the scarce supplies and thus, low-income communities and countries will be priced out. Indeed, we see governments and companies declaring strong commitments to equitable access to vaccines, and billions of public funds are being pledged to fund research, development and production. However, a patent-free vaccine is still seen as idealistic and out of reach.

The point about these challenges – the unequal likelihood of falling ill or dying from COVID-19, the inability to adapt to social distancing, the failure to develop an agreement on a patent-free vaccine – result from failures of solidarity, to make the necessary social arrangements for human development priorities. So, these difficulties of political negotiations for the public interest – at the local, national and international level – are the critical challenges for human development.

Can you elaborate more on those basic principles underpinning human development?

At the beginning of our conversation, I said that we must go back to the original idea of human development. What I am most concerned about is that we seem to have got fixated on the Human Development Index (HDI) somewhere along the way. I have expressed this concern before, in a 2003 article: ‘Rescuing the human development concept from the HDI’.

Economists think of the HDI as an analytical tool. But the real value of the HDI is as a communications tool that uses the incredible power of numbers. It was the primary reason why Mahbub ul Haq developed the HDI. Amartya Sen has written about how he resisted developing an index of human development that he did not consider feasible, but that he was ultimately persuaded by Mahbub, who argued that an index was necessary to communicate the idea that people’s well-being, not GDP growth, was the real purpose of development. It was very effective in communicating this in 1990. But it also had the perverse effect of communicating the idea that human development was about investing in the social sector and meeting basic needs. The complex idea of development, understood as a capability expansion, was overshadowed by this simplified measurement and communications tool. The index includes outcomes that are measurable and for which an international data series exists. Other essential capabilities are not reflected, such as voice in decision-making and political freedoms. The index focuses on outcomes and does not reflect agency, which is an essential element of the capabilities concept.

The HDI inappropriately communicates human development as a policy agenda for social sector investment and meeting basic needs. How do inequality, climate change, or the social and political determinants of health translate into the HDI framework? How can we measure the critical dynamics of the relationship between the ability to live a long life and the social institutions that shape unequal outcomes? These are elements that are just simply not captured in the HDI, and analyses of  human development are very much shaped, driven and framed by the HDI.

So, if this project aims to rearticulate human development, it should include rethinking the HDI.

For instance, observe the recent efforts to revise the gender indices. It’s a great opportunity to start with a blank slate and devise a new index from scratch. But the current thinking seems to be aimed at making minor changes to existing measures that are based on the HDI and focus on health, education and employment outcomes. These outcomes are important but have not kept up with feminist thinking. What matters to gender equity is not only access to schooling or parity in pay. Certainly, those things are important, but a gender equality measure that doesn’t include gender violence, political participation or decision-making within the household can never give us a proper view. Research has moved on from investigating obstacles to schooling and now also considers why equality in educational attainment does not lead to equality in employment and wages. When the Millennium Development Goals came along in the 2000s, one of the biggest critiques among feminist groups was that school enrolment data were meaningless. So, I think it is time to be ready for these types of challenges, for thinking differently, and most importantly, for thinking politically.

There is a tremendous political risk in tinkering with measurement. What has made HDRs an essential exercise within the UN for leading the thinking about development is the courage to advance big, visionary ideas. The big ideas, not the index, are what have mattered the most. Thirty years since the beginning of the HDR is enough time to have the courage to say that although the HDI has been a good messaging tool, it does not fully encapsulate the meaning nor the spirit of human development.

Your key message is to go back to the original core of human development. How would you then reconceptualize this idea in today’s context?

I return to my initial comments. I believe we need to return to the core 1990 concept, which is not only about human outcomes but also about agency: development for, by and of the people. But the analysis and the language need to move to 21st-century concerns that have shifted far beyond social and economic issues, and have incorporated a much greater focus on institutions and processes that are creating inequality, and the existential threat of climate change in a context of hyper-globalization and financialized capitalism.

A 21st-century reformulation needs to resonate with contemporary social concerns for human development, to gain momentum with those seeking change from prevailing economic systems. The notion of development itself is increasingly rejected as a highly flawed concept that is rooted in colonialism. Movements such as ‘degrowth’ and alternatives, such as the ‘circular economy’, have gained momentum in challenging prevailing economic models. This rearticulation needs a broader framework that goes beyond social and economic issues and takes on board matters of environmental sustainability and institutional questions such as structural inequality. The language of human development does not resonate with these movements.

I would go back to ‘development as freedom’, and particularly to the framework of ‘instrumental freedoms’, which includes social opportunities, economic facilities, transparency guarantees, security and political freedoms. In developing the chapter for the recent Palgrave Handbook on Development Economics Policy, edited by Nissanke and Ocampo, I had the opportunity to read more about the discussions that took place during the origins of the HDR. The ‘development as freedom’ concept draws on the capability approach but also on other ideas. It would be helpful at this time to be more explicit about its foundation in the capability approach and why that is important. On the policy front, there has always been ambiguity about what the human development agenda should look like. It has never been articulated, but that is because human development is not a policy prescription. In any case, it would be absurd to prescribe a policy formula that would fit all countries at all times. But the focus has been on the social sector and on economic policies. The five instrumental freedoms are more coherent with the capability approach and with the central idea of human development articulated in 1990. It sets up a broader framework that includes transparency, security and political freedoms, which are not in the HDI and have been neglected in UNDP reports and associated debates. Most importantly, these broader concerns are essential aspects of the original core concept.


Sakiko Fukuda-Parr is Director of the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs and Professor of International Affairs at The New School. Her teaching and research have focused on human rights and development, global health, and global goal setting and governance by indicators. From 1995 to 2004 she was lead author and director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Reports (HDRs).

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