Rearticulating human development requires participatory processes

Jhonatan Clausen Lizárraga suggests that environmental sustainability be considered a dimension of human development and that there is a need to engage the broader public to link concepts related to the human development approach to their daily lives.

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).

How can we rethink our conceptual understanding of human development, taking the perspective of the poor in Latin America into consideration, in the changing context of today?

I have been working on poverty measurement and analysis of human development in Latin America for a while, at  Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, and more recently at the newly created, interdisciplinary Institute of Human Development for Latin America (IDHAL).My immediate short answer is that we must remember that the human development approach has as its conceptual base the capability approach. In my opinion, we might be at risk of losing this fundamental insight. It seems as if, in practice, development institutions and stakeholders are involved in some sort of competition between a human-centred development approach and a sustainable, natural and ecological perspective to development. This competition is based on a false dichotomy and is potentially damaging. We should find a way to bring together these two approaches.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been working on sustainable development in a broader way, but we should bear in mind that the motivation for a human-centred development approach is recognising each human being as the ultimate unit of ethical concern, and acting accordingly. Clearly there are environmental aspects that we have to consider, but we should prioritize the capability of people to live the lives they value as the core. Of course, living those lives people value has fundamental environmental aspects today, but these need to be integrated with social issues and as key integral parts of a broad conception of human well-being. To me this might involve a ‘reloaded’ understanding of human development.

Regarding the second part of your first question, ‘What is the meaning of human-centred development in a changing world’ – for us, at IDHAL, having the human being at the centre of development involves bearing in mind all the time that all public policies, work on social change, the agendas of social movements, and regulations and institutions should have the expansion of the capabilities of people as their main concern. At a very practical level, the question is then: How do we measure if we are making progress regarding this human-centred development? In my view, what matters is both to identify how people are actually doing in their lives and how to enable people to enrich their own lives. That would lead us into a more multi-dimensional approach to evaluate well-being – and poverty – that can trigger action.

As mentioned earlier, this means including environmental issues as an integral part of the social and human aspects. All in all, this multidimensionality can be operationalized using indicators and goals. This is not because we should adopt a ‘quantitativist’ approach, but because numbers and goals that can be measured are powerful tools for accountability, communication and other policy purposes.

The main focus of the capabilities-based definition of human development is ‘for people to live the lives they have reasons to value’. You seem to indicate that there is competition between the human-centric capability focus and sustainability outcomes. How can we integrate these two key approaches? It is difficult to conceive of well-being without resilience to climate change impacts. How can we resolve this tension?

There are many ways in which we could make progress regarding this issue. The first thing we need to do is to explicitly recognize the relationship between human beings and nature as a dimension of human development and well-being. That is, to consider nature and the environment as dimensions of human development alongside all other dimensions such as education, health and others. So far, these dimensions have been difficult to incorporate in a general measurement of human development outcomes, potentially because of the lack of data. Efforts in this direction may help to resolve the tensions I mentioned before. The second has to do with the structural aspects of human development. Most empirical work about human development has relied on household surveys. This is absolutely relevant but we should go one step further and also pay attention to evaluating human development beyond individuals. For example, by attending to the relationship between human beings and the environment, and on the way in which environmental facts, such as the state of nature, access to natural resources, institutions or social norms that impinge negatively on the environment, could enhance people’s well-being or lead to deprivation. These structural aspects have been relatively less explored in recent capability literature and in the discourse on human development, yet these structures are very important. Sometimes, Latin American scholars hesitate to use the term ‘structure’, perhaps because it could look like a reference to structuralism and this is something that seems to be outdated, but I think we have to rethink structures and how we incorporate them in development studies and particularly in human development studies.

Can you tell us what are, in your view, the key challenges that prevent human development outcomes?

There are three very important central challenges that we have to address in the near future.

First, a significant proportion of the population in many countries have been successful in improving their socio-economic situation and leaving poverty behind. However, these people remain vulnerable, and it is likely that they will be pushed back into poverty, for instance because of the current COVID-19 crisis. What I believe is crucial is to move beyond a focus on income poverty and look at multidimensional poverty and its drivers. People who are multidimensionally vulnerable should be prioritized and put at the centre of all our efforts regarding human development. At the same time, we have to remember that a significant number of people in the world have never left poverty. Therefore, eradicating poverty and vulnerability to poverty, from both an income and multidimensional perspective, should be the first important challenge to address.

The second challenge is inequality and its consequences on political imbalance in low- and middle-income countries. Inequality, like poverty, is also multidimensional, and this is now part of a global public debate and recognized also by high-income countries. I believe we need political processes that enable countries to conduct reforms to help poor people, enhance their well-being and support them to be more resilient to shocks. However, inequality is a hindrance to policy change. In Latin America, inequality – not only income inequality, but other non-monetary kinds of inequality – prevents governments from making reforms. For example, in the case of Peru we are in a debate right now on whether we should relax the lockdown that was put in place due to COVID-19, but the debate demonstrates the differential power of certain voices over others. There is a small but very powerful group within the population that is advocating opening the economy now for economic reasons. On the other hand, there are many people struggling, scared and worried because relaxing the lockdown would have a negative impact on their health and on their capacity to stay alive, given that they are less resilient and less able to protect themselves. This situation is caused by power inequality, and this imbalance correlates with other types of inequality, from income to access to basic facilities.

The third key challenge to human development is about environmental degradation and climate change, which affects more clearly vulnerable people and poor people across many different dimensions. This is not a minor issue at all. Environmental concerns and issues such as climate change are important issues on their own, globally and for all. But they also reinforce dynamics of inequality and poverty. It is very important for the international development discourse to explicitly emphasize the relationship between climate change and the real ‘lives’ people in poverty lead. Otherwise, we risk seeing the environment and climate change only as ‘first world problems’, which is not the case at all. In Peru, for example, this is already visible. Those most concerned about climate change tend to be the wealthiest groups in our society even though the consequences are and will be much more severe for poor people. Unfortunately, except for some rural populations that have been directly affected by polluting activities such as mining, climate and environmental degradation is still perceived as a concern of the rich, of academics and ‘elites’.

Is this perception that concerns for climate change are often the concern of academics and rich people something that applies across many low-income countries?

It would be interesting to carry out some formal research regarding the importance that people living in poverty give to the environment. I do not have robust certainty of this perception from a scientific perspective, but in the media, as well as on social media and other communication platforms, there is a feeling that these topics are of concern to a minority, to rich and privileged people. Even though we have seen some important social movements led by indigenous people, for example regarding the preservation of nature, these are still a minority. Climate change is not on the public agenda in Peru at the moment. We should understand and be open to rethinking the relationship between people living in poverty and the environment, not only from a practical perspective but also looking at the way in which poor people themselves consider this interrelation as important or not. We, the academics, always hear that climate change is going to have a severe impact, affecting poor people in particular, and that it is going to increase inequality and all types of vulnerabilities. We know this and there are some initiatives that work with people in poverty who are fighting for their rights regarding nature, contamination and pollution, etc. However, at the same time, perhaps we are too confident about the way in which the general public cares about this, and we could do a bit more to raise awareness in this regard. I believe that UNDP must put this interrelation and poor people’s views at the centre of its work.

How can the human development approach inform debate and decision-makers about current and future challenges?

The human development approach is a very powerful tool to inform public debates and guide policy-making. However, we should make an effort to translate these complicated narratives and messages from the capability approach and the human development approach to language that can be communicated to the wider population. What we lack is a linking of these concepts to issues relevant to the general public, to their daily lives, and to matters that people actually value and understand. It is important to build a bridge between the very informed and interesting approaches from development studies to the general perception of the entire population.

What would be a meaningful and useful definition of human development in our changing world, one that has meaning in Latin America today?

To me, development from a human perspective could be understood as an enabling process. A process in which people actually have the ability to live their lives in a manner they consider important and meaningful. The idea of ‘value’ might sound too abstract so maybe we could focus on synonyms that might be more tangible for people. I see human development more like an enabling process in which people are allowed to pursue their most important life goals. This might sound too simple or too colloquial for academics, but it could be a definition that people can relate to. At the same time, I believe that the most important thing to do in this process of rearticulating human development is to involve the general public, to engage with a broader audience and actually seek out and hear also the voices of marginalized and vulnerable people. A consultation process with experts, leaders and political actors is of course important, and it is not easy to conduct large participatory exercises with poor people on a regular basis. However, we should find a way and test methodologies, even if imperfect, to involve a broader audience in this process. ‘Voices of the Poor’ is still a compulsory reference in 2020, but 20 years since its publication perhaps it is time for us to conduct a second version of that project. This second version should focus on people living in different forms of non-monetary poverty and also on people who are not currently living in poverty but are vulnerable to a range of non-income forms of deprivation. People’s well-being and priorities are dynamic; therefore, our metrics and policies should be designed accordingly.


Jhonatan Clausen Lizárraga is a lecturer in development studies and the history of economic thought at the Department of Economics at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), where he is also Director of Research at the Institute of Human Development for Latin America (IDHAL). He is also a member of the Expert Committee on Poverty Measurement at the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics. He is the co-editor of Introducción al Enfoque de las Capacidades: aportes para el Desarrollo Humano en América Latina.

Cover image: by dirkb86 on Flickr

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