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- Human Development as Emancipation
- The People Empowerment Framework
- Elements of People Power
- Strengths of Human Development Theory
The term human development (HD) that came into prominence through the work of Amartya Sen denotes the development toward a more humane society in which a maximum number of people live in dignity. From a humanist position, a dignified life is a life that people have reason to value because they are free to shape it in accordance with their own and mutually agreed ideals. This notion of HD is inspired by an inherently emancipative idea of the “good life” that unifies republican, liberal, contractual, and democratic thought, as noted by David Held (2006). To be human in this perspective means to have the potential to reason, to judge, to choose, and, thus, to be an agent who is in control of one’s actions and life. The most humane life is an emancipative life that one lives in self-determination.
Human Development as Emancipation
Mastery, control, and autonomy are features of human emancipation emphasized in Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s psychological theory of self-determination (2002). In the evolution of our species, self-awareness became the most salient feature of the human intellect. Self-awareness creates a need to realize oneself in what one is doing, and this implies a need to act in self-determined ways. Self-determination is thought to become a dominant striving as soon as humans are existentially secure, so that the trying to thrive can replace the struggle to survive as the main director of human energies. Self-determination is an inherently emancipative striving that, if satisfied, creates feelings of being in unison with oneself. Because self-awareness is an evolution-shaped feature of every human being, self-determination is the most universally and most specifically human striving.
Sen also draws on the emancipative notion of HD in psychology, but he relates it to societies as the unit of reference. When the good life is an emancipated life, the good society is a society that makes a maximum number of people capable to live emancipative lives. Because, as members of the human race, all people are of equal existential value, every person has the same right to an emancipated life; opportunities to live in emancipation must be equally distributed in a humane society. In that sense, HD theory construes the ideals of freedom and equality as interdependent rather than contradictory.
Due to Sen’s capability approach, the HD of societies can be measured by how widely emancipative capabilities are distributed. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) follows the capability approach in its annual Human Development Report, which publishes a Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI summarizes on a per-country basis information on the average person’s life expectancy, educational attainment, and per capita income, assuming that longevity, education, and income increase ordinary people’s capabilities to live an emancipated life.
In the perspective of HD, democracy becomes an integral part of the definition of development for the following reasons: Human emancipation requires freedom of choice in private and public affairs, and such freedoms are granted through the civil and political rights that define democracy.
The emancipative notion of HD has been criticized as prescribing a Western view of the good life. But supporters of the HD approach note that this criticism is defensible only on two questionable premises: The potential to live an emancipated life is not a universal human potential but one that only Western people possess, and emancipation is not a universal human value because non-Western people do not desire it. Neither of these positions is tenable. First, the potential for emancipation is anchored in a most general feature of the human mind, namely, self-awareness, which is not the sole property of Westerners. Second, the claim that emancipation is not a valued feature of life among non-Westerners has been empirically disproven. Whether people value emancipation can be seen in whether feelings of being free in shaping their lives impact satisfaction with their lives. Only if freedom over their lives increases people’s satisfaction with their lives is emancipation of value for people. As Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have shown, feelings of freedom over their lives increase people’s life satisfaction in all cultures. Thus, HD’s emphasis on emancipation does not prescribe a specifically Western view of the good life. It champions a particularly humane view.
The People Empowerment Framework
Christian Welzel, Ronald Inglehart, and Hans-Dieter Klingemann widened the capability approach into a people empowerment framework (PEF). The PEF specifies how economic conditions, cultural norms, and institutional rules interact in empowering people, relating each of these three areas of social reality to human emancipation as a common underlying theme.
In line with the emancipative notion of HD, people empowerment denotes ordinary people’s potential to govern their lives themselves through the practice of personal freedoms in private matters as well as political freedoms in public affairs. The joint and equal emphasis on personal and political freedoms resonates with Isaiah Berlin’s notion of “negative” and “positive” freedom: To be truly free, people must have the right to follow their personal preferences in private matters and to make their political preferences known, bargained, and counted in public matters.
Elements of People Power
To make freedoms practicable for people, social reality must meet three criteria. First, ordinary people must have command over participatory resources that make them capable to exercise freedoms. Participatory resources include material means, cognitive skills, and connective opportunities; these resources empower people on the level of capabilities, widening their objective-action repertoire. Second, ordinary people must have internalized self-expression values that make them strive to exercise freedoms. Self-expression values emphasize freedom of choice and equality of opportunities; they empower people on the level of ambitions, widening their subjective-action horizon. Third, ordinary people must be granted democratic rights that license them to practice freedoms. Democratic rights establish equal personal and political liberties; they empower people on the level of entitlements, widening their legal-action radius.
Participatory resources, self-expression values, and democratic rights constitute three distinct, though interdependent, elements of people power. The pattern of their interdependence is governed by the “utility logic of freedom.” This logic becomes evident when rethinking participatory resources, self-expression values, and democratic rights as, respectively, capabilities of, ambitions for, and entitlements to exercising freedoms. Doing so makes a number of logical connections obvious. For one, utility suggests that people become ambitioned to exercise freedoms only insofar as they find themselves able to exercise them. The utility logic also suggests that entitlements to exercise freedoms come into wide and frequent use only insofar as people are able and willing to use them. Together, these propositions suggest that self-expression values grow in response to grown participatory resources and, then, that popular pressures for democratic rights grow in response to grown self-expression values and participatory resources.
The three elements of human empowerment are interdependent not on conceptual grounds only. Empirically, as shown by Welzel, Inglehart, and Klingemann (2003, pp. 368-369), the interdependence is reflected in very strong correlations between societal-level measures of participatory resources, self-expression values, and democratic rights. The three elements correlate so strongly that statistically speaking they reflect one and only one empirical dimension. Content-wise, this dimension represents people empowerment— which is a unity of empowering capabilities, mentalities, and entitlements. Because of their interdependence, the three elements of people empowerment establish equilibria that resemble vicious and virtuous cycles of HD. Most societies are found on either consistently low or consistently high levels of HD in all three elements. HD is a syndrome of developmental conditions that is not easily disentangled. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to get development started: It needs a synchronized effort to trigger economic, cultural, and institutional changes, as they mutually condition each other.
Democracy represents the institutional element of people empowerment and as such is highly conditioned by the economic and cultural elements of empowerment. No question, democracy can be imposed from the outside by foreign powers, or it can be adopted from the inside by unilateral acts of domestic power holders—irrespective of the social conditions. But in such cases, one most likely deals with a socially aloof version of democracy, in which case the freedoms that define democracy are not coming into wide usage by most of the people. Only when ordinary people are capable of exercising freedoms and only when they are willing to do so will the freedoms granted by democracy come into wide use. Only then do we witness socially embedded democracy.
Sometimes one finds democratic freedoms institutionalized at a level that goes beyond most people’s capabilities and ambitions to struggle for these freedoms. When this is the case, power holders are free to corrupt formally enacted freedoms, and in general, they use this leeway to their benefit. Thus, when democracy is conceded by power holders in the absence of popular pressures, it is usually corrupted democracy. By contrast, when one finds democracy to be effective in the sense that its freedoms are really respected by those in power, this is usually a tribute to ordinary people’s capabilities and ambitions to practice freedoms and struggle for them.
Strengths of Human Development Theory
Compared with other concepts in the social sciences, HD theory offers a broad perspective by integrating economic, cultural, and institutional aspects of social reality into a common framework. This breadth of perspective does not come at the expense of the analytical focus. Instead, HD theory sharpens the analytical focus by relating all three aspects of social reality to the empowerment of people as the lead theme.
The HD framework is inspired by an emancipative idea of the good society and the good life. This normative inspiration constitutes the framework’s integrative core. However, the normativity of the concept is limited to providing a standard against which to evaluate a factual state of affairs as desirable or undesirable. Having a standard to evaluate reality does by no means mean to prescribe reality. Rather, it provides a basis for interventions to change it.
The only other concept in the social sciences comparable with HD in its integrative potential is social capital (SC). With its emphasis on assets that facilitate collective action, SC theory sets a focus similar to HD theory’s emphasis on assets that empower ordinary people. Thus, the three assets championed in SC theory—networks, trust, and norms—resonate with the three assets highlighted in HD theory—capabilities, ambitions, and entitlements. However, SC theory lacks two properties of HD theory. First, SC theory lacks an evolutionary perspective that theorizes how development transforms different types of SC. Second, SC theory has little grounding in psychology and has hence difficulties to anchor SC in the human motivational system. By contrast, with its evolutionary perspective, grounding in psychology, and humanistic inspiration, HD theory offers an appealing integrative framework for the social sciences.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The what and why of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
- Held, D. (2006). Models of democracy. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York: Knopf.
- Welzel, C., Inglehart, R., & Klingemann, H.-D. (2003). The theory of human development: A cross-cultural analysis. European Journal of Political Research, 43, 379-401.