Sustainable human development from the ground up

Mandy Yap argues that conceptualizing and measuring Indigenous wellbeing that is both relevant and usable, requires an alternative approach.

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

Mandy Yap works as Research Scholar for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR)

The term human development first gained prominence in the 1990s through the UNDP Human Development Report with three interrelated concepts – people, opportunities and choices (UNDP 1990).  Anchored in the capabilities framework, the focus on enabling freedom for individuals to live the lives they themselves consider to be meaningful was a much needed departure from the focus on income. The three concepts are still fundamentally important today. However, the challenges we are now confronting as a society requires us to think beyond the now, be cognisant of our diversities and lived experiences while achieving our aspirations within the boundaries of our planet.  

Amartya Sen’s 1986 Stanner Lecture, Standard of Living is an important reference point for the concept of human development. In Sen’s eloquent articulation, the complexities in differentiating between being well, being well-off, having freedom and being happy were shown. The inherent subjectivity associated with these concepts brings us to the next important aspect of his lecture, where Sen proposes the challenges of navigating the opposing pulls of ‘relevance’ and ‘usability’. Whilst relevance calls to us to do justice to the richness and complexities of the underlying concept, usability nudges us to be pragmatic and this often means defaulting to measures derived from existing data (Sen 1987; Alkire 2015; Yap and Yu 2019). 

The Yawuru community, First Peoples of Broome in Western Australia and I have taken up the challenge to ensure that ‘relevance’ is not lost entirely in the process of creating ‘usability’ measures. Conceptualizing and measuring Indigenous wellbeing that is both relevant and usable requires an alternative approach. As Smith (2012, p196) argues ‘When indigenous peoples become the researchers and not merely the researched, the activity of research is transformed. Questions are framed differently, priorities are ranked differently, problems are defined differently and people participate on different terms’. This necessitates a fundamentally different starting point from what is considered the norm in the academy.  

For the Yawuru, that alternative starting point is mabu liyan (YRNTBC 2011). Mabu liyan or good feelings is centred on Yawuru’s sense of belonging and being. Expressions of liyan are articulated based on collective structures and is based on living well with country, culture, others and within oneself. Achieving and sustaining mabu liyan stems from having strong family relations, maintaining and fulfilling one’s responsibility to country and culture, feeling respected and valued by others and being able to be self-determining on matters concerning one’s self, one’s family and one’s country. Furthermore, experiences of mabu liyan is intertwined with surviving in the modern world with Yawuru women and men negotiating the trade-offs in maintaining the various dimensions of living well against competing development activities on their land and sea country (Yap and Yu 2016; 2019).i  

Like many Indigenous nations around the world, connectedness is a key dimension of the life they have reason to value (Watene 2016). Connectedness extends beyond just relationships to each other but also to the broader environment, human and non-human world (Watene and Yap 2015; Marsden 2003). As saltwater people, Yawuru articulations of connectedness is multi-layered; from traditional knowledge and practices learnt as a child and transmission of those to future generations to the reciprocity of sharing and receiving the gifts from the land and waters. These practices are heavily dependent on their freedom to access the environment and their ability to carry out the responsibilities that have been handed down to through their ancestor creation stories (YRNTBC 2011).  

The work with Yawuru offer several learnings pertinent and relevant to building a concept of sustainable human development that is inclusive and relevant for our times, particularly for the theme of the 2020 Human Development Report. The first relates to process. It is critically important that the pathways to sustainable human development is paved by involving those who know their lives best. This requires repositioning Indigenous peoples and communities as equal partners in designing and implementing policies and programs. This approach has the benefit of transforming the way that data and information is presented and collected, by actively involving those who know their lives best, those on the ground living in communities. 

The second is the localising human development. Working with the Yawuru community reveal the many local specificities important for designing a tailored response. With the recent seismic changes related to COVID-19 to our lives, this locally-driven place-based initiatives will be more needed than ever.  Through more inclusive processes which better reflect lived experiences and differing worldviews, the resulting outcome is deeper insights into existing dimensions and better consideration of ‘missing dimensions’ which are often invisible partly because as a society, we have yet to attach a monetary value.  Many of these ‘missing dimensions’ are reflected in the global responses to the International Science Council.  

Perhaps in 2020 with all its challenges will be the year where ‘business as usual’ way of understanding human development is transformed, where the gap between aspirations of human development and the concepts and tools used to achieve human development can be narrowed to truly sustain human development for the coming decades.  

Dr Mandy Yap works as Research Scholar for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) since 2007. She is currently working on Commonwealth and State/Territory Governments funded Indigenous population project. She has developed this commentary in close collaboration with the Yawuru Community.


Alkire, S. (2015). The Capability Approach and Well-Being Measurement for Public Policy

Marsden, Rev. Māori. (2003). ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Māori Value Systems and Perspectives’, in Charles Royal (ed.) The Woven Universe: Selected Writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, The Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 24-53. 

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd edition: Zed Books. 

Sen, A. (1987). “The Standard of Living” The Tanner lectures on human values. City. 

UNDP. (1990). Human Development Report United Nations Development Programme, New York. 

Watene, K. and Yap, M. (2015) Culture and sustainable development: indigenous contributions, Journal of Global Ethics, Vol.11(1), pp51 – 55 

Watene, K. (2016). “Valuing nature: Māori philosophy and the capability approach.” Oxford Development Studies, 44(3), 287-296. 

Yap, M., and Yu, E. (2016). Community Wellbeing From the Ground-Up: A Yawuru Example. BCEC Report 3. 

Yap, M and Yu, E (2019) mabu liyan: the Yawuru way, in Routledge Handbook on Indigenous Wellbeing (eds) Matthew Manning and Christopher Flemming, Routledge.   

Yawuru RNTBC. (2011). Walyjala-jala buru jayida jarringgun Nyamba Yawuru ngan-ga mirlimirli: planning for the future: Yawuru Cultural Management Plan, Broome: Pindan Printing Pty Ltd. 

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