The first Human Development Report sent a ripple of excitement in the development community as it moved from tabulating mere incomes, to measuring the capacities and capabilities of human beings, as an indicator of the successes and failures of nation-states in providing a better quality of life to their citizens.
The pioneering work of economists like Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen left its impact on a whole generation of development economists, but as the years rolled by, some of the excitement of measuring every possible aspect of education, health and gender in a society, gave way to a certain predictability and tedium.
The HDR 2019, the first under a refreshingly multi-disciplinary team, reignited this enthusiasm because it was much more grounded in current realities: growing inequalities, slower social mobility, democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism around the world. As it clearly outlined, in an increasingly fragmented world, collective action on anything from pandemics to climate change to labour-friendly work cultures, becomes increasingly difficult.
As the Human Development Report 2020 points out, in little more than a decade, the global financial crisis, the climate crisis, the inequality crisis and the COVID19 crisis have all shown that the resilience of the system itself is breaking down, buffering systems are maxing out, and once-supple connections are becoming brittle – leaving them more inclined to break than to bend, further destabilizing the Earth system.
Lurching from managing one crisis to another, how is the global community going to find the resources and time for human development? That is the question the HDR 2020 tries to address.
As an anthropologist, one was thrilled to note that the HDR 2020 is definitely anthropological in flavour. For three reasons:
It proposes that we look at the planet as having exited the Holocene Geological era, which spanned some 12,000 years, and saw the blossoming of human civilization, and enter the Anthropocene — in which humans are a dominant force shaping the future of the planet.
It proposes a holistic approach (so dear to anthropologists), wherein problems are not dumped in separate silos, but are perceived as “…multidimensional, interconnected and increasingly universal predicaments.”
Finally, it looks for solutions in a matrix that combines capabilities, agency and values – one cannot enhance human development singularly by just enhancing people’s capabilities. Nor can we assume that by empowering more people, we will ensure that a stronger ‘agency’ will necessarily make the right choices. All individual and collective action must be underpinned by universally accepted values – but people cannot realize their values without having sufficient capabilities and agency.
The hinge for this report, is of course, provided by the COVID-19 Pandemic which ripped through every country in the year under report. It provides the authors with the perfect framework to posit their underlying theme that as social imbalance increases, so do the pressures on our planet – and the two feed on, and reinforce each other, in a way which directly impedes human development:
The Report argues that “… to navigate the Anthropocene, humanity can develop the capabilities, agency and values to act by enhancing equity, fostering innovation and instilling a sense of stewardship of nature. If these have greater weight within the ever-widening choice sets that people create for themselves—if equity, innovation and stewardship become central to what it means to live a good life—then human flourishing can happen alongside easing planetary pressures.”
Because, in the Anthropocene, it is essential to do away with stark distinctions between people and planet.
This time, the way forward is not only about expanding people’s capabilities and choices, but also enhancing their agency and ability to participate in decision-making, within a framework of universal values that allow us to become true stewards of our only home – planet Earth.