Twenty years ago the world had just experienced a decade of debt, adjustment and austerity, and a host of political transformations were under way. With eloquence and humanity the first Report called for a different approach to economics and development—one that put people at the centre. The approach was anchored in a new vision of development, inspired by the creative passion and vision of Mahbub ul Haq, the lead author of the early Reports, and the groundbreaking work of Amartya Sen.
In this, the 20th edition of the Report, we reaffirm human development’s enduring relevance. We show how the human development approach has been ahead of the curve—how its concepts, measures and policies produced important insights about patterns of progress and how it can help chart a course for people-centred development.
The 1990 Report began with a clear definition of human development as a process of “enlarging people’s choices,” emphasizing the freedom to be healthy, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living. But it also stressed that human development and wellbeing went far beyond these dimensions to encompass a much broader range of capabilities, including political freedoms, human rights and, echoing Adam Smith, “the ability to go about without shame.” Its enthusiastic reception by governments, civil society, researchers and the media demonstrated the deep resonance of this innovative approach in the development community and beyond.
Human development is about sustaining positive outcomes steadily over time and combating processes that impoverish people or underpin oppression and structural injustice. Plural principles such as equity, sustainability and respect for human rights are thus key. We propose a reaffirmation consistent with development practice on the ground and with the academic literature on human development and capabilities:
Human development is the expansion of people’s freedoms to live long, healthy and creative lives; to advance other goals they have reason to value; and to engage actively in shaping development equitably and sustainably on a shared planet. People are both the beneficiaries and the drivers of human development, as individuals and in groups.
This reaffirmation underlines the core of human development—its themes of sustainability, equity and empowerment and its inherent flexibility. Because gains might be fragile and vulnerable to reversal and because future generations must be treated justly, special efforts are needed to ensure that human development endures—that it is sustainable. Human development is also about addressing structural disparities—it must be equitable. And it is about enabling people to exercise individual choice and to participate in, shape and benefit from processes at the household, community and national levels— to be empowered.
Human development insists on deliberation and debate and on leaving the ends of development open to discussion. People, individually and in groups, shape these processes. The human development framework applies to all countries, rich and poor, and to all people. It is sufficiently open ended, robust and vibrant to provide a paradigm for the new century.
The Human Development Report is an independent publication commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Its editorial autonomy is guaranteed by a special resolution of the General Assembly (A/RES/57/264), which recognizes the Human Development Report as “an independent intellectual exercise” and “an important tool for raising awareness about human development around the world." Read more