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Rethinking Human Development In an Era of Planetary Transformation

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Global Biodiversity Framework and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction together set the vision for a new balance between people and planet, in stark contrast to the heavy social orientation and human-centric nature of past development policy. This background paper for the 2020 global Human Development Report reflects on what this entails for the future of human development policy and practice, with a view to making the human development paradigm fit-for purpose in an era of planetary transformation.

Climate change and ecological fragility call into question the assumption that human progress will make the future look better than the past. Recent years have witnessed record carbon emissions, accelerating levels of biological extinction, and the growing frequency of disasters and outbreaks of disease. As ecological and social fabrics are destabilized, so are basic principles of human development theory such as capability, agency and freedom. What happens to the concept of human agency when humanity has revealed itself as an agent of planetary change? How can the concept of ‘development as freedom’ evolve into ‘sustainable development as freedom’ as ecological change causes mass disruption, and as sensibilities about freedom and rights transform? How can development pathways shift from linear to systems approaches to better grasp the complexities of planetary transformation?

Ecological change is destabilizing the status quo of development theory, exposing deep contradictions in policy and practice. The 2030 Agenda reflects an aspiration to bring together the social and natural foundations of development policy. Achieving this goal will require more than scaled-up finance and green technology. Transformational change will demand adaptation of the concept of human development itself.