Thinking About Human Development

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Many countries love to boast about their economic strengths. After all, the Group of Eight (G8) and Group of Twenty (G20) groups are largely based around the Gross National Product (GNP) of the various member states. There is, however, an overlooked non-economic indicator, namely, the Human Development Index (HDI).

In basic terms, HDI determines a wider socio-economic understanding of countries or regions by measuring three key areas: life expectancy, education standards and income level. The HDI is published in the annual Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In the 2016 report released in March 2017, two ASEAN countries, Singapore and Brunei, ranked 4th and 30th respectively, meeting the ‘very high human development’ level. Other ASEAN member states, such as Malaysia and Thailand, scored within the ‘high human development’ category.

HDI is derived from the theme of ‘Human Development,’ which is fundamentally about enlarging individual choices. The theme was formed by Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist who worked with the well- known Indian economist Amartya Sen. In Ul Haq’s, Sen’s and their colleagues’ view, economic indicators did not fully describe the state of a country. They argued that in place of economic indicators should be human-centred indicators focused, on widening human choices. Ul Haq thus wrote the first Human Development Report in 1990 and created the HDI to quantify Human Development. HDI and Human Development Reports rapidly shifted the global development arena. They formed a small but credible counterweight to the economic, market-centric Washington Consensus. They helped shift donor nations attention towards human needs and also slightly helped formulate global goals such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Human Development and HDI have shaped the global focus on education-linked topics. The education component in HDI covers the mean of years of schooling for adults and expected years of schooling for children. This helps highlight the role of education in national and regional development.  With the focus on education as a component of human development, global conferences came to concentrate on basic needs. For example, the 1990 World Conference on ‘Education for All’ emphasised equitable access to preschool, while the 2000 UNESCO World Education Forum formed the ‘Education for All’ goals, with the first goal pledging to expand early childhood care to disadvantaged children.

The human development idea also branched out to create regional and national human development reports. The 2004 Indonesian human development report showed how widening access to education can improve the national standard of living. The 2016 Asia-Pacific report indicated how changing employment opportunities can expand individual capabilities. In fact, the 2001 report on Vietnam’s Doi Moi process formed the basis of the nation development strategy in latter years. As Asuncion St Clair argued, human development and its components offer a more thorough analysis of the ends and means of international development.

Alas, despite the strengths of human development, its impact is choppy and not continuously utilised. First, despite the concept arising from a prominent UN agency, it is mostly centred within the human development report office, not even within the wider UN system. Second, human development is not easily quantified. The HDI only covers three components, which hardly represents all of human development. Even as there have been more inclusive indices such as the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), the concept of expanding human capabilities for wider development still cannot fully be quantified. This is contrast to economic data such as GDP. Third, human development embraces the subjects of human rights and democracy, an issue that countries find controversial to promote.

Human development is not a widely known or utilised concept. Even so, it is the main alternative to the financial and pure economic-based measurements for economic growth. It shows that progress and development should be about people rather than about digits. It also brings about a moral dimension to development, showing people’s opportunities can be improved, especially through components such as education. As we move on with local or global development goals, we should look less towards economic targets and more towards the human development construct.

Dr. Li Jie Sheng is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation. His research focuses on the effectiveness of donors and international organisations.

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.