What are the implications for the policy agenda, both national and international? The story is encouraging but also cautionary. Progress is possible even without massive resources: the lives of people can be improved through means already at the disposal of most countries. But success is not guaranteed, and the pathways to advancing human development are varied and specific to a country’s historical, political and institutional conditions.
Much development discourse has looked for uniform policy prescriptions that can be applied across the vast majority of countries. The shortcomings of that intellectual project are now evident and widely accepted. They underline the need to recognize the individuality of countries and communities alongside the basic principles that can inform development strategies and policies in different settings. A global report like this one can draw general lessons and push the research and policy agenda and discussions into complementary domains.
If one size fits all solutions are inherently misguided, how do we guide policy-making? Policies are being devised and implemented every day around the world, and concrete advice is sought from development institutions and researchers. Some basic ideas:
The impacts of the Report have illustrated that policy thinking can be informed and stimulated by deeper exploration into key dimensions of human development. An important element of this tradition is a rich agenda of research and analysis. This Report suggests ways to move this agenda forward through better data and trend analysis. But much is left to do. Three priorities: improving data and analysis to inform debates, providing an alternative to conventional approaches to studying development, and increasing our understanding of inequality, empowerment, vulnerability and sustainability.
The economics of growth and its relationship with development, in particular, require radical rethinking. A vast theoretical and empirical literature almost uniformly equates economic growth with development. Its models typically assume that people care only about consumption; its empirical applications concentrate almost exclusively on the effect of policies and institutions on economic growth (figure 4.6 from the Report).
The central contention of the human development approach, by contrast, is that wellbeing is about much more than money: it is about the possibilities that people have to fulfil the life plans they have reason to choose and pursue. Thus, our call for a new economics— an economics of human development—in which the objective is to further human well-being and in which growth and other policies are evaluated and pursued vigorously insofar as they advance human development in the short and long term.
“Human progress,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts and persistent work. . . . Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” The idea of human development exemplifies these efforts, brought about by a committed group of intellectuals and practitioners who want to change the way we think about the progress of societies.
But fully realizing the human development agenda requires going further. Putting people at the centre of development is much more than an intellectual exercise. It means making progress equitable and broad-based, enabling people to be active participants in change and ensuring that current achievements are not attained at the expense of future generations. Meeting these challenges is not only possible—it is necessary. And it is more urgent than ever.