What is Human Development?

Millennium Development Goals, Rahulkepapa, CC 3.0

Millennium Development Goals, Rahulkepapa, CC 3.0

What is Human Development?

In this article, we shall discuss human development in international relations. We will answer the question: “What is human development?,” we will examine the history of human development in international affairs, we will discuss the different categories within human development, as well as how people attempt to measure this concept of human development.

Human Development is also understood as a way to measure the conditions of life in different parts of the world. The attention to human development emphasizes the human condition, and the state of individuals on matters such as health, education, food security, gender equality, freedom to make decisions, etc… Often, the attention to human development focuses on economic factors, and while that is one aspect of human development, one must not only look at other factors, but in addition, there should also be attention to whether these different indexes are secured within as society. This is important, since economic indexes of a country does not necessarily mean that economically rich countries (as a whole) automatically have better quality of life for all of their citizens. As the World Bank (no date) explains,

“It is somewhat easier to say which countries are richer and which are poorer. But indicators of wealth, which reflect the quantity of resources available to a society, provide no information about the allocation of those resources—for instance, about more or less equitable distribution of income among social groups, about the shares of resources used to provide free health and education services, and about the effects of production and consumption on people’s environment. Thus it is no wonder that countries with similar average incomes can differ substantially when it comes to people’s quality of life: access to education and health care, employment opportunities, availability of clean air and safe drinking water, the threat of crime, and so on.”

Human Development

“What is human development?” One way to understand human development is to examine the various definitions of human development in the literature.

The idea of human development focuses on the safety, well-being, and positive trajectory of the human being.

The UNDP (2015) argues that there are two primary concentrations as it relates to human development. Speaking on this topic, they emphasize that human development is an attention or focus on people, opportunities, as well as the choices of those people. They write:

  • People: the human development approach focuses on improving the lives people lead rather than assuming that economic growth will lead, automatically, to greater opportunities for all. Income growth is an important means to development, rather than an end in itself.
  • Opportunities: human development is about giving people more freedom and opportunities 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 skills for the local labour market. The diagram below looks at aspects of human development that are foundational (that is they are a fundamental part of human development); and aspects that are more contextual (that is they help to create the conditions that allow people to flourish). Three foundations for human development are to live a healthy and creative life, to be knowledgeable, and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Many other aspects are important too, especially in helping to create the right conditions for human development, such as environmental sustainability or equality between men and women.
  • Choices: 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.

This relationship between opportunity and choice is an interesting one, and a relationship that has been discussed in further detail. Others have talked about the idea of human development related to their daily choices (such as economic choicesin their lives, or political decisions), and then, related to this, not only focus on their actions, but also “the outcomes of enhanced choices” (Arab Human Development Report, 2002: 15).

Human development can be simply defined as a process of enlarging choices. Every day human beings make a series of choices – some economic, some social, some political, some cultural. If people are the proper focus of development efforts, then these efforts should be geared to enhancing the range of choices in all areas of human endeavour for every human being. Human development is both a process and an outcome. It is concerned with the process through which choices are enlarged, but it also focuses on “the outcomes of enhanced choices” (Arab Development Report, 2002: 15). So, the idea is for human development to establish a balance between these ideas (Arab Development Report, 2002).

The History of Human Development

One could argue that there has been an attention to human rights, and human development since early records of written history. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else[,]” and then also emphasized the importance of humans living well in society (Arab Human Development Report, 2002: 16). Others in the history of the world that have written about human development ideas include Ibn Khalduin, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, among many others.

Although there exist clear historical references towards the improvement of human conditions in society, the attention towards human development rose rapidly in a past fifty plus years.

The United Nations Development Programme says of human development: “Human development grew out of global discussions on the links between economic growth and development during the second half of the 20th Century. By the early 1960s there were increasingly loud calls to “dethrone” GDP: economic growth had emerged as both a leading objective, and indicator, of national progress in many countries, even though 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.”

In fact, this attention to human development is a large shift away from the traditional approaches to international relations. Historically, and particularly in the realist theoretical model of international relations, there continued to be a strong focus on the state, and national security. However, ideas of human rights and non-state actors being treated as equal importance, or as the center piece of these international issues was not the reality.

But, it was in the 1960s and then in the early 1970s that the movement and attention towards human development began to increase. While state security did not go away in terms of overall importance in international relations, the attention and importance of human security rose. The world started to pay more attention to the importance of human health, education, economic and political freedoms, etc… Even states realized that human insecurity could impact their domestic and international security. Individuals (and societies) that were not reaching high human development levels in turn were often effected economically, politically, and militarily, all things that the state leaders cared about. Therefore, having domestic stability and happiness could in turn lead to better conditions for the government leaders and their state as a whole. The United Nations, for example, speaks about their historical attention to human development, saying:

The first time that an operational and intellectually coherent vision of a people-focused development strategy emerged was in the 1970s, when the ILO World Employment Programme developed a strategy for meeting basic needs. This strategy emerged from careful analyses at country level of problems of employment, poverty, and inequality in a dozen or more countries. Comprehensive employment strategy missions visited Colombia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, the Philippines, Sudan, and other countries, while their conclusions were generalized by an ambitious research program. This led to the preparation of a synthesis of required actions that became embodied in Employment, Growth and Basic Needs: A One World Problem, the basic document submitted to the 1976 ILO World Employment Conference.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the international community came together with the goal of publishing the first of many Human Development Reports, which discussed world human conditions, as well as outlining how the global actors hoped to measure human development. This report was critical for the development of human rights and human development, as it placed the focus of countries on the people within the state. The report began with the following words: “People are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy and creative lives. This may appear to be a simple truth. But it is often forgotten in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth.”

Following the 1990 Human Rights Development Report, subsequent reports continued, and many of these reports focused on different human development themes such as human security, gender, poverty reduction, consumption, globalization and human development, human rights and human development, reports on the lack of water, the Millennium Development Goals, etc… (Alkire, 2010). As the United Nations explains, “In later reports and in work outside the UN, the concept has been refined and elaborated. For example, human development as a paradigm now emphasizes broadening choices and strengthening capabilities, based on conceptual and analytical work by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, among many others” (2009: 2).

Categories of Human Development

As mentioned above, one of the key ways that the international community has worked to improve overall human development is through international efforts through international organizations such as the United Nations. The UN, along with the World Bank, has created the Millennium Development Goals in 1990, in which they set a number of human development targets that they hoped to reach. Within the Millennium Development Goals, there was a hope that they could work on human development indicators such as improving maternal health, reducing child mortality, ensuring universal primary education, eradicate poverty, ensure gender equality, among other goals.

How do you measure human development?

Part of the problem with the measurement of human development is that one would have to agree, without any debate, about what characteristics make up human development.

One of the most emphasized aspects of measuring human development focuses on the importance of economics.

There have also been specific measures developed that scholars and policymakers have hoped would be able to capture human development. One of the most known datasets regarding this topic is the Human Development Index (HDI). The

HDI measurement

“is composed of three equally weighted indices for health education and income each of which is composed through measurement of various proxies for these factors.

HDI = 1/3 Health Index + 1/3 Education Index + 1/3 Standard of Living Index” (Nefs, 2009).

There are a number of specific category measures that go into the HDI measurement. For example, there is the health measurement, the standard of living index, log income, and health index (Nefs, 2009). Here are how the health and education indexes are measured. Namely,

The Health Index represents the extent to which life expectancy (LE) in the region analysed is greater than minimum life expectancy (Min LE) as a proportion of the maximum difference between possible life expectancies. Here Min LE is determined by the UN to be 25 and the maximum life expectancy (Max LE) in the world is set at 85 (roughly the life expectancy in Japan).

Health Index = (LE – Min LE) / (Max LE – Min LE) (LE – 25) / (85 – 25) (Nefs, 2009).

When looking at education,

The Education Index has two component parts. The first is the literacy rate of the region analysed (given a weight of two-thirds) and the second is the enrolment rate of the region (given a weight of one-third)

Education Index = 2/3 Literacy Rate + 1/3 Enrolment Rate

The literacy rate is defined as the percentage of people of the age 16 or over who are literate (can read and understand a simple statement regarding their day-to-day life). The enrolment rate is defined as the percentage of children of school-going age (primary, secondary and tertiary) who go to school.

Literacy Rate = Number of Literates (16+) / Number of People (16+) Enrolment Rate = Number attending school / Number of school-going age (Nefs, 2009).

Moreover, there is also a measure for example, that looks at Gender-related development, which is “an indicator that adjusts the average HDI achievement to reflect inequalities between men and women along the three basic dimensions” (Jolly, Emmerij, & Weiss, 2009: 2). There is also a Gender Empowerment Measure, which is “an indicator that focuses on the opportunities open to women. It measures inequality of opportunities in three areas: political participation and decision making; economic participation and decision making; and power over economic resources” (Jolly, Emmerij, & Weiss, 2009: 2).

The Human Development Index is helpful as it can allow us to compare human development conditions across countries. However, we should not assume that the HDI is a perfect measurement. For example, the Arab Human Development (2002) states of the Human Development Index:

A number of observations can be made about the HDI. First, the HDI is not a comprehensive measure of human development. Its focus on the three basic dimensions outlined above inevitably means that it cannot take into account a number of other important dimensions of human development. Second, the index is composed of long-term human- development outcomes. Thus it cannot reflect input efforts in terms of policies nor can it measure short-term human-development achievements. Third, it is an average measure and thus masks a series of disparities and in- equalities within countries. Disaggregation of the HDI in terms of gender, region, race and ethnic group can point up urgent areas for action that the average inevitably conceals. Fourth, income enters into the HDI not in its own right but as a proxy for resources needed to have a decent standard of living.

The Population Reference Bureau (2004) makes a similar point saying that while the HDI is useful, and allow us a great beginning as it pertains to understanding and measuring, human development indicators, “the concept of human development is much broader and more complex than any summary measure can capture, even when supplemented by other indices. The HDI is not a comprehensive measure. It does not include important aspects of human development, notably the ability to participate in the decisions that affect one’s life and to enjoy the respect of others in the community. A person can be rich, healthy and well educated, but without this ability human development is impeded.”

Human Freedom and Human Development

One of the most important concepts related to human well being that is not captured directly in the HDI index is a human’s freedom. The idea behind this is that humans will be able to aim for whatever goals that they have, with the possibility of achieving them. Thus, true human development must have human freedom as its core. Without choice, without real possibility for goals and objectives being reached, true human development is lost. This relationship between human development and human rights is very important; “Human development, by enhancing human capabilities, creates the ability to exercise freedom, and human rights, by providing the necessary framework, create the opportunities to exercise it. Freedom is both the guarantor and the goal of both human development and human rights” (Arab Human Development Report, 2002: 18).

Human Development References

Alkire, S. (2010). Human Development: Definitions, Critiques, and Related Concepts. OPHI Working Paper No. 36. Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI). Available Online: http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/OPHI_WP36.pdf

Arab Human Development Report (2002). Human Development: Definition, Concept, and Larger Context. Chapter 1, pages 15-23. Available Online: http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/contents/2002/ch1-e.pdf

Jolly, R., Emmerij, L., & Weiss, T.G. (2009). UN Intellectual History Project, Briefing Note Number, pages 1-6. Available Online: http://www.unhistory.org/briefing/8HumDev.pdf

Nefs, D. (2009). HDI Project Report, Summer 2009. Available Online: http://www.india.jbs.cam.ac.uk/engagement/tataises/downloads/report_nefsd.pdf

Population Reference Bureau (2004). Human Development Indicators, 127-138. Available Online: http://www.prb.org/source/hdr04_backmatter_1.pdf

United Nations Development Programme (1990).

United Nations Development Programme (2015). What is Human Development? Available Online: http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/what-human-development

World Bank (no date). What is Development? Chapter One, pages 7-10. Available Online: http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/beyond/beyondco/beg_01.pdf