It’s time to let go of the dominant vision of human development that focuses on material wealth

Dr. David Molden suggests that a rethinking of human development needs a suitable vision of the future that put just as much weight on non-material aspects such as happiness, cultural richness, diversity or nature.

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

Dr. David Molden is the Director General of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) an intergovernmental knowledge organization dedicated to mountains and people of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

Beyond the dichotomy of developed versus developing

The dominant vision of human development focuses on wealth and tangible things such as roads or building, and the provision of services. This vision, which takes the countries like USA, Japan or Europe as models, leads to the dichotomy between developed and developing countries. But this dichotomy seems superfluous today because of several reasons. One reason is the growing inequality within countries, not just between them: some of the richest people in the world could be living in the same country as some of the poorest.

Another reason is that the dominant vision ignores viable alternatives. Bhutan, for example, prioritizes what it calls gross national happiness or wellbeing. This reframing focuses on what it is that really counts: it is people centred and about happiness, cultural richness, diversity, and nature. Wealth and prosperity are not unimportant, nor is healthcare or infrastructure. But the vision of the future needs to put just as much weight on non-material aspects.

I find the word “development” misleading.  It is a bit strange to think of, say, Nepal as a “developing” country. Yes, the country does not have the wealth or material resources that the so-called developed world has. But other things are valued in Nepal: there is a strong emphasis on society, culture and family ties. From that perspective, Nepal is quite well developed as compared with countries such as the USA, in which these crucial human dimensions are no longer the priority that they might have once been.  

Challenges to human-centred development

Human development should focus on people and the planet, the vision should emphasize that everyone is in this together and overcome differences while respecting diversity.  That will help also address climate change and put technologies at the service of people instead of at the service of the few who own them. But there are some challenges involved in operationalizing such a vision.

One challenge is how human development is conceptualized outside the constrains of the environment. For example, there is often a debate – certainly in the global South – about the relative importance of economic development versus the importance of the environment. In my opinion this debate is fruitless because, clearly, the economy and the environment are both not only important but also interdependent. There is also a debate about the importance of large-scale projects, such as dams, versus community-led development. But one need not preclude the other. Framing the debate in terms of one perspective versus the other hinders creative responses for enhancing human development.

Another challenge is posed by a dominant short-termism. There is a tendency to think that long-term issues can be put to the side to focus on immediate needs. For example, cutting down a forest to facilitate immediate economic or social gains. But this tendency comes in the way of addressing questions such as climate change, which will affect not only the lives of our children but also our own lives in the coming decades.

A third challenge has to do with development aid and the bureaucracies that manage it. It is time to move beyond the notion of rich countries helping the poorer ones. Issues such as building resilience to climate change are not restricted to only some parts of the world: they are truly global. When somebody suffers in one part of the world, it should be everybody’s problem. The perspective needs to be that global problems require global cooperation.

Finally, there might be simply too many political agendas that get in the way of joint work and long-term perspectives. Objectives change over time, often very quickly with changed administrations, and make it difficult to adopt a consistent, long-term approach to human development that encompasses also the interrelations among societies. Today’s global institutions are important and do good work, but we need to bear in mind that underlying the concrete challenges of climate change are conceptual and operational challenges that need to be overcome. The COVID-19 epidemic is a blatant example of the importance that both narratives and the effective operationalization of measures to enhance resilience across all sectors of societies.

Building resilience together

The mountain areas in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) offer good examples of the challenges posed by rapid climate and socio-environmental change. Many men migrate from villages to cities, leaving women behind to handle major problems. But in general, people are moving from subsistence-based lifestyles to other ways of earning a livelihood. These are profound changes and even shocks to the system on which communities in this region have been built over decades. Building resilience – the ability to adapt and thrive in the face of both social and environmental change– is important, and for that working with the communities themselves is critical. Solutions need to be co-developed with the affected communities to thrive and to advance.

In the work that we do at ICIMOD it has been quite inspiring to bring different perspectives together, to engage actively with the communities. Not only do the communities appreciate this approach but also the governments in the region. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to build resilience, and it does take some training and experience. For example, it is crucial to recognize that people might value different things in life. Sometimes this means more work that top down measures, but it is certainly the approach that needs to be used more in the future, because in our experience in this region and other mountain areas is the only one that works.

In that context it is encouraging that people in the HKH are keen to understand and learn what is happening. They have been open to the scientific knowledge provided, for example about how climate change is affecting water systems, and this has consequences for energy systems. It has been possible to get science-based resilience strategies higher up on the agendas of local policymakers. Of course, there is a debate about what can and should be done now as opposed to later given very tight and limited resources are available. But, unlike some parts of the world with a lot of political polarization, people in this part of the world have been very open to science-based messages.

In the HKH region, lack of regional integration is a real concern that inhibits economic growth, development in its many dimensions, and has led to conflict.  On the other hand, people of countries appreciate shared cultures and background, and recognize the joint challenge of climate change in mountain areas.  ICIMOD has been working across these boundaries bringing countries together to address mountain environment and livelihood.  Communities and governments across HKH countries, while diverse, have similar challenges like addressing climate change. ICIMOD has set up platforms to bring scientists, communities, practitioners and policy makers together, and in spite of political differences, there is a good understanding between participants of the platform.  Perhaps crises like COVID-19 or climate change are also the perfect opportunity for countries to come together and put together a vision of sustainable development that includes what is important for mountain people.


 Dr. David Molden has been instrumental in positioning ICIMOD as a regional organization working within and across eight countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan) in fields such as climate change, adaptation and resilience building, ecosystem management, the cryosphere, air pollution, water resource management, and information systems.  David comes from a background specializing in water resource management and sustainable mountain development with an interest in integrating social, technical, environmental, community and policy views for better management of natural resources.


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