How could we rethink our conceptual understanding of human development?

Human development as “the aim of living a good life with and for others in just institutions”.

The ISC is featuring content by experts on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP.


In order to conceptualize human development, let me start from the wonderful Paul Ricoeur’s aphorism, “the aim of living a good life with and for others in just institutions.” I will spell out this in four terms.

First, a “good life” is expressed in the indicators of the Human Development Index (HDI) (long and healthy life, decent standard of living, and a good level of education) maybe more indicators should be added about happiness.

Second, live “with others” means you cannot live while your neighbors and co-citizens are starving. Here the issue of inequality is central. Living with others also means recognizing their identity, a la Alexis Honneth, between ethnic, religious, secular groups and/or networks in line with the paradigm of pluralism and multiculturalism.

Third, living “for others” means observing/promoting the ethics of love, hospitality, care, and solicitude for others. Human beings are not only Homo economicus but also constantly exchange gifts. Marcel Mauss’ gift relationship and the moral obligation concepts are essential to be considered and enhanced by all civil society actors, including researchers. For instance, while we denounce the lack of hospitality of some states and societies for refugees, we tend to forget to dig into niches of hospitality, in micro levels of cities, villages, religious or secular communities.

It is crucial to re-think the construction of otherness, not only with regards to who is perceived as the adversary and why that may be, but with regards to how we care about ‘the Other’. I would add to Ricoeur that the Other is not only people who live with us on the planet at this moment, but also future generations. This is related to the consideration of consumption in a way in which nature can be regenerated; it also relates to our claim for raising wages. We need to move more seriously into concrete steps towards minimum wage, heavy taxation on high levels of capital and wealth, a  “smart green growth” to be fueled by a desire for new, attractive and aspirational lifestyles (to speak like Carlota Perez) and a slow-growth economy and its corollaries (including the need for cheap and low-carbon public transportation, seeing public services as investments rather than liabilities, and for increasing the security of labor markets).

Finally, Ricoeur’s phrase “in just institution” refers to the establishment of a pluralistic and democratic system.  

Such conception of human development calls for an engagement at three levels: the individual level operates with acknowledgment of the anthropological quality of human being as a moral subject who strikes a balance between his/her freedom and responsibility, between rights and duties, and can be in solidarity with his/her neighbors and persons in need.

The community level is crucial and requires not only citizenship and human rights but also the politics of recognition. The current movement “Black life matters” in US and the Europe is part of this politics: recognition starts when acknowledging the race injustice, against white supremacy and its colonial and slavery heritage (symbolized by statues).

Finally, in at the State level, it is a matter of responsibility for the public good.  In this regard, the work of five female economists, that was  praised by the Financial Times, is very instrumental, providing some alternatives to mainstream neo-liberal policies: Esther Duflo (Nobel Prize 2019), Mariana Mazzucato, Stephanie Kelton, Carlota Perez, and Kate Raworth. For instance,  Mariana Mazzucato and her case study on innovation, rightly argues that much of commercial innovation and profit has grown out of government basic research spending, yet without return to promote a greater good.

In Lebanon, where I live, the local small size farmer cannot survive without establishing agricultural cooperatives. The corrupt political parties are so absorbed by the geopolitical game that cannot deal with urgent survival task for their electorate while sectarian voting can preempt new social movement actors from reaching the parliament and executive power.  

What are the major emerging challenges to human centred development in the world today?

Today, we have three phenomena that impede any development: authoritarianism, populism, and political conflicts.

Authoritarianism is more than the tendency of States to act undemocratically by deploying bureaucratic and police compulsion in social life. It is rather the systematic removal of popular accountability or participation in the decisions of the state and a substantial centralization of executive power in a bureaucracy. One can think of the surge of a soft authoritarianism, related to neo-liberalism, i.e., the erosion of the middle classes, the historical, social carrier of this system, and the weakness of national bourgeoisies with the absence of a process of productive capitalist development and replaced by a rentier economy where exploitation and precaritization of labor are the major two processes.

Such processes are very well analyzed by Karl Polanyi’s work on factitious commodities, which include Labor, Land, and Money. The State then will develop authoritarian modes of governance to shore up its power against popular discontent. In many peripheral societies, the capitalist class has not only become thinner and more heavily contested, but the state is more brutal. In the Arab world, some regimes, like the Syrian regime, are simply genocidal to their own people. Since the Syrian uprising, no less than one million of the population died, and half of the population is either refugees or IDPs.

Between state and paramilitary violence, we witness what Mary Kaldor qualified as new wars: the growth in organized violence and its changing nature in late modernity have led to both more wars and an increase in their moral degradation. No human development is possible without addressing the authoritarianism; and not only analyzing it as a (neo/post) colonial phenomenon but also as closely related to the multiplicity of regional empires as well as divided local elite formations. In the Arab World, Kim Ghattas eloquently analyzes such local and regional dynamics in her book Black Wave (particularly regarding the role of Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia).

The second phenomenon is populism–right or left wing. There are varieties of populist surges in different parts of the globe. By that, I refer to a direct political bond between a charismatic leader and the masses, a bond that occurs outside established institutional channels, a bond that fosters anti-pluralism by the very claim of the leader that he, and only he, represents the people. We live in a real crisis of globalization and technical democracy (devoid of philosophy and principles). Not all populism is authoritarian and vis versa, yet, more and more there is a connection.

The recent book of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart on  Authoritarian Populism is very compelling. For them, after a value shift for the young generation in terms of their civic culture, populism and authoritarian leaders have attracted most support from those who view recent societal changes towards multicultural cosmopolitanism negatively. The populist hold on power and discourse is said to be anchored in State control in Latin America, in economic redistribution in the U.S., in immigration and protection of domestic economic opportunities in Europe, and in Southeast Asian in issues of corruption and criminality.

Finally, in some regions, like in the Middle East, conflict is triggered by two factors: different elite formations that do not talk with each other, with a thin liberal culture. Those who are hardline secularists often as part of leftist movements versus the religious people supporting Islamic movements. This is why we need a new framework for the relationship between religion and the State. I argue that post-secular societies need to be theorized as societies dealing with some collusion and blurring boundaries between what has been for long dissociated: religion and the State, ethics and politics and sacred and secular arguments in the public sphere. As Armando Salvatore puts it, postsecularity is generally associated with a plurality of views and practices resulting not from the negation of secularity but rather from the rise of rather comprehensive reflexivity on secularity and secularization.

Sometimes regional forces behave just for sectarian reasons (Iran or Saudi Arabia), or to divide the region to accelerate colonial practices (Israeli annexation to part of the West Bank through the Deal of the Century). Many Liberal democratic countries are more interested in selling arms than supporting democratic forces (unless these forces are allied with them). In brief, the triumph of all these mini-Trumps worldwide has given new energy to illiberal movements and dictatorships. The international reaction to the mass violation of human rights in many countries (Syria, China, Saudi Arabia, etc.) is terribly mild, if not nonexistent.

In March 2018, China introduced a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, entitled “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation.” The title might sound benign, but the resolution gutted procedures to hold countries accountable for human rights violations, suggesting “dialogue” and “cooperation” instead. Adopted by a distressingly strong majority, this resolution would become a start of a process to wither away the UN human rights ecosystem.

How can the human development approach inform public debates and decision makers about current and future challenges?

I think the COVID-19 crisis generates momentum for making the development approach more human. Just as Roland Barthes read Albert Camus (The Plague) as the battle of European resistance against Nazism, we must read the COVID 19 crisis as an existential human test being a political, social, and moral metaphor.

The post-pandemic should be prepared by us, social scientists, as well as all civil society actors and policymakers, in order to turn this tragedy into an asset. Just to remind you, the Great Depression in the early 1930s had the deepest impact worldwide, and the political responses to the crises were radically different. Let us take the US and The New Deal proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939. It was a series of programmes, public works projects, financial reforms, labor reform, inter-racial relation reform enacted.

On the contrary, Germany, in its response, was replacing democracy with a Nazi system. Michel Wieviorka, in an interview in March this year with the French newspaper, Liberation, reminds us that in post-WWII, the French resistance had created an Action Program for the Resistance which was given the label “Les jours heureux” (The Happy Days) in 1944. It is essential to say that it included not only some political measures to restore democracy, but radical economic measures characterized by the nationalization of large scale economic and financial institutions for the management of the economy, and of course some social measures, in particular the significant salary readjustment, the reestablishment of independent trade unions , and a comprehensive social security plan. The following 30 years were indeed happy days for France. Thus, it is up to us to decide in which direction we will go.


Sari Hanafi

Sari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut and editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (Arabic) and Chair of Islamic Studies program.  He is the President of the International Sociological Association (2018-2022) and previously its Vice President and member of its Executive Committee (2010-2018). Recently he created the “Portal for Social impact of scientific research in/on the Arab World” (Athar). Among his recent books is: Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise. (with R. Arvanitis) (in Arabic, Beirut:CAUS and in English, Routledge -2016); He is the winner of 2014 Abdelhamid Shouman Award and 2015 Kuwait Award for social science. In 2019, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (Doctor Honoris Causa) of the National University of San Marcos (the first and the leading university in Lima- Peru – established in 1551). (His website: https://sites.aub.edu.lb/sarihanafi/)

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