Human development should become relational

Facundo García Valverde argues that social and environmental factors make people’s capability sets unequal. Institutions, policies, laws and social norms in particular have a tremendous influence in the shaping of people’s capabilities. Human development therefore needs to incorporate a specific account of egalitarian relations as there is a strong link between inequality and lack of valuable freedoms.

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).

Two individuals have tickets to a rock concert. One lives in a poor neighbourhood and the other in a middle-class neighbourhood. While the latter arrives early to the concert, the first arrives during the fourth song because police have stopped and interrogated him for no other reason than his location and colour of skin.

Two women spend the same amount of time in their workplace but one (the teacher) feels that her talents are recognized and esteemed by their community while the other (the cleaning woman) perceives that her talents are menial and unworthy of recognition.

Two stockholders strongly disagree during a meeting about some company decision. The board takes the aggressive attitude of the man as a sign of determination but the aggressive attitude of the woman as a sign of being uncontrollable and driven by passions; the first gets a promotion and the second a reputation.

What makes these three examples problematic from a normative point of view? The problem is not the violation of any right, nor the amount of direct interferences on their choices, nor the distributive inequality among them. Everyone can do what they prefer, nobody is so poor that they have to accept coercive offers, and there seems to be no law or formal institution that totally hinders the satisfaction of, for example, the right to free movement. So, is there any normative problem at all in these examples?

The human development community is committed to an affirmative answer. The three examples illustrate how valuable capabilities are diminished by structural constraints that are not exclusively the responsibility of any particular individual. It is not the individual member of the school community nor the board who are restricting on purpose the real freedoms of the cleaning woman or the female stockholder. It is social and environmental factors that are making the capability sets unequal: racial profiling and stereotypes influence the conversion of the same amount of resources into different levels of access and freedom of movement and affect our imaginations; hierarchical signs of status and recognition attached to positions and jobs affect capabilities for affiliation, by expressing the symbolic message that some workers are more worthy than others; sexist practices at work damage the capability of women to demonstrate their epistemic value on equal terms to men, producing a biased community of knowledge.

While human development’s initial breakthrough was its significant reconceptualization of poverty as an individual lack of fundamental capabilities, it has, to a certain extent, incorporated the influence of structural constraints in the ‘beings and doings’ available to an individual. For example, the 2004 Human Development Report focused on how racial and cultural identities shape the real freedoms of individuals, and how belonging to certain minorities was a reliable proxy for being poor in capability terms. The 2019 Human Development Report expanded considerably its attention beyond basic capabilities and focused on how a myriad of inequalities (such as gender, power, health, education and ethnicity) were not only consolidating but also diversifying through an accumulation of disadvantages across a lifespan.

In the same direction but in the conceptual field, Ingrid Robeyns has provided a tremendous defence of the absolute indispensability of incorporating structural constraints into any project or evaluation that claims to respect the core principles and modules of a capabilitarian theory. According to her, institutions, policies, laws and social norms have a tremendous influence both on people’s conversion factors and in the shaping of people’s capabilities, even capabilities such as friendship or self-respect that are not dependent on material resources.

Despite this initial step, inequality in human development goes deeper than what it is identifiable at the level of formal institutions, laws and policies. As our three initial examples aim to show, it runs fundamentally at the level of social and informal norms that constitute and structure the values, attitudes and beliefs with which individuals and groups relate to each other. In other words, relations between individuals are mediated by a set of beliefs, biases, attitudes and expectations that could not be fully covered by formal and legal norms.

For example, it is not only conceptually possible but also sociologically expectable to find a society that has enacted affirmative actions or compensation policies and that is still racist, misogynist and segregated. This is so because policies and laws, in many cases, leave untouched the social norms and practices that justify hierarchies of worth, differential evaluations, subordination and the exclusion of underprivileged members of communities.

This suggests that human development needs to incorporate a specific account of egalitarian relations – if it is the case (and I think it is) that there is a strong link between inequality and a lack of valuable freedoms. As I will show next, ‘relational egalitarianism’ offers such an account that is attractive from a human development standpoint.

Relational egalitarianism is a conception of social justice that argues that the main focus is not the attainment of a fair or equal distribution between individuals but, instead, the attainment of a community whose members can relate to each other on egalitarian terms – that is, without appealing to status divisions, hierarchical categories or rankings of worth (see work by Elizabeth Anderson, Jonathan Wolff, Carina Fourie and Schemmel for example). Hence, it opposes systems of apartheid and caste, segregation and orders of nobility because they imply a hierarchical division by which some members are superior and others are inferior.

By focusing on interpersonal and intergroup relations, this egalitarian conception has developed conceptual tools and arguments in order to build a critical perspective on the social bases and practices of an inegalitarian society. Since inequality is no longer conceived as a purely distributive problem, its relational aspects emerge. Stereotypes, implicit biases and explicit prejudices, signs of status, positional goods, and attitudes of disdain and of deference are all elements that structure those inegalitarian relations; since these elements are embedded in specific contexts, consolidated in practices and reproduced through rewards or reprimands, they are more stable and, then, harder to change.

In analysing whether this or that policy, or this or that transfer of resources, promotes egalitarian relationships, we should look both to the real outcome and to the process. For example, a relational egalitarian has conceptual resources for a strong critique of wheelchairs ramps that are carelessly designed and built, of medical attention provided to indigenous groups that humiliates and infantilizes them, of stigmas attached to social protection focused on poor persons and of the prestige and status granted to certain jobs or natural talents and not to others. All these cases show that both at the deliberation and the design level, elements of inegalitarian relationships (the emotion of pity, a patronizing attitude, an able-bodied privileged public space and a fetishistic desire for status) are identifiable and should be criticized.

The proposal of this text is that human development should become relational or, at least, incorporate an explicit concern for how social norms and relations impact on valuable freedoms. The fundamental reason is that stigmatization, subordination, domination and hierarchies influence in specific ways those freedoms. This influence can be registered at two levels: the individual and the communal. Regarding the first, when the features of inegalitarian relations are widespread in a society, they restrict critical reflection on what an individual values by favouring a dominant conception of what is valuable. Regarding the second, those same elements affect levels of empathy and commitment among members of different status groups and hamper the social conditions necessary to expand real individual freedoms.

The incorporation of this relational aspect into the concept of human development opens a new agenda, which calls for interdisciplinary work that is beyond the limited scope of this text. Without any intention of exhaustiveness, three dimensions are worthy of attention.

Firstly, regarding the individual dimension, the recognition and esteem obtained by an individual should be analysed relationally: how does being called names, being bullied at high school or not having certain qualities that are esteemed by your community (such as beauty, money, clothes) impact on one’s self-confidence, one’s sense of recognition and in the pursuit of valuable beings and doings?

Secondly, regarding the work dimension, the prestige and status attached to highly paid positions provoke a relational question: how does a culture of competition in a work environment impact on the freedoms enjoyed by ‘winners’ and by ‘losers’ and on the relations between these two groups?

Thirdly, regarding the political dimension: how do ethnic or gender stereotypes place heavier burdens on minorities and oppressed individuals participating politically or actively in the lives of their community?

The concept of human development is a major invention of the academic world that transcended its own borders and obtained some political recognition in international and national documents and institutions. A rearticulation of the process should aim to cross even more frontiers and become a public discourse accessible not only to the poor but also to those whose freedoms are limited by social inequalities.


Facundo García Valverde is Professor of Human Development at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and a researcher at the Argentinean Research Centre (CONICET). He has been a Fulbright Scholar and has published several papers and book chapters in different international journals (Dianoia, Análisis Filosófico, Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía and Revue de Ethique et Economie among others). His research areas are the normative foundations of the capability approach, republicanism and relational egalitarianism.

Cover image: by 900hp on Flickr

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