25 years of UNDP’s Leadership on Advancing Human Progress

By Helen Clark, Administrator United Nations Development Programme

It has been 25 years since the first Human Development Report (HDR) introduced a new concept for advancing human wellbeing which challenged the notion that the level of economic growth and of GDP per capita were the leading indicators of a country’s progress.

That 1990 HDR introduced the concept of ‘human development’, which spoke to the importance of expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live.

One of my predecessors as UNDP Administrator, William Draper had the vision to support Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen (later a Nobel Laureate in economics) who developed this approach. Their first Human Development Report made a lasting impact on development debates and discourse among policy makers, and it continues to do so.

Since the 1990s, the human development approach has become an integral part of UNDP’s work. In the past quarter century, the impact of the global Human Development Reports has been reinforced by around 700 regional, national, and sub-national reports. These publications have helped to shift development discourse, and have provided innovative analysis on subjects ranging from gender and poverty to globalization, climate change, human mobility, sustainability, and resilience.

This success has not been without its challenges. At times, debates, particularly on data, have been intense. Yet the reports, and the Human Development Index, continue to stimulate debate in a positive way, and have expanding the boundaries of human development analysis.

In addition to being the 25th anniversary of the Human Development Report, 2015 is also an important year for sustainable development, with many high profile events, including the twenty year review on the Commission on the Status of Women, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, the vital climate change negotiations in Paris, and the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals.

This year therefore is an opportune time to highlight the contribution of the human development concept to development thinking and practice, and to UNDP’s leadership in this field. Twenty-five years on, these reports continue to have a major impact and to generate considerable debate around the world on development challenges and policy issues.

The 25th anniversary of the Human Development Report is also an opportunity to reflect on how to take the human development approach forward at a time of many new challenges, and the continuation of many old ones as well.

The human development agenda, with its focus on equity, empowerment, and participation is highly relevant in confronting these challenges, and in achieving lasting development.