Introduction

The Steering Committee frames the Rearticulating Human Development project in this introductory essay.

teenagers reaching the world at campus by franckreporter

Thirty years since the first Human Development Report was published in 1990, our world has changed considerably. Current and impending crises in ecological, health, political and economic systems have become evident.

While societies and economies at large have become interlinked in new and more intimate ways, individuals experience disconnection and isolation at the same time. Fundamental shifts are taking place in how we understand ourselves and our connections to local and global societies in the light of new technologies, socio-political realities and deep environmental changes.

Since its introduction, the Human Development Report (HDR) has been influential in broadening the scope of the concept of development by pointing decision makers to the multidimensional nature of development. Progress could no longer be defined in terms of economic growth according to aggregated economic data, but should serve the broader objective of wellbeing. These conceptual underpinnings of human development originally driven by Mahbub ul Haq and anchored on the notion of human capabilities, that is, people’s real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value, have considerably expanded over these 30 years.

Subsequent editions of the HDR have explored dimensions and complementarities with human security, inequality, human rights, capabilities, gender, peace, environmental challenges and many others. In addition, Human Development expanded the statistical accounting of development, adding dimensions of development beyond GDP and providing a single-number proxy in the form of the Human Development Index. The transition from the Millennium to the Sustainable Development Goals in part reflects the recognition of the increased complexity and interconnections of sociotechnical and socio-environmental issues. Yet while the SDGs provide a set of objectives to guide development progress, they do not specify pathways or approaches to get to the goals.

The human development approach as a broader lens could be well-suited to provide perspectives and a common understanding to help address the broad and integrated concerns encapsulated in the SDGs. There is however, a need to re-examine human development in the present context. This includes attention to the fact that both economic and social development is now globalized yet uneven, with pockets of pervasive underdevelopment in advanced economies. While many have been moved out of abject poverty, many remain. It is clearer than ever that economic dimensions alone do not adequately define the human condition, and that multiple, intersecting inequalities and vulnerabilities are pervasive. 

Furthermore, the present context requires attention to the huge role of technology, in particular to the transformative capabilities of digitally enabled social and economic innovations.  Lastly, the inevitability of an ecological crisis and the urgency of climate change is also a key factor for the rethinking of human development, as it forces us to move towards long term sustainability alongside the need for short term just and equitable societal transformations. 

In short, the present context calls for a systems perspective. With this background in mind, we need to ask the question ‘what does human-centred development mean today’?

Rethinking Human Development Steering Committee

This juncture provides an opportunity for critical review and rearticulation of the human development paradigm to reflect the evolving landscape and expectations – a landscape that is globalized, technology enabled, and hugely compromised by growing inequalities, fractured and fracturing societies, environmental changes – and to provide a conceptual framework to guide analysis, measurement and decision making to support the achievement of the SDGs.

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