About Human Development

What is human development?

2015 marks 25 years since the first Human Development Report introduced a new approach for advancing human wellbeing. Human development – or the human development approach - is about expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live. It is an approach that is focused on people and their opportunities and choices.

People: human development focuses on improving the lives people lead rather than assuming that economic growth will lead, automatically, to greater wellbeing for all. Income growth is seen as a means to development, rather than an end in itself.

Opportunities: human development is about giving people more freedom to live lives they value. In effect this means developing people’s abilities and giving them a chance to use them. For example, educating a girl would build her skills, but it is of little use if she is denied access to jobs, or does not have the right skills for the local labour market. Three foundations for human development are to live a long, healthy and creative life, to be knowledgeable, and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Many other things are important too, especially in helping to create the right conditions for human development, and some of these are in the table below. Once the basics of human development are achieved, they open up opportunities for progress in other aspects of life.

Choice: human development is, fundamentally, about more choice. It is about providing people with opportunities, not insisting that they make use of them. No one can guarantee human happiness, and the choices people make are their own concern. The process of development – human development - should at least create an environment for people, individually and collectively, to develop to their full potential and to have a reasonable chance of leading productive and creative lives that they value.

As the international community seeks to define a new development agenda post-2015, the human development approach remains useful to articulating the objectives of development and improving people’s well-being by ensuring an equitable, sustainable and stable planet.

The human development approach, developed by the economist Mahbub Ul Haq, is anchored in the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s work on human capabilities, often framed in terms of whether people are able to “be” and “do” desirable things in life. Examples include

Beings: well fed, sheltered, healthy

Doings: work, education, voting, participating in community life.

Freedom of choice is central to the approach: someone choosing to be hungry (during a religious fast say) is quite different to someone who is hungry because they cannot afford to buy food.

Ideas on the links between economic growth and development during the second half of the 20th Century also had a formative influence. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and economic growth emerged as leading indicator of national progress in many countries, yet GDP was never intended to be used as a measure of wellbeing.. In the 1970s and 80s development debate considered using alternative focuses to go beyond GDP, including putting greater emphasis on employment, followed by redistribution with growth, and then whether people had their basic needs met. These ideas helped pave the way for the human development (both the approach and its measurement).

Human Development Reports (HDRs) have been released most years since 1990 and have explored different themes through the human development approach. They have had an extensive influence on development debate worldwide. The reports, produced by the Human Development Report Office for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are ensured of editorial independence by the United Nation’s General Assembly. Indeed they are seen as reports to UNDP, not of UNDP. This allows each report greater freedom to explore ideas and constructively challenge policies. The reports have also inspired national and regional analyses which, by their nature, usually address issues that are more country – or regionally - specific. A library of reports is available here.

One of the more important achievements of the human development approach, as embodied in successive HDRs, has been to ensure a growing acceptance of the fact that monetary measures, such as GDP per capita, are inadequate proxies of development. The first Human Development Report introduced the Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of achievement in the basic dimensions of human development across countries. This somewhat crude measure of human development remains a simple unweighted average of a nation’s longevity, education and income and is widely accepted in development discourse. Over the years, however, some modifications and refinements have been made to the index. Indeed, the critics of the HDI and their concerns have stimulated – and continue to stimulate - adjustments to the index and the development of companion indices which help paint a broader picture of global human development.

Take the Human Development Journey Course (2010), and online overview of human development (2 hours)

Mahbub ul Haq (1995) “The Advent of the Human Development Report” Chapter 3 from “Reflections on Human Development”, Oxford University Press.

Amartya Sen (1999) “The ends and means of development” Chapter 2 from “Development as Freedom”, Oxford University Press.

Selim Jahan (2002) “Evolution of the Human Development Index,” Section 2 from “Handbook of Human Development”, Oxford University Press.

France Stewart (2013) “Capabilities and Human Development: Beyond the individual – the critical role of social institutions and social competencies”, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper, 2013/03.