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‘Advancing Human Development: Theory and Practice’ by Frances Stewart, Gustav Ranis and Emma Samman

‘Advancing Human Development: Theory and Practice’ by Frances Stewart, Gustav Ranis and Emma Samman




The sting of this book on human development is in the last five pages. The first 220-odd pages deal with the history, intellectual underpinning, delivery pathways and political strategies of human development. The last few pages of the last chapter identify three key deficiencies of the approach: that it deals poorly with the macro-economy; that it does not fully incorporate sustainability; and that it privileges a focus on individual welfare rather than societal aspects. I would add a fourth deficiency: that the human development approach does not have enough to say about future global challenges. These deficiencies are important because they illuminate the inadequacy of the contemporary development paradigm, as embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is brave of the authors to end on deficiencies (their word), even honest, since all of them are or were deeply embedded in the human development community. Frances Stewart and Gus Ranis were in at the beginning, in the 1980s, along with Mahbub ul Haq and other collaborators; and Emma Samman, who is younger and joined later, has contributed especially on multi-dimensional poverty measures and on social policy; Gus Ranis sadly died in 2013.

Most of the book, of course, does not deal with deficiencies. It consists of papers published elsewhere up to a decade ago, updated for this compendium. There are chapters on: the emergence of human development as a concept in the late 1980s, drawing especially on the work of Amartya Sen; measurement through the Human Development Index; pathways and transitions, especially on how to escape vicious cycles and lopsided development; and the political drivers of progress. On all these topics, the authors draw on philosophy and on political and economic theory, and back up their frameworks with statistical analysis and detailed empirical case studies. An additional chapter explains why the authors think ‘happiness’ is a poor substitute for human development: eat your heart out, Aristotle.

This is a serious and influential body of work. The book is a useful reference and a practical guide. The key takeaways are that: the concept of human development captures many of the key elements of human capability and well-being; measurement through the Human Development Index is imperfect and incomplete (as the designers always emphasised); growth and human development are interdependent; and there are no recipes for success, except that over-emphasis on either growth or social development should be avoided (this is lopsided development).

That is an over-simplification: the book is rich in analysis of the impact of growth, the sequencing of social policy investments and the need to manage the Polanyi Swings of the political and policy cycle. Still, the simplification summarises important lessons about development, often forgotten in reliance on GDPGross Domestic Product growth as a target and income poverty as an indicator of progress.

Today, the key messages of the human development approach may seem self-evident. That was not the case in the 1980s, when structural adjustment dominated the agenda. The seeds of an alternative approach were sown by Amartya Sen, as noted, by Frances Stewart herself, with Richard Jolly and Andrea Cornea, in Adjustment with a Human Face, and by those working on livelihoods, participation and food security, including but not only at IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex in Sussex. The Human Development Report in 1990 marked a new beginning, alongside the publication in the same year of the World Bank’s World Development Report on poverty. Writing shortly afterwards, Michael Lipton and I described this as The New Poverty Agenda – to be distinguished from The New New Poverty Agenda, which came a decade later, at the time of the Millennium Development Goals.

In the present day of the SDGs, pretty well all the 17 goals and 169 targets can be thought of as legitimate expressions of the human development approach. Income and nutrition are represented, alongside health and education. Equality features, in multiple dimensions. Peace and justice are listed, associated with strong institutions. This is then a legacy of which to be proud. The framework is underpinned by a commitment to sustainability.

But what then are we to make of the ‘deficiencies’, the authors’ three and my fourth? Stewart et al provide some of the answers themselves.

First, they bemoan the way the global economy is structured and managed, calling for reform of the global capitalist economy, and the adoption of Keynesian macroeconomic policies to reduce macro-fluctuations and protect social expenditures. They would like to see a switch from a capitalist system to a sharing economy, where resources are owned and controlled by workers, consumers or the community. Human development thinking is disconnected, the authors argue, from this kind of debate, and so are the SDGs.

Second, Stewart et al say that human development thinking and measurement paid too little attention to sustainability, especially the responsibility of present populations to future generations. The SDGs, they say, remedy this deficiency, but human development concepts, measurement and policy-making need to catch up. In a key sentence, they say that ‘ways need to be found of promoting human development either without economic growth or with a pattern of growth and innovation that reduces the adverse environmental effects’ (Pg 233).

That is quite a challenge, and it may not be enough to say, as they go on to do, and actually as I have also argued, that the problem can be finessed by allowing poor countries but not richer ones to grow. What happens if the growth of poor economies depends on the growth of the rich? A serious debate is needed about how to deliver deep decarbonisation on a global scale. Is ‘growth agnosticism’ the answer, as per Kate Raworth (whose credentials include a stint as employee of the Human Development Report office, but whose doughnut book was published after this volume went to press,)? Or is the de-growth paradigm the answer, as promulgated inter alia by authorities like Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey?

Third, the authors note the ‘strongly individualistic basis of the capabilities approach . . (which) diverts attention from social or collective well-being’. (Pg 234). ‘Methodological individualism’, they say, ‘masks the importance of groups, collective action, social institutions, and social norms . . .’. (ibid). Stewart’s work on horizontal inequality and violence is reflected here. It is worth noting that Goal 16 of the SDGs, which is to ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’, has 12 subsidiary targets, which genuflect in the direction of accountable institutions and representative decision-making, but fall some way short of the social organisation implicit in Stewart et al’s formulation.

The fourth deficiency is my own, and relates to the fact that reaching all or some of the SDGs means hitting a moving target, because the world is changing fast. There are three fundamental drivers. First, the uneven impact of globalisation, driving political discourse in many countries as some citizens advance and others are left behind. Second, automation, which will create and destroy jobs on a global scale. And third, climate change, with mountains to climb if Paris targets are to be met, again with global consequences. This is about ‘Taming Cerberus’, Cerberus being the dog with three fierce heads, but a single body, who guarded the underworld in Greek mythology. Indeed, in all these cases, the test facing policy-makers is to manage disruptive change on a world scale: in effect to deliver an industrial revolution which manages the social disruption associated with transformation, and manages public policy and the sequencing of interventions so as to deliver benefits to all. Neither neoliberalism nor populism provides answers. And neither the human development framework nor the SDGs provide much help on the global collective action needed to tame Cerberus.

It goes without saying that the challenges to human development thinking will come as no surprise to those mostly closely involved in promoting the concept. Indeed, the family of global, regional and national Human Development Reports have touched on many similar themes: human security (1994); globalisation (1999); climate change (2007/8); new technology (2001); the future of work (2015); and so on. There is more to do, however. Thus, the concept of human development requires further advances in the years to come.


Advancing Human Development was pubilshed by Oxford University Press in 2018

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