Human Development - Characteristics

The concept of development is very broad and it's only partially limited when you apply it to people-related dimensions. This article intends to answer the question of what exactly is human development?
Human Development - Characteristics

Last update: 04 April, 2020

Human development is a socially constructed concept, loaded with ideological content and cultural connotations. In fact, all societies in the world aspire to progress, according to their own conception of well-being.

Human development implies progress in people’s living conditions. Thus, by definition, there are no “developed” and “undeveloped” stages. Instead, all people and all societies either advance, regress, or stagnate. Therefore, many conceive human development as an inexhaustible process.

Despite this, people often incur in semantic contradictions, such as the distinction between “developed countries” and “developing countries”. The goal of this article is to analyze one of the variants of this concept: human development. This is because people understand it as a multidimensional concept. Thus, they perceive human development as an inalienable human right.

“You can’t predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is, like a farmer, create the conditions under which it will begin to flourish.”

-Sir Ken Robinson-

A person going up a staircase.

The conceptual development

The concept of human development is relatively recent. It dates back to the mid-twentieth century. Over the course of six decades of debate, its conception changed from a one-dimensional (economic) conception to a multidimensional (economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental) notion.

The conception of development as a process of structural change happened after World War II. Development was the process of transformation through which countries moved from a traditional (agricultural) economy to a modern (urban and industrial) one. They measured this approach through the rate of income growth.

However, there are a few problems in this purely economic conception of development:

  • Firstly, people assume that economic growth raises the general welfare of society. Also, they assume that economic growth raises the general welfare of society and trickles down from higher incomes (those that generate investment and receive the bulk of the benefits of growth) to lower incomes.
  • Secondly, there’s a tendency towards “historical determinism” derived from the assumption that progress consists of reproducing the experiences lived in developed countries in those that are more backward. Thus, they understand industrialization as the “universal path” to economic progress. As you can see, they perceive economic growth as the ultimate goal of development and not as a means to improve people’s living conditions.


As you can see, some economists began to criticize the prioritization of economic growth in development strategies. They argued that it’s necessary to promote social and political change to improve well-being. Thus, neither industrialization nor economic growth is a feasible welfare strategy. That is, unless they’re accompanied by redistributive measures.

People are beginning to understand human development as a multidimensional concept. In fact, they’re beginning to use other indicators to measure well-being, not just income.

The Human Development Index (HDI) emerged as a result. It makes it possible to measure progress through three dimensions: health (life expectancy at birth), education (average and expected years of schooling), and standard of living (national per capita income).

This index proved very useful in that it made it possible to summarize the complex multidimensional information on human development in a single indicator. Therefore, it proved particularly attractive to the media and public opinion.

A group of people.

Human development today

After six decades of doctrinal debate, people understand human development as a “process of expanding people’s freedoms to lead healthy, long, and creative lives; to achieve the goals they value; and to actively participate in shaping development in a sustainable and equitable way on a shared planet” (UNDP). Thus, people are both beneficiaries and motivating agents of human development, both collectively and as individuals.

As you can see, development is perceived as a process forged by people and for the benefit of people. Therefore, human development policies must be designed in a participatory manner and their benefits redistributed. In the end, the important thing is to fairly address the major conflicts that arise in a growing community, within a finite and shared world.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.