The first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990 defined human development as “a process of enlarging people’s choices” in order to improve the human condition. Over time, it also came to be accepted as an expansion of human capabilities, an enhancement of freedoms, and a fulfillment of human rights. Whereas economic growth schools focus exclusively on only one choice – income – human development embraces the enlargement of all human choices: whether economic, social, cultural, or political.
Many scholars, international policymakers, and development practitioners view human development as both an intellectual and policy breakthrough, given its success in reminding us of the ultimate purpose of development: to treat all people – present and future generations – as ends. When healthy, educated, well-nourished, and empowered, people are also the chief means of development.
Thinking on human development has contributed to a shift within global institutions, such as the United Nations and World Bank, and their member states away from national income accounting to people, their well-being, and the human capabilities needed to expand their well-being. When the concept was first introduced, the human development “brand” served as a critical response and alternative to (i) the 1980s structural adjustment policies of the international financial institutions, and (ii) a preoccupation by wealthy donor countries with Gross National Product (GNP), per-capita income, and other national income accounting tools.
In the run-up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 convened this past September in New York, human development continued to shape international policy debates culminating in the meeting’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. First, in the area of measurement tools, the human development composite indices (for example, the human development index, the gender inequality index, and the multidimensional poverty index) not only managed to draw attention away from a single crude GNP measure, they were also instrumental in how the international community viewed development priorities.
By “mainstreaming” these innovative indices into international development priorities, human development helped to set the targets and track progress for the 2030 Agenda’s precursor, the Millennium Development Goals, which arguably drove UN development policy from 2000-2015. As attention shifts to performance metrics for the 17 Global Goals agreed at last month’s summit for the next fifteen year period, the human development index and other tools will continue to inform and steer international policy assessments and deliberations.
Second, through hundreds of Human Development Reports prepared at global, regional, national, and sub-national levels of governance, human development influenced deeply the substantive focus of the 2030 Agenda, including its emphasis on non-traditional UN development concerns such as peacebuilding. For example, by defining human security as “people exercising their human development choices safely and freely” and “ensuring freedom from fear and freedom from want”, the HDRs contribute to an understanding of the often diverse sources of violent conflict and the need to invest skilfully in human development and democratic governance, in order to better cope with violent conflict and to reduce the likelihood of its recurrence. This pioneering work on the conflict-security-development nexus set the stage for the adoption of Global Goal #16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
Beyond shaping the international policy agenda, successive Human Development Reports in the 1990s and 2000s have also advocated for the following global institutional reforms, which have garnered political traction in recent years and will strengthen global governance for advancing the 2030 Agenda Global Goals:
- Increasing civil society organization participation in the discussions of the United Nations General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, and Security Council, which—except perhaps for the Security Council from a formal perspective—has become a growing reality.
- Expanding the global economic decision-making clout of developing countries by transforming the UN Economic and Social Council into a powerful 22-member Economic Security Council (ESC); many ideas for the ESC concept, one can argue, have been taken on board by the G-20 forum.
- The HDRs have also focused global attention on making the World Bank and International Monetary Fund not only more accountable for their actions to board members, but also to the people affected by their actions; they have additionally sought to improve World Trade Organization consultations and decision-making so as to make them more transparent, participatory, and democratic.
Besides offering forward-looking ideas for making global governance more inclusive, accountable, and effective, the human development paradigm, since its introduction at the start of the post-Cold War era, has ensured the vitality of the United Nations system – now in its seventieth year – by informing a progressive, interdisciplinary, and empirically rooted global development agenda, underpinned by the global justice principles of fairness and equal opportunity. These themes, as well as the corresponding threats and challenges to human development in its next quarter century, are the subject of a new book, due for release in January, on Human Development and Global Institutions: Evolution, Impact, Reform, by this author, and Dr. Arunabha Ghosh (Founding CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water in New Delhi, India).