The Human Development Report, first launched by UNDP thirty years ago, marked a turning point in how we think about and measure “development.” Until the 1990 HDR, the idea of “development” had largely been synonymous with “economic growth.” In this way, policies to promote development had focused primarily on the market and the achievement of development was measured in monetary terms using indicators such as GDP. This narrow view of “development,” however, failed to take into account the many ways in which market-led growth failed to translate into well-being for people—how it failed to grant them the freedom to live a life that they have reason to value.
Building on the principles of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, the 1990 HDR under the direction of Mahbub ul Haq set out a more expansive and people-centered view of “development.” The report opened by asserting that development “is about more than GNP growth, more than income and wealth and more than producing commodities and accumulating capital. A person's access to income may be one of the choices, but it is not the sum total of human endeavour. Human development is a process of enlarging people's choices.” At the same time that these changes in the way we think about development were taking place, changes in the way we measure its progress were also taking place. The 1990 HDR (and its subsequent reports) have been critical in moving the focus of measurement of beyond income to also include other dimensions of welfare.
The 1990 HDR was the first major milestone in moving empirically in this direction with its creation of the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI was an effort to move beyond income to also consider dimensions of health and education—and has become a global reference for measuring progress in development. While the HDI remains far from a perfect measure—it indisputably pushed the debate in a new direction. As Amartya Sen reflected in a recent Future of Development Dialogue, “Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher, once said that ‘we can’t begin to understand the world unless we argue about it.’ And that argument had not gone on sufficiently for the GDP—and HDI was one way of introducing that argument.”
As the development dialogue continued to shift, subsequent human development reports created other multi-dimensional human development indices to take into account other key issues such as gender, inequality, and poverty. In particular, the creation of the multidimensional poverty index (MPI) represented another major milestone. The MPI measures multiple deprivations at the household level in health, education and standard of living—and was quite revolutionary when it was first published in 2010 by UNDP (in collaboration with OPHI). As with the HDI, the MPI reflected a call to reconceptualize the measurement of poverty to recognize that while income is a necessary condition, it is by no means a sufficient approximation of social well-being. While originally received with trepidation from the development community, 10 years later we can be proud that the thinking of development actors has converged towards a multidimensional conceptualization of poverty.
The need to think about development in a more complex way and the need to measure it by taking all of these dimensions into account converged over time—and was ultimately consolidated in the 2030 Agenda. From the perspective of the capabilities approach, we can see the signing of the 2030 Agenda as giving political legitimacy to the notion that there is a basic capability set that should be available for all citizens at the global scale. We can think about being free of poverty, well nourished, educated, politically active and living in an environment that is healthy, as essential functioning’s that should be available to all, regardless of who they are or where they live. Arguably then, the 2030 Agenda can be interpreted as the political consolidation of the Human Development approach which was first institutionalized in UNDP with the 1990 Human Development Report.
Thirty years later, the Human Development Report Office is still pushing the frontiers of development thinking—challenging existing paradigms and inviting us to advance both the way we think about and the way we measure development. The 2020 Human Development Report on Human Development and the Anthropocene seeks to unpack the implications of our new geologic era in this regard. As UNDP Director Achim Steiner recently questioned, “Is a human development report really still contemporary and adequate if it cannot capture the place that people and their development choices occupy in the larger context of the planet?” In celebration of the release of the 2020 HDR (register here to join the live launch event on December 15), this #GraphForThought looks back at thirty years of human development reports and reflects on progress in the LAC region.