Human Development

Human Development

Human Development is a development paradigm that is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means —if a very important one —of enlarging people’s choices.

Fundamental to enlarging these choices is building human capabilities —the range of things that people can do or be in life. The most basic capabilities for human development are to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community. Without these, many choices are simply not available, and many opportunities in life remain inaccessible.

Mahbub ul Haq (JPG)

"The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people's choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives."

Mahbub ul Haq (1934-1998)
Founder of the Human Development Report


This way of looking at development, often forgotten in the immediate concern with accumulating commodities and financial wealth, is not new. Philosophers, economists and political leaders have long emphasized human wellbeing as the purpose, the end, of development. As Aristotle said in ancient Greece, “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.”

In seeking that something else, human development shares a common vision with human rights. The goal is human freedom. And in pursuing capabilities and realizing rights, this freedom is vital. People must be free to exercise their choices and to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Human development and human rights are mutually reinforcing, helping to secure the well-being and dignity of all people, building self-respect and the respect of others.

People First: The Human Development Reports

Produced in 2005, this short film tells the story of the Human Development Report and features interviews with founding members of the Human Development Report Office team and a selection of their successors and fellow advocates. Commentaries include those of: Amartya Sen, Mahbub ul Haq, Inge Kaul, Kevin Watkins, His Majesty King Abdullah, Sir Richard Jolly, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, and Benjamin Mkapa.

Origins of the Human Development Approach

The Human Development approach arose in part as a result of growing criticism to the leading development approach of the 1980s, which presumed a close link between national economic growth and the expansion of individual human choices. Many, such as Dr. Mahbub ul Haq, the Pakistani economist who played a key role in formulating the human development paradigm, came to recognize the need for an alternative development model due to many factors, including:

  • Growing evidence that did not support the then prevailing belief in the “trickle down” power of market forces to spread economic benefits and end poverty;
  • The human costs of Structural Adjustment Programmes became more apparent;
  • Social ills (crime, weakening of social fabric, HIV/AIDS, pollution, etc.) were still spreading even in cases of strong and consistent economic growth;
  • A wave of democratization in the early 90’s raised hopes for people-centred models.

Many of its key principles, however, can be found in the writings of scholars and philosophers from past eras and across many societies.

As of 1990, the human development concept was applied to a systematic study of global themes, as published in the yearly global Human Development Reports under the auspice of the UNDP. The work of Amartya Sen and others provided the conceptual foundation for an alternative and broader human development approach defined as a process of enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human capabilities (the range of things people can be and do) and freedoms, enabling them to: live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge and a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community and decisions affecting their lives.

Amartya Sen


"Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it."

Prof. Amartya Sen
Professor of Economics, Harvard University
Nobel Laureate in Economics, 1998


Human development has always been flexible and “open-ended” with respect to more specific definitions. There can be as many human development dimensions as there are ways of enlarging people’s choices. The key or priority parameters of human development can evolve over time and vary both across and within countries.

Some of the issues and themes currently considered most central to human development include:

  • Social progress - greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services.
  • Economics – the importance of economic growth as a means to reduce inequality and improve levels of human development.
  • Efficiency - in terms of resource use and availability. human development is pro-growth and productivity as long as such growth directly benefits the poor, women and other marginalized groups.
  • Equity - in terms of economic growth and other human development parameters.
  • Participation and freedom - particularly empowerment, democratic governance, gender equality, civil and political rights, and cultural liberty, particularly for marginalized groups defined by urban-rural, sex, age, religion, ethnicity, physical/mental parameters, etc.
  • Sustainability - for future generations in ecological, economic and social terms.
  • Human security - security in daily life against such chronic threats as hunger and abrupt disruptions including joblessness, famine, conflict, etc.

A Fair, Sustainable Future for Asia and the World


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