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date: 20 March 2018

International Organization and Human Development

Summary and Keywords

Human development as a concept seeks to make individuals the driving force behind state development. Even though international organizations (IOs) are formal agreements by and for the benefit of member states and have historically prioritized states’ interests, it can still be argued that human beings have long been the central concern of many IOs, even for some of the oldest surviving ones today. Nowadays, the human development framework appears to serve as the principal intellectual and normative construct regarding how to achieve national economic growth while building broad social justice and opportunity for individuals. Its allure derives as much from its coherent philosophical critique of past empirical development failures as it does from its incorporation of values and ethics appealing to a broad spectrum of professionals working in the development community. The human development approach was in part necessitated by the monopolization of economic development by states even from the advent of the enterprise in the 1950s. But despite the widespread adoption of the human development framework as an operative concept in the practice of development, it is not without controversy. Most of the critique is directed toward the underlying premises of the capabilities approach and the elements its adherents must elucidate in order to effectively implement its tenets in policy.

Keywords: international organization, human development, human development framework, social justice, economic development


“Human development” now serves as the centerpiece of contemporary thought on the factors necessary for individual and national development. Although there is no specific definition for the human development framework, it can be conceived of as the process of “enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human capabilities[…]and freedoms” (Poverty and Human Development 1980) by providing for social progress, economic growth, human and economic efficiency, political and economic equity, political participation and freedom, ecological and economic sustainability, and physical and financial human security (ibid.: Origins of Human Development). It is altogether fitting that international organizations (IOs) are in part credited with forming the intellectual foundation for the human development approach. Oftentimes, it was dedicated development professionals who discerned the linkages among the factors underlying human development by identifying and writing about the intrinsic economic and political deficiencies of state-centric growth planning (Poverty and Human Development 1980: for example, ch. 2; Murphy 2006:232–50).

Human development as a concept seeks to make individuals the driving force behind state development as opposed to traditional development thought which makes individuals the fortunate beneficiaries of state development. As the definition above indicates, human-centric development is a holistic conception that privileges individuals above governments. In other words, governments have an obligation to protect individuals’ civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights so that they may achieve their maximum potential. Since these rights are mutually constitutive and indivisible, it is believed that governments who fail to adequately protect any or all of these rights retard their citizens’ autonomy, productivity, and wealth-building potential. From an aggregate perspective, denying individuals personal development leads to structural poverty and broader economic and social underdevelopment since, as the UNDP notes in its inaugural Human Development Report (HDR), “People are the real wealth of a nation” (1990:9).

At its core, the human development framework links, as Sabina Alkire notes, “poverty, which is-to-be-reduced, and well-being, which is-to-be-enhanced,…” together in a way that recognizes overcoming the former as a necessary but insufficient condition of the latter (2002:182). Rather than human betterment being solely a function of socioeconomic development, advocates of human development also believe that constraints to individual autonomy restrict overall individual well-being. As a result, human choice and the political institutions that maximize it are equally important elements of complete human development (Cheema and Maguire 2001; Welzel et al. 2003:342). When conceptualized in this way, all the elements that inhibit individual choice – poverty, poor health, unsanitary conditions, environmental decay, illiteracy, corruption, political repression, et cetera – become barriers to personal advancement and must be alleviated to achieve total well-being.

Clearly, the concept presented here marks an evolutionary advance in the intellectual thought on the relationship between the individual, society, and the distribution of resources both within and across states. Its heritage can be found in the frustration many development practitioners began to experience in the 1960s with traditional indicators of economic development, such as Gross National/Domestic Product (GNP/GDP), that might indicate a rise in aggregate national wealth, but indicate nothing of its distribution across society or the accessibility of social services for the populace at large (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:62). Though GNP served well as a generic metric of state economic growth, it simply could not describe the daily reality of the world’s poor. As a result, income-based utilitarian or materialist concepts of development began to lose favor early in the 1970s when poverty was being reconceptualized as a condition not of states per se, but of the individuals who comprise them (McNamara 1973; Meeting Basic Needs: An Overview 1980; Finnemore 1996:90–7).

By reinterpreting development in this way, practitioners and academics recognized the importance of creating projects aimed directly at combating human poverty, which ultimately required new metrics to determine the effectiveness of such projects. Indicators were invented throughout the 1970s in order to measure the qualitative impact of development programs on the people they were intended to help. Two of the most well-known indicators were the Physical Quality of Life (PQLI) and Basic Human Needs (BN) metrics that introduced such measures as literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, and others in addition to per capita income (Meeting Basic Needs: An Overview 1980; Stewart and Deneulin 2002:62). Unfortunately, the desire to measure the effectiveness of poverty-alleviation programs to determine program efficacy ultimately led to a widespread practice of aid organizations providing the material necessities of life without much regard to other values, such as how people could make use of them to substantively change their realities (Sen 1990). It was simply easier to quantitatively measure outcomes again, like caloric intake, doctors per person, literacy rates, and others, than to qualitatively describe how the provision of such basic needs, or in philosophical terms Rawlsian “primary goods,” could change people’s lives (Sen 1990:114). Importantly, though, the PQLI and BN approaches marked a new emphasis on trying to evaluate development programs based on the outcomes they achieved rather than on the inputs they provided, with a particular focus on individuals’ well-being (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:62).

By the early 1990s, a further reconceptualization of development was undertaken, based largely on the writings of Amartya Sen who extended the concept of well-being even further. Sen argues that Rawls’s notion of primary goods – which includes those elements of life each person needs to be free and equal to others, like income, basic liberties, and access to the means of survival – simply describes “general-purpose resources that are useful for the pursuit of different ideas of the good that different individuals may have” (1990:114). In other words, the PQLI and BN indicators merely measured the means to an end, like individual poverty alleviation, rather than the extent to which enjoying the resources could lead to personal freedom (Sen 1990:115). Sen writes,

In the capability-based assessment of justice, individual claims are not to be assessed in terms of the resources or primary goods the persons respectively hold, but in terms of the freedoms they actually enjoy to choose between different ways of living that they can have reason to value. It is this actual freedom that is represented by the person’s “capability” to achieve various alternative combinations of functionings, that is, doings and beings.

(Sen 1990:115–16)

Though Sen’s capabilities approach is rooted in helping the poverty-stricken and disadvantaged, the analysis extends beyond them to indicate that even those with abundant means must have the freedom to choose their paths in life. With this philosophical basis, the capabilities approach offers “a powerful critique of income maximization as an objective, and assesses individual well-being directly and not via inputs” (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:63). Furthermore, it allows for the possibility of assessing the well-being of individuals across states (including wealthy ones) and classes since the emphasis is not on absolute material possession, but on how individuals can utilize their resources to choose their own destinies. The implication here is that even states that provide for diffuse economic growth could still be criticized for restricting civil and political liberties. Conversely, a state that provides for ample personal civil liberties and agency could still be criticized for failing to guarantee some of the primary goods that enhance personal autonomy (for example, Ranis et al. 2006; Volkert 2006).

Now the philosophical foundation was laid to integrate the provision of the material necessities of life typical of the aid offered by international development and humanitarian agencies with a values-oriented demand for personal autonomy and government deference to citizens’ physical and political needs. For years preceding the development of the capabilities approach, development professionals recognized that repressive governmental systems could not or would not effectively distribute development aid either by design or dysfunction even when they recognized their citizens’ positive liberties. Some even argued that developing countries were trapped in what Jagdish Bhagwati dubbed a “cruel dilemma” (in Burnell 2008:415), in which governments could prioritize either economic development or negative liberties, but not both (Donnelly 1981:643–6). Moreover, the principle of sovereignty prevented international organizations from openly criticizing governments for their failures in poverty alleviation lest they be perceived as being politically charged by treading on sovereign prerogatives.

The capabilities approach, however, offered a philosophy of development that could broach the topic of democratic rights and participation in a way that was logically consistent with the rhetoric of positive liberties to which most recipient governments already subscribed. The transition from providing for well-being based on basic human needs could be easily expanded to incorporate the full spectrum of human well-being based on the concept of full human autonomy. The marriage of poverty alleviation buttressed by a positive liberties perspective with the justness of human autonomy rooted in negative liberties was thus discovered in such a way that governments who had denied the relevance of civil and political rights to economic development could find little logically consistent philosophical defense (Alexander 2004).

Human development was elevated to its modern position of prominence due to the persistent efforts of Mahbub ul-Haq of UNDP to institutionalize the concept through his organization starting with the Human Development Report of 1990 (Sen 2000). It asserts clearly, “Human development is a process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical ones are to lead a long and healthy life, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living. Additional choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and self-respect” (Human Development Report 1990:10). Now, the premier development agency within the most universal international organization unequivocally announced its advocacy of Sen’s capabilities approach with all the emphasis on human rights associated with it. Although UNDP was not the first international organization to adopt a discourse of human development, it was the first to make it explicitly the central philosophical framework underlying the organization’s activities.

Quickly thereafter UNDP began to focus, as the World Bank had done in prior reporting, on the governance failures associated with poverty programs, noting that most developing countries faced a deficit of political will to use available resources efficiently and productively rather than for the benefit of existing elites (Gasper and Truong 2005:382). UNDP’s carefully cultivated reputation among non-Western states as the premier impartial, nondiscriminating development agency added credibility to its human development framework as it transitioned its work from project assistance to issue advocacy (Murphy 2006:8, 238–42). The human development framework was then expanded upon by UNDP and other academics by 1993 to include the concept of human security (Human Development Report 1993; see also Reed and Tehranian 1999). Newman describes human security as, “‘freedom from want’ and ‘freedom from fear’: positive and negative freedoms and rights,” to which individuals are entitled so that they feel safe and secure in their person and community and, therefore, have no need or desire to engage in conflict (Newman 2001:240–2). Human security proponents seek to turn individuals, rather than states, into the referent of security policy just as development proponents did with the basic needs and human development concepts. UNDP argues in its 1993 HDR, “The concept of security must change – from an exclusive stress on national security to a much greater stress on people’s security, from security through armaments to security through human development, from territorial security to food, employment and environmental security” (Human Development Report 1993:2). Others would even argue that human security demands an intergenerational component to ensure that today’s production does not inhibit future generations from enjoying similar qualities of life and opportunity (Tehranian 1999:180).

The ultimate UN institutional validation of the human development framework was realized in 2000 with member states’ adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were in part designed to impel political commitment from governments and to provide a means of evaluating leaders’ fidelity to meeting them (Gasper and Truong 2005:382). In the same year, UNDP augmented its support for democracy and good governance by linking human development as a matter of capabilities and choices overtly with prevailing notions of human rights since the latter came to be, in its view, intrinsically linked with the government accountability and social justice required to achieve human development (Human Development Report 2000). The practical impact for development IOs was the possibility that governments, especially those in transition, might now be willing to permit them the political space to help reform national legal and institutional structures to ensure equal access to government services and representation (Gasper 2008: section 5.3). Although democratic participation is implicit in the human development-based and state-sanctioned MDGs, it is not a declared goal; rather, the UN Secretariat has affirmed the importance of democratization to achieving good governance, which itself is a prerequisite for achieving human development. Nevertheless, UNDP continues to interpret its mandate – as the principal implementing and reporting agency for the MDGs – to include an emphasis on spreading democratic participation where possible as a means of promoting full human development (Burnell 2008:415).

In recent years, many development IOs, including even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Camdessus 2001), have adopted the language and rhetoric of human development. Whether or not their policies can be judged to be entirely consistent with them is another issue, but the fact remains that the discourse of human development is widely accepted if not programmatically incorporated by many IOs. Now that the concept of human development is understood, the next section provides more detail on how international organizations contributed to the intellectual evolution of the human development framework and how many came to adopt some, if not all, of its principles over the last three decades.


Even though international organizations are formal agreements by and for the benefit of member states and have historically prioritized states’ interests, it can still be argued that human beings have long been the central concern of many IOs, even for some of the oldest surviving ones today. The Preamble of the International Labour Organization’s Constitution, for instance, asserts that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice” and identifies eliminating privation, extensive work hours, worker illness, and discrimination as essential goals for achieving social justice (ILO Constitution 1919). Similarly, some scholars have recently begun taking notice of a potential competition between Article 1.3 in the UN Charter, which lists as a purpose of the UN to “promot[e] and encourag[e] respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all,” and Article 2.7, which affirms the principle of state sovereignty over domestic affairs (Charter of the United Nations 1945). In the past, Article 2.7 would not have been questioned as the more pertinent and operative text in the Charter. However, now that the human development, and, more importantly, human security frameworks have given states the option to abrogate sovereignty and intervene on the basis of humanitarian concerns through the UN Security Council, some advocates of people-oriented global politics hope to privilege Article 1.3 in future UN deliberations (Oberleitner 2005:191).

Yet, the human development approach was in part necessitated by the monopolization of economic development by states even from the advent of the enterprise in the 1950s. Rapley identifies four basic reasons why a consensus on state-centric development occurred in the post-World War II era. First, the ascendant economic philosophy at the time was Keynesian economics. Contemporary thought argued that economic growth was a matter of joining labor with capital, and, in periods of low private consumption, state spending could stimulate economic growth. Since developing countries were characterized by abundant labor and scarce capital, government intervention in the economy, it was thought, could spark broader economic development. Second, the scale of the development task for many countries was daunting, giving rise to the belief that economic development required a coherent, directed, social commitment to the effort. A strong state was thus vital to harnessing all of society’s resources toward the goal of achieving economic growth in a short period of time. Third, the leaders in many newly independent states governed with a strong leftist orientation, which made them amenable to the state playing a central role in the economy in order to provide, at least rhetorically, for citizens’ positive liberties. Finally, all of these elements were eventually buttressed by academia’s structuralist turn in economics and development theory. In particular, structuralists argued that strong states were vital for protecting developing countries’ industries from being overwhelmed by Western products in the international market (Rapley 2007:2–3). Together these factors enabled a development context that viewed the state as the center of gravity for development activity.

International organizations’ responsibility in the field of development quickly became assisting states, as the putatively legitimate representatives of their peoples, in the accrual of capital and skills to hasten industrialization and economic growth. From the 1950s until the late 1970s, development in practice was largely based upon two types of aid: (1) official development assistance (ODA) in the form of loans and grants from states and international organizations to recipient governments; and (2) technical cooperation (TC) whereby foreign experts would, ideally, train domestic labor to become competent and self-sufficient across the broad spectrum of governmental and industrial occupations (see Klingebiel 1999:36–8). The common thread binding ODA and TC was the fact that such assistance was typically channeled through government offices to enhance state capacity. Underlying this pattern were the assumptions that governments were generally concerned about all their citizens rather than any particular subgroup in society and that governing and social elites would endeavor to ensure the equitable distribution of resources and opportunity.

By the mid-1960s, the broad practices of economic development were institutionalized through the main international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and through the UN’s specialized agencies, funds, and programs, especially the UNDP formed in 1965. At the same time, states concluded the process of defining the human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) through the vehicles of the 1966 Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Soon after human rights had been defined by the society of states, the Tehran Conference in 1968 was convened to evaluate how well states were implementing them. Delegates concluded that too much emphasis in the past had been placed on civil and political rights at the expense of economic, social, and cultural rights. The conference proclamation noted that, “Since human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights, is impossible” (Donnelly 1981:634). This perspective gained a predominant position within the General Assembly of the United Nations through its Third Committee over the course of the 1970s. Indeed, the Third Committee issued Resolution 32/130 in 1977 stating that the practice of civil and political rights is first dependent upon achieving meaningful economic, social, and cultural rights (Donnelly 1981:644). In a review of the UN’s practice on human rights during the 1970s, Donnelly argues that “instead of redressing the imbalance, recent actions have simply inverted the original situation. Today in the UN, little attention is given to any rights other than economic, social and cultural rights” (Donnelly 1981:635).

Development practice was thus shaped by IOs in two ways. First, state-centric, or at the very least state-mediated, economic growth was institutionalized in the programs of all the major aid IOs. Indicators of development, particularly GDP growth, were oriented toward measuring state advancements toward industrialization, not individuals’ advancement out of poverty. Second, particularly through the halls of the United Nations, economic growth came to focus rhetorically on providing for positive liberties oftentimes at the expense of providing for negative liberties. From within this perspective, aid agencies could divorce economic assistance from the potentially debilitating and unpredictable vagaries of politics and ideological disagreement – ODA and TC were merely technical matters (Knight 1980:3). However, by the late 1970s many development professionals and academics began to realize that the traditional model of development assistance through ODA and TC was failing to reduce poverty for a large percentage of the world’s population. The causes of this failure included dysfunctional political systems (Meeting Basic Needs: An Overview 1980:1–5; Knight 1980), poor recipient institutions, lack of recipient ownership, programs that measured inputs over outcomes, and an over-reliance on foreign advisors (Knight 1980:187–8; Klingebiel 1999:41–51). Moreover, development professionals were often unable to overcome the difficulties they encountered in training domestic professionals caused by the cultural and scientific incongruities with foreign personnel (Wilson 2007:187).

By the early 1970s, it became clear that economic growth alone was not eliminating poverty quickly enough for the vast majority of the world’s impoverished. In many cases, even countries experiencing strong economic growth according to GNP still retained large percentages of citizens trapped in absolute poverty and locked out of the larger social structures that offered opportunity. As a result, development thinking in the early 1970s began to shift in many development-oriented IOs, especially the World Bank and ILO, to give “attention to four different, though largely complementary, strategies: increasing employment, meeting basic needs, reducing inequalities in income and wealth, and raising the productivity of the poor” (Poverty and Human Development 1980:v). The idea behind the Basic Human Needs approach was that

The only way that absolute poverty can be eliminated permanently is by increasing the productivity of the poor[…]In the long run, better education, nutrition, and health for the population are demonstrated to have a beneficial effect in reducing fertility, increasing the productivity of labor, enhancing the capacity of the individual for change, and creating a political environment conducive to stable development.

(Meeting Basic Needs: An Overview 1980:2–3)

Building up human capacity – what the World Bank dubbed “human development” – was now considered both a means of augmenting national development and an inherent moral–ethical end of all states and associated IOs to eradicate absolute (and even relative) poverty (Poverty and Human Development 1980:v).

With this transition in thought, economic development ceased to be solely about states and national economies industrializing quickly and instead became at least in part about assisting the most disadvantaged people while states underwent the industrialization process. Development aid now responded to two different but intrinsically interrelated foci, states and individuals, though the former were still afforded the right of sovereign control over the latter. Consequently, those IOs dominated by the large majorities of the newly independent developing states, such as the UN agencies and UNDP in particular, tended to maintain policies designed to build state capacity while some Western-dominated state and international aid agencies began providing funds to meet basic human needs.

Yet by the late1970s, even UNDP was becoming aware of the intrinsic failures of increased TC without a concomitant increase in local labor capabilities. For example, in the 1977 Annual Report of the Administrator, UNDP specifically recognizes the role of human development when the utility of capital transfer seemed to lose its ability to yield desired results. The report acknowledges UNDP’s responsibility to encourage ODA, but states

I am duty bound to place before you another operational problem, which is affecting the quality and performance of development assistance. Let me start, again, with the UNDP’s field experience. We have found that in too many countries the ratio between capital and technical assistance is out of balance. In many developing countries shortages of human skills and inadequacies and inexperience in administration and management are major constraints on growth and investment. More external finance is available than can be absorbed effectively. In other words, human capital – the availability and effective utilization of skilled people – has clearly emerged as the critical constraint on the growth of physical capital. In this context, technical co-operation has taken on even greater importance than before, and one can begin to raise a very meaningful and concrete question: Should the level of technical co-operation be substantially higher than it is?

(Annual Report of the Administrator 1977 1978)

In other words, even a member state-dominated development agency concluded that simply marrying capital with existing labor through developing state institutions was insufficient to meet states’ development goals unless the individuals working with the capital increased their skills as well. Now UNDP developed a functional interest in human development divorced originally from many of the moral–ethical arguments put forth by the World Bank. Indeed, a few years later UNDP cites a 1980 World Bank report on human development to substantiate its own evolving position.

With the referent of development transitioning in the late 1970s and early 1980s from states’ needs to individuals’ needs, the framework for evaluating developing states’ development policies also began to change. A new focus on alleviating absolute poverty through providing for BN exposed the harsh reality that states’ governing practices were complicit in individuals’ inability to meet their basic needs. For instance, the World Bank notes in 1980, “In many countries the biggest obstacle to good performance in meeting basic needs is not the absence of resources but political restraints that are placed on their use by entrenched interests. A highly skewed distribution of political power is obviously responsible for the failure to meet basic needs fully in several high-income countries” (Meeting Basic Needs: An Overview 1980:17). The privilege afforded positive liberties by the majority of developing states in the UN system was now starting to be challenged by the World Bank even though it programmatically could not necessarily compel reforms. Good governance, though, and the need for citizens to hold their governments accountable were once again meaningfully rediscovered despite the political deficit they faced ever since the Tehran Conference.

It was at approximately this time that Amartya Sen started coalescing his thoughts on the capabilities approach to justice. As previously noted, the basic human needs approach to economic development was certainly considered by Sen an advancement over purely state-centric programs, but it failed to address the totality of well-being. IOs supporting a BN approach could only scratch the surface of material well-being, let alone address the topic of human autonomy within any particular material structure. Perhaps most debilitating at the time, however, was the fact that state sovereignty was still considered supreme over other values, so IOs could not effectively pressure state governments to privilege the civil and political rights necessary for individual autonomy over the economic, social, and cultural rights that states believed superseded them.

Although the practical and philosophical foundations for reintegrating civil and political rights were being laid throughout the early 1980s, the political, economic, and social shocks emanating from the contemporaneous Debt Crisis turned it into an indispensable concept to many in the development community. For most developing countries, economic growth stalled or declined during the Debt Crisis, which starved state-oriented economies of vital revenue, leaving them only with the option of seeking loans from the Western-oriented World Bank and IMF. While the World Bank had been a leading international institution in the formulation of human development thought, programmatically it had been a key institution in generating the Washington Consensus, which stressed minimizing burdens on government activity in national economies by selling nationalized industries and reducing welfare and social service obligations. The trade-off for the IFIs was advocating for economic stability and attracting foreign direct investment at the cost of lowering standards of living that had been raised – though artificially through massive state borrowing – for many of the world’s poorest people. Though bringing the debt-burdened countries into trade balance and reorienting their production to the world market was an economic necessity, the Washington Consensus also sparked a tremendous amount of criticism for the humanitarian impact it helped precipitate.

By the late 1980s, some development IOs, particularly UNICEF, publicly chastised the IFIs for enacting policies that disproportionately affected the poorest segments of the developing world, and advocated structural “adjustment with a human face” (UNICEF Annual Report 1988). The IFIs’ emphasis on economic growth as a principal concern of development policy once again placed GDP growth at the center of policy analysis. In short order, significant discontent arose among many development practitioners and scholars over what they perceived to be an apparent reversal of the more human-oriented development policies and metrics that had become prominent over the preceding decade. It was in this environment that Mahbub ul-Haq of UNDP was able to incorporate Sen’s capabilities approach into his organization’s work by “[taking] on the leadership of large armies of discontent that were gunning, somewhat sporadically, at the single-minded concentration on the GNP” (Sen 2000:21). UNDP’s human development framework attracted many supporters whose primary interest was in providing the economic and social rights they felt were endangered by the neoliberal economic policies championed by the IFIs via the Washington Consensus. It also attracted some states’ support for this reason as well. But once the principles of the capabilities approach underlying human development had been adopted by UNDP and been blessed by member states through its Executive Board (Murphy 2006:240), UNDP became empowered to reassert the vital role governance plays in achieving development. Drawing upon the philosophy of the capabilities approach and the empirical evidence of decades of experience, ul-Haq used the UNDP’s HDRs to merge explicitly the capabilities approach to justice with the human rights discourse which states had already affirmed (Gasper 2008). In so doing, the human development framework found the moral authority to critique member states, with their own inherent acceptance, on all aspects of human rights, since they were once again viewed as being co-equal and indivisible. In effect, the human development framework as supported by UNDP effectively vanquished the disequilibrium between positive and negative liberties resulting from the Tehran Conference.

UNDP’s introduction of the human security framework by the mid-1990s formally operationalized the capabilities approach underlying human development by linking together all the elements that empower individuals to act in a fully autonomous manner. Hence, human security requires that individuals have their basic material needs met, that they have access to education to maximize their potential, that they have a clean environment to prevent illness, that they have the freedom from tyranny to make their own choices and value judgments, and that they have power over government to make sure there is an equitable distribution of society’s resources. With this intellectual foundation and the passing of the Cold War’s unwavering support for the sanctity of state sovereignty, new human-centric notions of international security were also being propounded by like-minded governments, led in many respects by Canada, even in such bastions of sovereignty as the Security Council (The Responsibility to Protect 2001; Oberleitner 2005:193). Human development as operationalized by the human security concept was quickly championed by NGOs and IOs alike (Oberleitner 2005:189) with Secretary-Generals Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan’s vocal support, which allowed these organizations to adopt a discourse that presupposed their right to intervene on behalf of individuals and that forced states to justify their refusal or be shamed for it. Mahbub ul-Haq’s efforts to affirm the MDGs through the UN formalized the link between human development and human rights (Gasper 2008), granting the United Nations’ specialized agencies and programs the ability to pressure or reproach governments to meet their development targets (Jolly 2004). While this did not guarantee governments could or would follow through, it served to completely alter the referent of development and the framework of responsibility in the process from enhancing the capacity of states to enhancing the capacity of states’ citizens.

By the late 1990s, the critique of the Washington Consensus put forth by the human development framework began to make inroads into the IFIs. The World Bank and IMF began to take the issue of human capacity and basic needs into account, especially as a consequence of the Asian Flu in 1997 (Camdessus 2001:364). The neoliberal reforms pushed by these institutions required governments to enact painful structural adjustment policies, but the IFIs expected that fiscal austerity would require them to tackle the twin evils of corruption and inequality in their political and economic systems. Instead, most governments begrudgingly enacted reforms over many years and elite interests were oftentimes protected at the expense of the most vulnerable and impoverished. With this lesson, the IFIs began to realize that long-term economic growth and poverty alleviation were simply unsustainable without good governance, accountable government, and rising human capabilities (Camdessus 2001). Although the IFIs have recognized the importance of human development to their programs, some argue that they have historically and still retain today an imbalance in favor of economic concerns at the research and programmatic levels (Ascher 1983; Rao and Woolcock 2007).

Individuals now serve as the central concern for nearly the entire development industry. Given the intellectual context at the beginning of the enterprise and the institutionalized protections afforded state sovereignty, it is quite amazing that such a turn of events should have occurred. Yet IOs have been integral to the process by establishing the legal framework of human rights through the United Nations, by discovering and publishing the importance of poverty alleviation as a normative and practical matter in development via World Bank and ILO reports, by building an intellectual community in support of the capabilities approach to human development through the efforts of UNDP, and by encouraging states to formally adopt the human development and human rights standards contained within the MDGs through UN General Assembly resolutions. The power of the human development framework will ultimately be decided by how well the concepts are actually put into practice by state governments. IOs and NGOs can advocate for them and help states design policies around them when requested by states to do so, but sovereignty in the end is still the operative prerogative in international politics. Nevertheless, human development is an influential concept, one government officials employ in rhetoric if not practice, and there is now the expectation that individuals have rights and governments have duties that previously would not have been inferred or demanded in the relationship between individuals and their states.


Despite the widespread adoption of the human development framework as an operative concept in the practice of development, it is not without controversy. Most of the critique is directed toward the underlying premises of the capabilities approach and the elements its adherents must elucidate in order to effectively implement its tenets in policy. The majority of this section will, as a result, provide a review of these debates in the context of how IOs can affect policy. What is blatantly missing from the extant critique, however, is analysis of the practicality and financial feasibility of the human development approach in policy terms.

In formulating the capabilities approach to justice, Sen self-consciously avoided the temptation to formulate a list of essential capabilities or rights because “If every possible list of primary goods (and every way of doing an index) makes some people’s ends very well served and others terribly minutely so, then the important feature of ‘neutrality’ is lost, and the entire line of reasoning of ‘justice as fairness’ is significantly undermined” (Sen 1990:120fn23). In other words, there are many values people may choose in judging how to be and act, so listing essential capabilities necessarily privileges some conceptions of values over others. Sen’s purpose is to establish a truly pluralistic and culturally sensitive version of capabilities that are determined by individuals and localities, not imposed by other states or domineering international organizations. Yet there is clearly an ethic of negative liberties in Sen’s conception since people must be free to voice and act upon their choices for “being,” and it is this aspect of the capabilities approach that has philosophically empowered IOs and NGOs to press for democratic accountability and good governance over the last two decades.

While many critics are sympathetic with Sen’s motivation for avoiding a universal list of capabilities, they are nonetheless concerned about the process by which societies determine their own lists of capabilities priorities. Alkire argues that there is a need to specify the dimensions of human development in order “to give secure epistemological and empirical footing to the multidimensional objective of human development” because at a minimum “communities need to figure out how they can exercise this freedom cost-effectively and reliably – they need streamlined methodologies for effective public debate” (2002:182–3). He also argues that lists could be essential components in preventing globalization from empowering elite interests at the expense of the most vulnerable by establishing metrics IOs and NGOs could utilize in “assist[ing] groups to make more informed, reflective choices” (Alkire 2002:183).

Martha Nussbaum offers perhaps the most notable advocacy for a list of “Central Human Capabilities.” Contrary to Sen, Nussbaum has “endorsed a specific list…as a focus both for comparative quality-of-life measurement and for the formulation of basic political principles of the sort that can play a role in fundamental constitutional guarantees” (Nussbaum 2003:40). The central analytical concern for Nussbaum’s list is “the dignity of the human being, and of a life that is worthy of that dignity,” and she asserts that such a list forms “a minimum account of social justice: a society that does not guarantee these to all its citizens, at some appropriate threshold level, falls short of being a fully just society, whatever its level of opulence” (Nussbaum 2003:40). Nussbaum’s list includes life, bodily health, bodily integrity, sense, imagination, and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species or ecological harmony, play, and control over one’s political and material environment (Nussbaum 2003:41–2). In her conception, the individual is entitled to each of these capabilities, and these entitlements cannot be infringed upon by others, especially governments, to meet other social priorities, nor can government deny some capacities in order to encourage others and still be considered a just society (Nussbaum 2003:40). Nussbaum acknowledges that her list could be modified to fall in line with other cultural values, but she still maintains that a list is useful for establishing each society’s baseline notion of social justice.

Although the capabilities approach advocated by both Sen and Nussbaum seeks to create a pluralistic – read non-Western – conception of human capabilities with individuals’ autonomy to choose their functioning and being, there is an inherent tension built into the framework that ultimately constrains individual autonomy. Sen and Nussbaum conceive of the approach as involving a “neutral” state, meaning the state should not predefine for individuals the limitations to their choices and instead should focus on the positive effects they can produce. Once a community – at whatever level and however democratically – determines a list of capabilities defined as providing for the “good,” neutrality is violated for those who dissent with the community vote since the state has the power to constrain their choices (Nelson 2008:100–3). This is because, as Nelson notes, “It would be plausible enough [to achieve neutrality] if the list simply enumerated rights to non-interference, but the entire point of the exercise is to stress that what must be delivered (to the extent possible) is the affirmative ability to engage in the specified action” (Nelson 2008:99–100). He concludes that

moral egalitarianism (the idea that all individuals ought to able to identify and pursue their own idea of the good life without coercion) and economic egalitarianism (the idea that coercion should be used to ensure a more equal distribution of wealth) cannot easily coexist in the same theory…Any scheme of redistribution requires the existence of a “bird’s-eye view” from which some person or group of persons is empowered to decide how much of what others have they may keep, and what should go to whom – that is, to engage in moral reasoning on behalf of others. Any such scheme must depend on a theory of the human being which explains why this person or group of persons ought to be the locus of moral reasoning instead of the individuals themselves. But moral egalitarianism is ill-suited to that function.

(Nelson 2008:115)

Thus, while the capabilities approach theoretically espouses pluralism and an emphasis on negative liberty for the individual, the reality is that this principle is progressively diminished as the level of abstraction moves away from the individual to the community to the state and even, perhaps, to the international system and international organizations.

The justice of any particular formulation is thus dependent on how closely a dominant list of capabilities in a given society relates to the one the individuals living under it would have otherwise chosen. For development IOs, this is an especially important potential contradiction with the human development framework since sociopolitical reforms are often written into aid programs through conditionality arrangements whether or not they conform to prevailing local choices. Indeed, in some cases, such as with women’s rights and education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the work of IOs and NGOs might be to specifically undermine the dominant values system in order to empower females to conceive of ways of functioning and being they could not imagine under existing circumstances. Nussbaum’s response to this, for example, would be to argue that such existing structures by definition could not meet standards of social justice since they deny women capabilities and choices, but this is because she has already defined the elements necessary for a society to be just. For a host of normative, economic, and political reasons, it is hard not to take Nussbaum’s side in this instance, but this is largely due to the fact that most Western-educated people value individuality, economic opportunity, and equal rights for individuals above other social norms, such as community cohesion or adherence to religious doctrine (however interpreted). Some argue this Western bias is a problem with the human development framework even though all its major advocates consciously try to open their lists to account for cultural diversity.

For example, Ayoob argues that the protection of human rights and human security through international organizations and coalitions is currently practiced without uniformity by the former colonial empires that retain the power to intervene in other states, which undercuts the legitimacy and practice of advocating for human development. He writes,

States unable to meet the new standard, defined in terms of human rights, become potential targets of intervention and tutelage if not conquest. When these standards are applied in total disregard of the social and political contexts in which human rights violations may have taken place, but at the same time selectively to suit the interests of the major powers, they leave the impression that, as in the nineteenth century, hidden agendas are at work.

(Ayoob 2001:225)

In a comprehensive review of the various philosophical attempts at forming a universal list of capabilities, Alkire recognizes a clear Western bias in the literature, but recommends forming a cross-cultural panel to reconcile differences, and notes that a certain degree of arbitrariness is acceptable so long as empirical testing determines that the list components “are useful not if they are universally acclaimed but if they are effectively used to confront the many challenges of this generation” (2002:193–4).

Aside from these fundamental philosophical issues, there are a number of practical problems associated with implementing policy built around the concept of human development. First, given the emphasis on individual choice, the capabilities approach necessitates a democratic political structure to determine society’s operative values, but many, if not most, societies across the planet fail to provide such a political context. How, then, are illiberal societies to equitably determine their capabilities priorities or even provide for individual choice (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:63–4)? It seems one answer would be to have the international community pressure illiberal states for openness, but this raises the issue of interference just discussed. Similarly, some societies culturally prize individualism more than others, so are the latter to be reformed to fit the needs of the individualism underlying the capabilities approach? If so, once again, who is privileged with influencing or demanding reforms?

A second practical policy dilemma relates to the fact that altering social structures to empower individuals is often the main political task of IOs and other agencies working within the human development framework. Consequently, it could be posited that human development is not just about determining individual choices of functionings and beings, but also about differentiating positive from negative social structures (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:67). Stewart and Deneulin assert that

the task of development policies should be not only to enhance “valuable” individual capabilities, but also to enhance “valuable” structures of living together. The latter can be defined as the structures of living together which will have a positive impact on people’s well-being (both instrumentally and intrinsically), enabling individuals to be freer agents, and encouraging them to form valuable objectives.

(Stewart and Deneulin 2002:68)

Certainly human development-inspired objectives, like the MDGs, represent the international community’s attempt to transform negative social structures, but Stewart and Deneulin’s formulation could lead to the conclusion that means other than suasion should be adopted when social structures are immutable due to the concentration of political and economic power, such as in North Korea or Burma.

If the human development framework leads states and practitioners to this conclusion, then a third policy difficulty arises. Can the international community agree upon terms of intervention in states to protect individuals from sociopolitical structures that threaten human development or perhaps even change them? If so, what would be the effect on sovereignty? Certainly some groups seek to formulate this type of international political and legal practice, and the human security framework gives it some philosophical and institutional currency (The Responsibility to Protect 2001). Yet as a practical matter, it seems unlikely that the UN Security Council would be able to operationalize this desire given the degree of division among the Permanent Five members (USA, Russia, China, UK, and France). Furthermore, the decision to intervene in another state on the grounds of human security would be done on the basis of privileging certain values over others, but this violates the pluralism of the capabilities approach (Oberleitner 2005:193–4).

A fourth problem could be raised regarding how to balance the needs of society versus the needs of the individual in the capabilities approach. Some human development practitioners and philosophers are currently exploring the idea that too much emphasis has been placed on the individual at the expense of society. To Stewart and Deneulin, “individuals generally need and depend on functional families, cooperative and high-trust societies, and social contexts which contribute to the development of individuals who choose ‘valuable’ capabilities” (2002:68). Hence Sen’s capabilities approach fails to direct attention to the importance of social structures and society at large. This perspective is further developed by those who, like Tehranian, would argue on behalf of the rights of groups or collectives (Third Generation rights), the rights of future generations and the environment (Fourth Generation rights), or even perhaps a general right to live in a world of universal “human caring, compassion, and love for all life forms” (Fifth Generation rights) (Tehranian 1999:180). If, in fact, intergenerational rights are discovered and convincingly articulated, as the human security and sustainable development discourses seek to accomplish, then a fundamental tension between the rights of individuals and the rights of society will inevitably result. Tehranian writes, “human security cannot be ultimately achieved in its totality unless and until we see the individual as an integral part of the cosmos. The tradition of libertarian rights, with its emphasis on individual rights, social contracts, and legal obligations, has positioned the individual against society rather than in society” (Tehranian 1999:180). The needs of future society would have to impinge upon the choices of functioning and being of today’s individual, and it would be the state’s role to enforce such a balance. Such a formulation of human development thus puts its ardent advocates in conflict with a central element of Sen and Nussbaum’s concern with human autonomy and choice. This conflict is not, unfortunately, just an academic exercise. Rather, the UNDP in its 2004 HDR has already championed the notion of cultural liberty, which is a Third Generation group and collective right that in effect reifies and privileges the importance of communities over individuals and their choices. The concept asserts that the right to cultural identity is an indispensable element of human development. However, once identity is institutionalized in society’s politics, the process of boundary maintenance becomes inherent to political activity, which favors ethno-religious chauvinists at the expense of individuals’ choices of being given the institutional recognition afforded certain identities over others (Recchia 2006). It is not hard to imagine other IOs or UN agencies, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reaching similar conclusions based on the expanded generations of rights.

The final policy issue relates to the difficulties associated with metrics and resources. Alkire acknowledges that developing a multidimensional, comprehensive, and reliable method for monitoring and evaluating the human development concept in culturally sensitive ways is a daunting task. Clearly the UNDP’s Human Development Index is considered a treasure, and its supplementary databases and indicators all help elucidate aspects of development that could not have been imagined decades ago. Yet a program of human development as actually called for in the capabilities approach to justice requires degrees of cultural sensitivity and values assessments that would be extraordinarily difficult to measure comparatively, especially when the task of compiling actual data in developing countries is added to the mix (Alkire 2002:194). Moreover, the capabilities approach attunes practitioners and scholars not just to overcoming the condition of absolute poverty, but relative poverty as well. While absolute poverty concerns subsistence living, relative poverty “requires that the relative poverty line varies with society’s expectations” (Volkert 2006:363). Given the extraordinarily wide gap between standards of relative poverty in, for instance, Africa and the European Union, it would be amazing to devise metrics that could adequately quantify comparative trends in poverty between the two regions’ social expectations.

There is also an element of absurdity when the notion of relative poverty is introduced to the human development approach because it becomes so focused on dignity as a central concern that it loses focus on the simple economic feasibility of the undertaking. For example, Volkert writes, “as changing norms in a society establish new social obligations, expectations and customs that constitute a socially acceptable socio-economic minimum, the means to fulfil these expectations have to increase in the same way to avoid poverty” (Volkert 2006:363). Since Volkert is writing in the context of the European Union, it stretches credulity to think that antipoverty programs could be constituted to such a level that they could prevent the indignity of poverty from affecting large numbers of citizens without raising taxes to crippling levels. Thus, the human development framework needs to engage not just a discourse of rights and philosophy, but also a discourse of accounting and financial planning that undergirds the economic stability of the state.


Much of the allure of the human development framework beyond its philosophical innovations for the development community can be attributed to UNDP’s conscious effort to construct the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative measure of development to GNP/GDP-based statistics. With this effort, UNDP created a central database of statistics which could be explored to investigate relationships and test new theories or hypotheses regarding the practice of development. Examples of how practitioners and scholars have employed the human development framework in their methodology are now relatively common. This section reviews the different ways scholars have employed the human development framework and offers a few examples for inspirational purposes.

First, the human development framework establishes a particular set of values, norms, ethics, and expectations of justice by which IO and state development aid practices can be judged. Instead of evaluating development programs and policies based on aggregate economic growth rates, now development practitioners have a coherent normative framework that focuses on the quality of life the programs and policies produce within and across societies. This framework has been especially pointed toward the IFIs and other IO development aid banks given their historical emphasis on macroeconomic issues. For instance, Neumayer examines regional banks’ lending practices to determine whether their lending criteria are most concerned with national income levels or human development needs. Implicit in the analysis is that human development needs should be given priority, especially now that the human development framework has become part of their rhetoric. He concludes:

All multilateral donors looked at here with the possible exception of UNDP take the economic needs of potential recipient countries into account and tend to allocate more aid to countries with lower per capita incomes…Nevertheless, given that all development banks proclaim a commitment to poverty reduction and human development as well, their perception of what constitutes recipient need seems to follow a narrow view in being confined to the level of national income. The UN agencies all seem to embrace a more comprehensive view, which again is maybe not surprising given the emphasis on human development in such agencies as, for example, UNDP and UNICEF, which do not finance big infrastructure projects and whose primary goal is not the promotion of economic growth.

(Neumayer 2003:120)

Neumayer also notes that, “The three UN agencies all give more aid to countries geographically more distant from the United States, Western Europe, or Japan” (Neumayer 2003:121). He surmises that this is in part a response by the UN agencies to meet development assistance needs in areas least likely to receive attention from the major centers of commerce, and that it is little surprise to see the UN’s agencies more firmly concerned with human development given its role in propagating the framework.

Volkert offers a complementary perspective regarding the European Union’s adoption of the capabilities approach as the basis of its determination of poverty levels. He writes, “The EU and Member States have reached a consensus on the normative desirability and adequacy of relative approaches to the measurement of poverty” (Volkert 2006:364). Volkert tries to extend the EU’s metrics on relative poverty to account not just for relative income poverty, but also relative capabilities poverty, which makes pertinent a minimum socially expected quality of life necessary to sustain individual dignity, and, therefore, full autonomy and choice. He advocates for a two-stage poverty assessment comprising a “survival package” required to sustain life, and a dignity package that allows people to function effectively in a given social setting. Volkert argues, “Only if these aspects of poverty are taken into account is it possible to finance a house that provides more than just shelter, to provide clothing that enables a person to appear in public without shame, or to buy food according to one’s tastes and social customs” (Volkert 2006:370). Thus, the EU’s normative attachment to the capabilities approach to justice could, theoretically, directly affect its member states’ antipoverty policies in the future, which under this framework would add tremendous fiscal burdens to government budgets given the standards of living enjoyed, and consequently expected, in Europe.

Second, human development can be used as a theory to derive key values, variables, and hypotheses in statistically evaluating relationships and processes in the practice of development. Welzel, Inglehart, and Klingemann, for instance, have put forth a theory of human development that posits that social change along three dimensions – socioeconomic development, emancipative cultural values, and democracy-backed rule of law – is necessary for achieving high levels of human development (Welzel et al. 2003). Socioeconomic development increases people’s resources and breaks social dependencies that restrict choices, while emancipative cultural values afford individuals the sociopolitical space to act upon their choices of being. Democratic institutions are important in this theory because they legally protect individuals’ acquisition of resources and their choices regarding how to use them (Welzel et al. 2003:345). Their “theory of human development maintains that effective democracy is linked to emancipative mass values and that these values are in turn linked to people’s available resources” (Welzel et al. 2003:350). Based on this theory, Welzel et al. seek out variables that adequately represent the various elements the human development theory suggests have relevance, and conduct a series of statistical analyses to determine the strength of relationships. They conclude,

The empirical evidence indicates that the syndrome of human development is shaped by a causal priority of individual resources and emancipative values over effective democracy. Democracy is effective only to the degree that it finds support by a mass culture that emphasizes human emancipation. Such an emancipative culture needs a socioeconomic basis that reduces existential constraints on human autonomy. Effective democracy is an evolutionary phenomenon that cannot be simply created through intelligent constitutional engineering.

(Welzel et al. 2003:371)

Instead of using existing human development statistics, such as those contained in the Human Development Index, the authors use the theory to inform a process of discovering a wider array of variables to gain further insight into the direction of causality in the development process.

A third method of utilizing the concept of human development is as an empirical measure of individuals’ quality of life. Clearly the UNDP’s Human Development Index has been essential to this aspect, as have UNDP’s other metrics, such as the Gender-Related Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Measure, the Human Poverty Index, the Human Freedom Index, and the Political Freedom Index in the HDRs (Alston 2000:250). Many commentators, however, wish to add to this list of indexes. Alston, for example, suggests a formula for creating a Human Rights Accountability index that measures governmental ratification of and adherence to international human rights conventions, institutions, and judicial rulings (Alston 2000:259–61, 66–7). Such an index, though imperfect, would avoid the difficulties associated with measuring actual compliance by governments, which is almost universally recognized as being impractical (Alston 2000:259). Similarly, Ranis et al. believe that UNDP’s Human Development Index is too narrow in focus since it only directly measures education, life expectancy, and income. Their response is to expand the HDI to include ten more categories, including mental well-being, empowerment, political freedoms, social relations, community well-being, inequalities, work conditions, leisure conditions, economic stability, and sustainable environment (Ranis et al. 2006:344). They believe that an expanded index is necessary to capture the totality of human development and employ statistical analysis to identify 31 variables that produce superior correlation results in measuring human development across countries than the HDI (Ranis et al. 2006:348).

Finally, and correspondingly, human development can be used as a dependent variable in investigations on the factors that most contribute to high levels of human development. Here the HDI is often employed as the representative metric for human development given its profile, ubiquity, and easy access. For instance, Kosack and Tobin use the HDI to assess how foreign direct investment and ODA impact economic growth and human development. They conclude, “Once a country reaches a relatively low level of development, aid contributes powerfully to both economic growth and to building the kind of human capital essential for sustainable development. By contrast, in most countries FDI contributes little or nothing to growth or to human development, and it may actually inhibit development in the world’s less-developed countries” (Kosack and Tobin 2006:206). Hill and Dhanda investigate the relationship between two UNDP indexes, the HDI and the Technological Achievement Index (TAI), which captures “the creation of technology, diffusion of recent innovations, diffusion of older innovations, and human skill,” to determine the strength of correlation (Hill and Dhanda 2003:1023). Using correlation and ANOVA analysis, they conclude that TAI and HDI are strongly correlated, but the impact of TAI on development growth may be largest for the most marginalized countries (Hill and Dhanda 2003:1028).

Research Opportunities

As an all-encompassing philosophical, normative, and operative concept, the human development framework still offers a number of opportunities for future research in each of these areas. For the most part, the human development framework has been positively received by the development community since it empowers different IOs, NGOs, and other aid agencies to highlight aspects of their work that had been previously restricted due to the supremacy of state sovereignty in international politics. As a result, the reprioritization of individuals over states encouraged by the capabilities and human development approaches has been widely lauded and rapidly incorporated into a multitude of development programs without much pause. Instead, most scholarship seeks to expand the concept rather than test its underlying premises.

On a philosophical level, the capabilities approach places a heavy emphasis on socioeconomic rights and strong affirmative action by governments (Alexander 2004). This is a natural outgrowth of the development philosophy underlying its formulation. Even though the capabilities approach is careful to include a strong civil and political rights component for protecting individuals’ choices of being, the capabilities privileged in any society can be ordered according to the areas of greatest social need. For societies with a high degree of poverty, the capabilities are generally expected to center around socioeconomic empowerment and basic needs rather than the provision of negative liberties. In a world where public and private capital expenditures approximate equal utility in outcomes, such a clean delineation of social preferences could have some currency. Unfortunately, the logic of capital operates in a fundamentally different way than the logic of human development, but there is little discussion about this in the literature. Instead, the discussion generally tries to determine how to make capital conform to the needs of human development, but such policies face a daunting challenge.

Capital does not equally weigh profit and human development even though capital investors themselves might (and for the most part do) understand the relationship between human capacity enhancement and profitability. The very same reason capital eschews developing countries now – high-risk, low-reward environments – would persist in political contexts that prioritize the redistribution of capital to enhance human development unless the confiscation of capital is part of a natural and competitive process of profit and taxation. Thus, proponents of socioeconomic human development as a first step in generating human capabilities ought to investigate whether and to what degree their expectations on government social spending would contribute to the flight of existing capital and determine what impact they might have in attracting capital as a major component of economic growth.

Indeed, economic growth theory argues that the consumption of capital reduces a society’s available savings and investment, which leads to slower growth (Jones 2002). Economic growth – creating a larger, more robust economy – is essential to creating more opportunity for individuals to earn income, which in turn is essential to achieving broader and more sustainable human development (Collier 2007). However, the more active the state, the more taxes must be collected, and the more capital begins to fear the environment and potential loss. Hence, higher consumption through the state apparatus suggests that capital will have little reason to seek out such environments for investment, and society itself will be left with less excess savings to reinvest to prompt further economic growth from within. The consequence is that built into the human development framework is the very same (il)logic of capital that has plagued developing countries over the past five decades, though the emphasis on individual rather than state capacity makes it more normatively appealing. Certainly overcoming absolute poverty is essential to expanding capabilities and human development, but policies to achieve this must be sensitive to capital’s concerns. How to strike this balance can still be fruitfully explored.

Yet there is another sparsely addressed philosophical conundrum in the literature derived from Nelson’s critique on the tension between individual and social choice in the capabilities approach that is related to the issue of prioritizing socioeconomic development over civil and political rights. The logic of capital requires strong protections on private property and a clear, easily engaged system of laws making capital fungible (de Soto 2000). Without this basic structure, capital will remain scarce and economic growth will not occur. In other words, once society determines the capabilities to prioritize, individual choices of functioning and being will be restricted by the structures imposed by government acting upon the majority’s social priorities. Active governments create complex administrative and regulatory environments that limit individual agency and hamper business activity. Furthermore, governments could feasibly justify confiscatory policies and weak protections on private property in the name of redistribution to achieve broader human development. This would likely serve to prompt industrious individuals to engage in capital flight or emigration and have the exact opposite effect on a poor society desired by human development proponents. While a government adopting such a policy might seem unlikely in the current era, there is plenty of scholarship that appears to advocate they do so. For instance, if enacted in reality, the EU’s adoption of relative poverty capabilities assessments would destroy capital formation in its member states since the social welfare safety nets would have to be enormous given the standards of living and attending expectations of living a life with “dignity.” The tax burden would not be sustainable to corporations and when possible they would flee to less burdensome environments. The consequences for impoverished developing countries would be dire since capital would avoid them altogether. Thus, much opportunity remains for scholars to try to integrate the logic of human development as a philosophy of development with the logic of capital as a practical reality. As it currently stands, the former comes first in the hearts of scholars though the latter comes first in the hearts of businessmen.

Clearly this philosophical tension within the capabilities approach is symptomatic of the academic proclivity to analyze the impact of structures on individuals. It would be hard to criticize this proclivity too much given the variety of dysfunctions resulting from poorly designed and implemented social and governmental structures. But scholars and development practitioners do so at their peril. Individual agency, which the capabilities approach claims to champion, is largely subjugated in practice to the task of reforming structures for two reasons. First, most scholars try to address basic needs problem in the first instance, which oftentimes leads them to champion augmenting government social service programs for the poor. Second, the capabilities approach is intellectually rooted in Western individualism, so its adherents tend to assume that individuals will naturally choose lives and social structures that maximize individualistic autonomy and ways of being over other social values, such as community cohesion. This allows scholars to concentrate on problematic structures since individuals will theoretically make positive choices if given the freedom to choose. While the human development framework asserts strong support for individual agency, it does so with a problematic assumption that individuals will make choices that (1) enhance their own opportunities for economic gain, and (2) lead to a better set of social and governance structures. The reality is that this could be true, but it does not necessarily have to be true. What happens if individuals continue to make poor choices? What if existing social structures socialize individuals to prioritize governmental structures and governance practices that are inimical to modern economic growth, such as with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Alternatively, what if individuals choose to adopt governmental structures and governance practices that privilege weak social safety nets and value individual agency as a means to advancement?

There is, as a result, an inherent normative bias within the capabilities and human development frameworks against full individual autonomy. Indeed, some scholars who adopt the human development framework explicitly acknowledge the importance of eliminating or weakening community-centric values as a precondition for achieving full human development. For example, Welzel, Inglehart, and Klingemann assert that the democratic institutions protecting human development first require strong emancipative values in society, but that emancipative values must be preceded by diffuse basic needs resources to break the social conformity values typical of lowresource environments. They write, “Fading constraints on human autonomy tend to reshape people’s value orientations[…][so] that traditional conformity values, which subordinate human autonomy to community discipline, tend to give way to more emancipative values that emphasize human choice” (Welzel et al. 2003:342). Given the capabilities approach’s attachment to cultural pluralism, an allegation of cultural imperialism could be charged against the normative foundation of Welzel, Inglehart, and Klingemann’s position. Philosophically, then, the capabilities approach cannot easily be reconciled with what its main advocates would consider poor individual choices because the norms inherent in the framework mandate changing the structures that lead to such decisions. More directly, individuals do not have the right to make poor choices, at least as the framework has been theorized to this point.

So what happens if societies choose capabilities that are inimical to economic development and economic growth? This conundrum is directly related to the work of international organizations, especially the IFIs and human rights agencies who fund and advocate on behalf of the human development framework through international aid and capital redistribution. Should the international community in these circumstances continue to fund societies that choose their capabilities priorities poorly? On the one hand, there will certainly be individuals and groups who find themselves subject to structures they find incapacitating, but what right would the international community have to reform them once the choice was made? It is not hard to imagine societies – or at least the existing governing structures – coming to such conclusions, but what right would the international community have to intervene even if the governments’ policies ran counter to elements of the human security framework? Scholarship addressing this concern is still necessary.

This leads to the last category for further research: compiling empirical evidence as to which structures under which conditions offer individuals the greatest mix of capabilities. Stewart and Deneulin describe this type of research as “focus[ing] attention on identifying structures of living together which are likely to be conducive to flourishing individuals – including the empirical investigation of conditions leading to healthy societies, communities, and families” (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:68). Gasper suggests that the human development framework has thus far been too focused on the micro-level of individual capabilities at the expense of enabling or competing structures. He notes that:

capability, human development and livelihoods approaches do not give us enough analytical handles for identifying the reasons why certain groups of people have more capabilities or assets or different activities (and, yes, income) than others do. Micro-level analysis should be linked to analyses of processes at meso- and macro-levels and of power relations. Occupational groups are frequently in competitive class relationships with each other, with some dominating and exploiting others.

(Gasper 2008)

International organizations and other aid agencies could then help disseminate best practices to states to minimize competition and maximize social compromise for moving to the next stages of human and national development.

Some scholars also suggest that international organizations have a role to play in establishing global structures for human development. Stewart and Deneulin question whether globalization and global capitalism offer corporations and corrupt elites substantially more influence in forming society’s capabilities priorities than the people. If so, they wonder how these forces should be challenged (Stewart and Deneulin 2002:69). Certainly there might be a role for here for IOs, but this also feeds the larger question about how to organize a global context for universal human development and, of course, global governance. Should the human development framework gain increasing currency in the practice of state politics rather than just the rhetoric of it, IOs could feasibly grow to take on a larger role in international organization and international politics. At this point, however, it appears that the international system will relegate IOs to trying to identify best practices and advocating on behalf of individuals through the appeal of enhancing state capacity. Human development may be a normatively attractive philosophy of development, but state governments still remain the fundamental key to implementing it. Research that fails to take this into account will ultimately fail in practice as well (Luck 2002).


The human development framework now appears to serve as the principal intellectual and normative construct regarding how to achieve national economic growth while building broad social justice and opportunity for individuals. Its allure derives as much from its coherent philosophical critique of past empirical development failures as it does from its incorporation of values and ethics appealing to a broad spectrum of professionals working in the development community. It has successfully amalgamated a diffuse set of issues covering economic rights, political rights, environmental concerns, gender issues, and others into a single all-encompassing concept, which can be meaningfully employed to inform development policy as well as to critique government practices. International organizations have played an integral role both in developing the framework and disseminating it through programs and advocacy, and they will continue to play a pivotal role in its evolution.

Despite its rapid ascent in the development community, the human development framework still offers ample room for future scholarship. Methodologically, the framework has inspired new theories of causation, prompted IOs and others to compile voluminous data on a wide variety of subjects that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, and offered scholars a means of investigating a range of quality of life issues rather than just aggregate national growth issues. Philosophically, the capabilities approach underlying the human development framework is still subject to an internal contradiction regarding the tension between negative and positive liberties and the contradiction between valuing the rights of individuals and the rights of societies. Further scholarship in these areas will be greatly needed as development policies come into conflict with one another in practice. Normatively, the human development framework should address – or simply come to accept – the inherent Western bias in the framework, and it should begin to resolve the remaining questions about the role the international community should be allowed to play inside states given this bias. Moreover, there remains a means dilemma regarding how a more expansive interpretation of the human development framework could be feasibly enacted in light of the limits of available wealth in the world.

Given the current enthusiasm for the human development framework and its rhetorical adoption by all the main international organizations, it is hard to imagine the framework having anything but a long-lasting impact on the practice of development. Perhaps a resurgence of sovereignty concerns emanating from rising powers could dampen the practice of human development through international organizations, but the philosophy seems to be firmly entrenched in the international organizations themselves. In the meantime, the human development framework is likely to benefit from both a widening and a deepening of thought and practice throughout the academic and development communities.


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