ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Human Development for Freedoms in a World of Rising Inequalities

S Mahendra Dev ( is director and vice chancellor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai.

Human Development in an Unequal World by K Seeta Prabhu and Sandhya S Iyer, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019; pp xxiii + 370, ₹ 1,250.


It is by now well recognised that the term “human development” has been perceived as an expansion of human capabilities, a widening of choices, an enhancement of freedoms and a fulfilment of human rights. This is also useful for the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is well-known that human development has both intrinsic (for its own sake) and instrumental (achieving human capital and sustainability of growth) values. In general, the instrumental value is highlighted and the intrinsic value is often not recognised in concepts and policies. Regarding the measurement, the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is widely used for ranking the countries. Rodrik et al (2017) have discussed two challenges. The first one is the “structural change challenge,” which is focused on moving resources from traditional low productivity activities into modern, more productive industries or activities. The second one is the “fundamentals challenge” that relates to the development of broad capabilities such as human capital and infrastructure. According to them, the “fundamental challenge” of achieving capabilities is crucial for development.

One of the challenges for human development is the rising inequalities. An unequal world can lead to unfreedom and an increase in inequality of outcomes and opportunities. Global inequality in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of Gini coefficients has declined from 0.68 in 1988 to 0.62 in 2013. The global picture hides heterogeneities across countries and regions. Inequalities within countries have increased significantly. The key source of inequality at the global level has been technological change favouring high skills, which are unequal across different classes.

The book under review examines human development in the context of an unequal world. There have been several volumes and research papers on human development. Why do we need another book on this topic? The continuing challenges of unsustainable growth, climate change and rising inequalities require a reorientation of the present development doctrine towards a human development paradigm. It is true that the human development perspective has evolved in the last three decades but its use has not been widespread.

Though this use led to a deeper understanding of these constituents of freedoms, the lack of an integrated approach limited the prospects of a forceful perspective of human development to emerge as a possible alternative paradigm. (p 15)

K Seeta Prabhu and Sandhya S Iyer, in Human Development in an Unequal World, attempt to fill this gap. The book provides an integrated exposition of the human development and capabilities approach. The authors argue that the broader perspective of human development is most suited for tackling the challenges of the 21st century and in reorienting development towards a more equitable, sustainable, and empowering world.

The book is divided into 10 chapters. After the introduction, the following three chapters deal with the concept of functionings and capabilities, human flourishing and well-being, and measurement of progress in a multidimensional way. The next five chapters discuss, respectively, the links between economic growth and human development, the role of
social sector policy, deprivation and distribution, gender equality, and securing sustainability. The last chapter reflects on the role of global policymaking that influences pathways to human progress.


The concept of human development is not a new one. Evolution of the human development concept can be traced from the writings of renowned thinkers and philosophers of ancient times like Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. The human development approach has a distinct edge over the approaches of economic growth, basic needs, human capital or human resource development and social development. The literature on human development mentions three important ways in which this approach differs from other approaches. These are: (i) definition of ends and means; (ii) concern with human freedoms and dignity; and (iii) concern with human agency, that is, the role of people in development (Fukuda-Parr and Kumar 2004). In this context of human development, Prabhu and Iyer elaborate on the notions of functionings and capabilities. In achieving human flourishing and well-being, the role of entitlements and endowments is important. One of the important features of the book is that it presents an integrated analytical framework that provides pathways to human development through productivity processes, empowerment, equity, and sustainability, and the evidence from developing countries for each of these are provided. For example, the case of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is an example of empowerment. The value of choices and freedoms is also discussed in the context of human flourishing and well-being. Freedom is the central element of the human development approach.

How do we measure human progress? There has been a shift from unidimensional to multidimensional measures in the last few decades. The Stiglitz–Sen–Fitoussi Commission (2010) recommended a multidimensional approach for measuring well-being. The UNDP developed the HDI, which is supposed to be better than the GDP in measuring human progress. It is one of the widely used measures for human development in many countries, although there are many criticisms, including problems relating to the aggregation of different indicators into one index. Similarly, there have been several multidimensional indices such as the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) and the Gender Development Index (GDI). The book discusses the challenges due to missing and empty indicators as well as missing and unreliable data. Better data reporting is essential, particularly in the context of the SDGs’ mandate of covering 230 indicators.

Growth and Human Development

The book rightly says that economic growth and human development cannot be viewed as disconnected processes as they influence each other. But, the relationship between the two is dynamic as shown by the empirical evidence. A higher GDP will have a significant impact on human development if social sector expenditures are high, with better governance. On the other hand, higher levels of human development can lead to higher growth because of enhancement of people’s capacities and productivity. The authors also stress the importance of the processes by stating that

the fundamental underlying problem is to see issues of growth and prosperity on the one hand, and poverty and inequality in human development on the other as part of a single process of development. (p 146)

A higher GDP cannot ensure higher human development if inequalities are not taken into account. Therefore, linking human development to growth through affirmative public policies is crucial.

Social Sector and Distribution

The human development approach is required for the success of the social sector. The book argues that the policy orientation is mainly emphasising the instrumental role by focusing on education, health and nutrition rather than on improving overall human well-being, which also includes the intrinsic role. The authors quote Sen who says that we should focus on “comprehensive outcomes” instead of “culmination outcomes.” The stylised facts reveal that four factors, namely initial conditions, redistributive ethos, sustainable investment, and an integrated framework for synergies are important for the success of social sector policies. There are many innovative policy experiments in developing countries such as conditional cash transfers in Brazil, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and Kudumbashree in India, and payments for ecosystem services in Uzbekistan. The book also discusses the Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a mechanism to directly support the entire population.

Poverty and inequality cannot be tackled independently, as both are interlinked. The human development approach also requires that we have to focus on a multidimensional lens as deprivation and distribution go beyond income and also cover non-income aspects like basic capabilities. Initial endowments and entitlements also determine the progress on poverty and inequality. Focusing on the inequality of opportunity is equally important apart from the inequality of outcomes. The book rightly says that public policy alone will not be sufficient. Strengthening human agency, empowerment apart from regulating the markets is needed.


Another issue is high gender inequalities in entitlements and capabilities. The authors provide an intersectional analysis of women’s development through public policies on the one hand and social and gender relations on the other. Women’s marginalisation and vulnerabilities continue to be major issues within the human development debate. On gender inequalities in girl’s education of India, Drèze and Sen (2013) say,

A Dalit girl from a poor family who dreams of becoming a doctor or engineer may have to struggle not only with a lack of adequate schooling facilities in the neighbourhood and economic penury at home, but also, quite possibly, with indifferent social attitudes towards her education as well as with gender discrimination in the family and society. (p 281)

Capability deprivation and inequalities in access to labour markets, access to social opportunities and access to social protection are some of the concerns relating to the achievements of women’s human development. Basically, with respect to women, this book by Prabhu and Iyer explores the capability approach as an alternative paradigm for inclusion of gender into the development discourse.

The human development approach is applicable to a wider concept of economic, social and environmental sustainability. The poor face several risks and vulnerabilities such as macroeconomic shocks, health shocks, political shocks, droughts and floods. This book examines sustainable development in the wider context of human development. The SDGs approach also follows this broader definition of sustainability. Environmental degradation can harm the livelihoods of millions of people, and so the role of the community is important in protecting natural resources. For example, the Chipko movement in India showed that the community led by women can help in the preservation of forests and natural capital. Similarly, social and economic sustainability also needs a combination of public policy and community approaches. The book argues that sustainability can be achieved by adopting an institutionally integrated view of a freedom-centred approach through enhancing basic capabilities, collective freedoms, and social cohesion.

The global policy architecture is crucial for the progress of the human development paradigm. It has influenced the policies relating to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs. Some of the fears of rising protectionist tendencies and deepening right-wing political narratives can be tackled only through global coherence and cooperation.

The rights based approach, combined with a concern for the core values of humaneness as reiterated by Aristotle, seems to be moving farther and farther away from the horizon of global actors. (p 310)

The book argues for global architecture to focus on the human development approach.

Of course, some questions remain: What are the reasons for countries not adopting the human development paradigm? What are the political economy issues in growth and the human development approach? Why do the countries focus on GDP growth in spite of the benefits of human development? How do we incentivise the policymakers in adopting a people-centred approach and reducing inequalities, including gender disparities? Can the SDGs approach improve global cooperation on the human development paradigm?

To conclude, there have been several gaps in the analytical understanding of human development approach in an unequal world. This book tries to fill this gap. A chapter on children’s well-being would have added further value to the book. The book rightly argues for a paradigmatic shift in analysis, policy, and methodology towards a people-centred approach rooted in human flourishing and freedoms. The human development approach is discussed in a comprehensive and integrated manner. This thorough analytical book throws light on a diverse sets of issues on human development and should be taken seriously by the policymakers. The authors make sincere efforts in providing some fascinating insights on the human development approach. This comprehensive and excellent analysis is a must read for all those interested in human development, well-being and freedoms.


Drèze, J and A Sen (2013): An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton University Press.

Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko and Shiva Kumar (eds) (2004): Readings in Human Development: Concepts, Measures and Policies for a Development Paradigm, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rodrik, Dani, M Mcmillan and C Sepulveda (eds)(2017): Structural Change, Fundamentals and Growth: A Framework and Case Studies, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC.

Stiglitz, J E, A Sen and J P Fitoussi (2010): “Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress,” Government of Paris.

Updated On : 20th Oct, 2019


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