Rethinking Human Development in an Era of Planetary Transformation

By Kishan Khoday

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to set a new balance between people and planet, in stark contrast to the heavy social orientation and human centric nature of past development policy. This background paper reflects on what this means for the SDG implementation agenda before us, with a view to making the human development paradigm fit-for-purpose in an era of ecological change.
Climate change and ecological fragility call into question the assumption that human progress will make the future look better than the past. Development is being destabilized, and so too basic principles of human development theory - capability, agency and freedom. What happens to the concept of human agency when humanity has revealed itself as an agent of planetary change? How can the concept of 'development as freedom' evolve into 'sustainable development as freedom' as ecological change causes mass disruption and as sensibilities about freedom and rights transform? How can development pathways shift from linear to systems approaches to understand the complexities of ecological change?
Ecological change is destabilizing the status quo of development theory, exposing deep contradictions in policy and in practice. The SDGs reflect an aspiration to bring together the social and natural foundations of development policy. Achieving this goal will require more than scaled-up investments and new technology. Transformational change will also require adaptation of the concept of human development itself.