Essay on the dimensions of Human Development


The issue of development has been predominant is social sciences since the end of the Second World War As nations began efforts to reconstruct their economies damaged by the war and as the emergent countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America began to remove distortions in their social and economic systems caused by centuries of colonial rule, a spate of development categories emerged. By and large these theories conceived of development in a narrow quantitative sense of material welfare and command over material resources.

Accordingly, the value of the total goods and services produced in a community, that is, the Gross National Product (GNP) or one of its variants remained in use an indicator of aggregate welfare of a community. In the 1970s, equity considerations began to impinge on the idea of development.

For instance, the ‘basic needs approach’ shifted the focus on to the requirements of the poor and the disadvantaged in a society. The World Bank also broadened its conception of development and began to emphasise growth for the poor and resource-weak groups- along with aggregate growth. While such conceptions of development embodied the desire to improve the living conditions and welfare of all members of a society, the basic indicators of development remained income measurements of one kind or the other. Consequently, growth in real incomes was the main target of development plans of nations and international agencies concerned with development.


In the early 1980s, this approach to development was disputed by prominent economists like Amartya Sen, Paul Streeten and Mahbub ul Haq. These economists believed that increased incomes should be a means to improve human welfare, not as an end in itself. They argued that income should be regarded as a means for enlarging human choices and strengthening human capabilities. After all, development is about people, their well-being, their needs, choices and aspirations.

This new thinking on development with people as the focus of concern has come to be known as the human development approach.

According to this new thinking, human development is the process of building of human capabilities, such as to lead a long and healthy life, to have education, information and knowledge, to have opportunities for livelihood, to have access to the natural resources for a decent standard of living, to have sustainable development, to have personal and social security, to achieve equality and enjoyment of human rights, to have participation in the life of the community, to have responsible government and good governance and so on. Traditionally, development theorists have argued that an increase in income would result in human welfare. Advocates of human development is putted this claim.

They argue that the quality and distribution of economic growth is as important as quantity of economic growth for enlarging human choices. Income may be unevenly distributed within a society, in which case people with limited or no access to income will end up with too few choices.


More important, the range of choices available to the people depends on the national priorities of a society or rulers; the elitist or egalitarian model development; political authoritarianism or political democracy, a command economy or participatory development. By comparing per capita incomes with indicators of education or health standards, these economists demonstrated that countries with higher levels of per capita income did not necessarily have better education or health standards.

Amartya Sen, for instance, observed that the average life expectancy in Sri Lanka was 70 years, whereas it was not more than 64 years in Brazil, even the per capita income of the latter was four times greater than that of Sri Lanka The human development approach gained ground when the United Nations Development Programme presented a comprehensive concept of human development in the first Human Development Report in 1990.

This report, prepared under the guidance of Mahbub ul Haq defined human development as a process of enlarging the range of people’s choices by expanding human capabilities and functioning’s. Subsequent annual Human Development Reports have further elaborated the human development paradigm. For bringing forward the human development profile of all countries of the world, the UNDP constructed the concept of Human Development Index (HDI).

The HDI is the cumulative measurement of three essential human choices required at all levels of human development, longevity, knowledge and decent standard of living. Longevity is a choice to live a long and healthy life. It is measured in terms of life expectancy (years).


Knowledge is a choice to acquire literacy/information. It is measured by educational attainment percentage, which is combined gross enrolment ratio at various levels. Decent standard of living is a choice to enjoy a quality and standard of life. It is measured by national income or income per capita in purchasing power parity in US dollar.

Dimensions of Human Development

Human development paradigm has four essential components. First is equity or equitable access to opportunities. Human development is concerned with widening the choices of all people. Without equity, development restricts the choices of many individuals. Second is sustainability.

Human development emphasises on sustaining all form of capital-physical, human, financial and environmental so that future generations can have the same opportunities for well-being that the present generation enjoys.


Third is productivity. Human development believes in investing in people so that they can achieve their maximum potential. People are not seen merely as human resources, that is, as means for better economic efficiency. People are seen as the ultimate ends of the development process. Human development focuses on development by the people.

People must participate in the activities, events and processes that shape their lives. Over a period of time, the concept of human development has evolved into a multidimensional approach. The concept of human development has been gradually extended into basically all areas of societal development.

To the original focus on the missing link between income and welfare has been added concern for the provision of social infrastructure and services, that are made available on an equal basis to all citizens; special emphasis on gender equality; and equal opportunities for participation in political and economic decision-making.

The latter requires both an enabling legal and institutional framework and empowerment of citizens and civil society organisations so that they become capable of reaching up to the authorities. Some of the adherents to the concept have furthermore put special emphasis on sustainability, that is, opportunity to enjoy the same well-being to the future generations.


Successive annual reports of the UNDP reflect this extension of human development to areas of social development. In HDR report of 1995, for instance, the focus is on gender equality. The report included a gender related development index (GDI) to capture the gender bias in the three central human capabilities.

The Mahbub-ul-Haq Development Centre, which has been bringing out annual reports on Human Development in South Asian, has introduced a new index-the humane governance index, to indicate how the governments in the region are faring in terms of serving their citizen.

Human Development in South Asia

Since the UNDP brought out the first Human Development Report in 1990, the human development approach has been applied and elaborated in a large number of different economic and social situations. During the last decade, over 135 countries have prepared some 300 reports, analysing aspects of human development in various national contexts.

Regional reports have also been prepared for South Asia, Africa, Central America and Pacific Islands. For South Asia region, the Mahbub ul Haq Development Centre set up in 1995 has been bringing out annual reports of Human Development in South Asia.

The following analysis is mainly drawn from these reports. As we saw, HDI is a composite index of progress of nation, which combines both economic growth and social development. When we go by income measurement, like the traditional economic growth approach, it appears that development process has failed in South Asia and other developing countries, as these countries remain at the bottom of the ladder.

However, when we evaluate these countries by including the real (social) indicators of human development, it is found that most of these countries have made tremendous progress. Mahbub ul Haq calculates that the average life expectancy has increased by 16 years, adult literacy by 40 per cent and per capita nutritional levels by more than 20 per cent.

In fact, developing countries have achieved in the past 30 years the kind of real human progress that industrialised countries took nearly a century to accomplish. While the gap between the industrialised and the developing countries, in terms of income is large (the average income of developing countries is only 6 per cent of the industrialised countries) the human gap has been narrowing. Average life expectancy in the developing countries is 80 per cent of the average of industrialised countries, adult literacy 66 percent, and nutrition 85 per cent.

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