There is no human development without love

Flavio Comim explores why we have to pay more attention to Martha Nussbaum’s work in thinking about human development.

During May and June, the ISC will be featuring content by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP. ISC members and your networks are encouraged to participate. This interview was conducted by Asun Lera St Clair @AsunStClair

Flavio Comim is Associate Professor of Economics and Ethics at IQS School of Management, Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain and Affiliated Lecturer in Human Development and Ecosystems at the University of Cambridge, UK.

How could we rethink our conceptual understanding of human development considering the contemporary context?

There are two key theoretical points to consider in a re-thinking about the concept of human development: one related to Amartya Sen, the other to Martha Nussbaum. Both points are grounded on my diagnostic that human development, in its current formulation, captures too little of Sen’s Capability and Social Choice Approach and incredibly ignores Nussbaum’s Capabilities and Political emotions framework. I dispute the claims, by some scholars, that human development is based on the Capability Approach. Rather, I believe that is a direct application of the Basic Needs Approach, later expressed in a capability language.

But let me be clearer. If human development wants to be true to Amartya Sen’s thought, then, it should consider it in all its extension. My view is that his main approach is not the Capability Approach, but what can be called ‘Sen’s Social Choice approach’. Indeed, this seems evident in one of his latest books, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, published in 2017 (an expanded edition of a book he wrote in 1970) that shows how capabilities are related to informational pluralism in his broader framework that tackles wider issues of critical scrutiny, partial and meta-rankings, etc. It seems natural that if we wish to rethink our conceptual understanding of human development, we should fully take Sen’s Social Choice approach into account. This is in fact a significant opportunity for refreshing and reinvigorating human development.  

But this might not be enough. One of the greatest injustices perpetrated by Human Development Reports is how they ignored the work carried out by Martha Nussbaum in the last 30 years. I do not blame the Human Development Report Office here but the work of some capability scholars who have stereotyped Nussbaum’s work as if it were only about capability lists. Rather, she talks about gender discrimination, women empowerment, disability, animal rights, immigration, aging, inequality, poverty, the workplace, children, play, education, parks, family finances and a wide range of topics that are central to human development. Her work is much more centred on ethics and ‘micro categories’, when we compare it to Sen’s work, which seems to offer a more ‘macro’ look into issues such as health and education. More importantly, she invites us to think about the importance of love and compassion for human development. Taken together, Sen’s Social Choice Approach and Nussbaum’s Capabilities and Political Emotions Framework can stimulate a rebirth of human development thought.

Could you clarify what are, in your view, Nussbaum’s key contributions to a rethinking of human development?

Human development is still a subject dominated by macro analytical categories that more often than not apply mostly to entire countries. We are talking here about public spending, life expectancy, income per capita, education enrolment, among many others. But in real life, human development is not merely about what governments do but about people’s life experiences and attitudes. For instance, there is no point in governments enacting anti-discrimination laws if their citizens are not willing to comply with them. The beauty of Nussbaum work lies in tackling fragilities in human nature that can only be fully appreciated from an ethical perspective. Although Sen is fonder of regularly referring to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, it is Nussbaum who provides the ethical elements that can be used to examine humanity’s struggles for autonomy and love.

Can we talk about human development without taking into account people’s moral psychology? It is doubtful. But so far that is what human development has done. Opening the doors of human development to Nussbaum’s work is a first step in the direction of contextualising development as part of humanity’s struggle for meaning. Furthermore, Nussbaum’s work can provide a bridge between Aristotelian and Kantian constructs that inhabit HDRs. Finally, I would like to mention that her work invites us to think about political issues that are extremely relevant to contemporary times (of pandemic and exacerbation of inequalities).

What are the key challenges to human-centric development in the world today?

The world is much more unequal today than it was when the first HDR was published. Wealthy corporations and rich people are ‘out of control’: no one seems to monitor their earnings, and tax evasion as well as tax avoidance have weakening societies’ power to improve the quality of life of their citizens. As much as the theme of inequality is always present in human development discussions, the issue of power related to inequality has not been fully addressed. This is essential to talk about how humans are using natural resources and how democracy has been challenged by kleptocratic and plutocratic regimes.

The fact is that human-centric development is not human-centric enough. If we could open the Pandora’s box of power, democracy and politics we would be able to understand not only how different societies think (or not) about the common good but how they affect the way that humanity relates to nature and their multiple forms of life. We cannot think outside the human-centric development box without exploring this first, because what humans do to ecosystems is nothing but a consequence of what they do to themselves. The 2007/08 HDR on Climate Change showed how the impacts of climate change on the poor are much more severe because of their vulnerability and lack of resilience. This lack of resilience arises from the simple fact that the non-poor do not seem to care much about the poor.

Another key challenge relates to implementation. Human Development Reports are very normative. When I worked for UNDP Brazil, I was responsible for conveying HDI updates and HDR main messages to the media. Sometimes I would feel as if I were a priest bringing the good news of salvation (or warning against the doom). But the tough issues, which are issues of implementation, would often be bypassed. I understand that HDRs cannot get to particular details, but by avoiding concrete implementation issues, they end up ignoring the tough realities that should be faced. Perhaps there is something that should be more worrying in my remarks. It might well be the case that human development talks in theory about bottom-up, participatory policies but that in practice is driven by the (top-down) assumption that once national governments are convinced by the main messages in its reports, everything else will follow. In my own development practice I have seen how UNDP often focuses its energy in engaging with governments and key stakeholders on the assumption that governments have the power and resources to effectively implement recommended policies. Nevertheless, this view often ignores ordinary people’s power to make things happen. An alternative model of implementation in which HDRs were written to ordinary people and not to governments could be much more effective.

The impact of the human development approach has been limited and what still dominates in the world is the idea of economic growth and macroeconomic stability. What can be done to influence more successfully policy and decision-making?

I would like to answer this question with two personal short stories. When I left my university job to work as a senior economist in Brazil, my work there was to coordinate a human development report. I remember when my Country Chair came to my office and said, “please prepare five themes for next week that you think are interesting for the report and then we can choose one.” I had the biggest crisis in my life during that week because I thought that this was not what I was supposed to be doing there. The topics for a national Human Development Report were not supposed to come from a UNDP employee but from ordinary people. After considerable struggle and help from my colleagues, we managed to organise a network of national public consultations to define the theme of the report, that turned out to be a major participatory exercise called Brazil Point-By-Point.  We heard the voices of over half a million people. This led to learning about the issues people were concerned and to mature a human development perspective that ended up having a lot of uptake and influence in the country in the years to follow. In short, I would say that in order to influence more policy and decision-making, human development should tackle the issue of participation much more seriously than it normally does.

A second personal experience that shows ways to enhance impact emerges when Brazil was preparing its contribution to the SDGs – I was not working for UNDP anymore, but was asked by former colleagues to speak to UNDP officials in charging of organising a national consultation about SDGs. After explaining what we did for the Brazil Point-By-Point, I heard a lot of appreciation, but I was then told that the consultation planned for the SDGs in Brazil had a small fraction of time and resources for organising a proper consultation. Instead, the official said that he was going to organise a nice breakfast meeting for government officials and key stakeholders. Business as usual.

The distance between these two different approaches is enormous. We need to ensure that topics put forward under the human development banner emerge out of people’s own realities. It is of utmost important to represent this diversity and generate strategies to help people with the problems that they have. If everything depends on national governments, these may not have the same interests as people nor the resources and means to do certain things. To me the biggest revolution we need to try is to engage with civil society. Human development, championed by UNDP, carries the flag of integrity and impartiality, so much needed everywhere. As such it is extremely well positioned to promote dialogue, cooperation, and a ‘more vulgar’ approach to policy making (as Mahbuh ul Haq would use this term).

Redesigning implementation methods and communication approaches will go a long way in making human development more influential and more impactful. It is not merely about publicising one’s work (as it is the case of brilliant songs about SDGs). Good communication is not simply about speaking in more accessible terms. It is about listening. There is still much progress to be made on actually listening and engaging with ordinary people and assisting them in their daily struggles.

What should be the definition of human-centric development today? What type of formulation would you put forward that captures also the need for real engagement with citizens?

The history, not of human development, but of development paradigms as a whole, as illustrated by Gilbert Rist and so many others, has been a catalogue of failures partially because policymakers have not paid enough attention to implementation issues and to ordinary people’s moral psychology and sentiments.  Quite often, human development policies engage first with governments and key stakeholders, as I mentioned before, without considering the practical contexts in which these policies should be applied. For instance, HDRs can talk about inequality but in very hierarchical societies where people struggle for recognition (in Honneth’s sense), it might well be that elites might position themselves against these policies because they might eliminate their main source of ‘distinction’ (in Bourdieu’s sense). Working for the poor entails convincing the non-poor to care about the poor. But they will not do that if human development does not think about implementation and the design of mechanisms that might be conducive to the desired changes.

To me, a comprehensive definition of human development will have to take into account people’s moral sentiments, and we would have to talk about the types of societies where people love each other (not in a romantic way) or not. Martha Nussbaum’s 1990 book Love’s Knowledge and her more recent book from 2013, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters to Justice, argues that love is important as a pillar for just societies. The more I think about her proposition, the more I agree with her. I might even dare to say that human development is about love. If you are a rich person but you don’t love the poor, you will not bother about the quality of public services and the provision of public goods that are mostly used by the poor. If you are a white person and you do not love other people because they are black, you will not care about people being unfairly treated because of their skin colour. If you are men and you do not love human beings qua human beings because they are women, you might think that it is natural that they do not receive fair payment for the same job they do. And so on, for many other development issues. There is no human development without love.


Flavio Comim is also a researcher at the Von Hugel Institute, University of Cambridge. He has also been a fellow of St Edmund ‘S College, University of Cambridge. He coordinated two national HDRs, for UNDP Brazil and UNDP Panama and worked as a consultant for several UN agencies such as UNESCO, UNEP, ILO and FAO. His research interests include development economics, the capabilities approach, human development, education, poverty and aporophobia..


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