Human development theory

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Human development theory is a theory that merges older ideas from sustainable development, welfare economics, and feminist economics. Human development theories include Capability approach which economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum have approached from unique perspectives as well as the theory of Fundamental human needs developed by Manfred Max-Neef.


Human Development Theory has roots in ancient philosophy and early economic theory. Aristotle noted that "Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for something else", and Adam Smith and Karl Marx were concerned with human capabilities. The theory grew in importance in the 1980s with the work of Amartya Sen and his Human Capabilities perspective, which played a role in his receiving the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. Notable early economists active in human development theory, Mahbub ul Haq, Üner Kirdar and Amartya Sen, have been influential at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Human Development Index stems from this research.[1] In 2000, Sen and Sudhir Anand published a notable development of the theory to address issues in sustainability.[2][3]

Martha Nussbaum's publications in the late 1990s and 2000s have pushed theorists to pay more attention to the human in the theory, and particularly to human emotion.[4] A seperate approach stems in part from needs theories of psychology which in part started with Abraham Maslow (1968). Representative of these are the Human-Scale Development approach developed by Manfred Max-Neef in the mid-to-late 1980s which addresses human needs and satisfiers which are more or less static across time and context.[5]

Anthropologists and sociologists have also challenged perspectives on Human Development Theory that stem from neoclassical economics. Examples of scholars include, Diane Elson, Raymond Apthorpe, Irene van Staveren, and Ananta Giri. Elson (1997) proposes that human development should move towards a more diverse approach to individual incentives. This will involve a shift from seeing people as agents in control of their choices selecting from a set of possibilities utilizing human capital as one of many assets. Instead, theorists should see people as having more mutable choices influenced by social structures and changeable capacities and using a humanistic approach to theory including factors relating to an individual's culture, age, gender, and family roles. These extensions express a dynamic approach to the theory, a dynamism that has been advocated by Ul Haq and Sen, inspite of the implicit criticism of those two figures.[6][7]


  1. Yousif, Bassam. Human development in Iraq: 1950-1990. Routledge, 2013. p4-6
  2. Anand, S. & Sen,A. (2000). Human development and economic sustainability. World Development 28(12): 2029–2049.
  3. Welzel, Christian, Ronald Inglehart, and Hans Dieter Klikemann. "The theory of human development: A cross-cultural analysis." European Journal of Political Research 42, no. 3 (2003): 341-379.
  4. Gasper, Des. Logos, pathos and ehtos in martha C. Nussbaum's capabilities approach to human development. in Comim, Flavio, and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Capabilities, Gender, Equality: towards fundamental entitlements. Cambridge University Press, 2014. p97
  5. Cruz, Ivonne, Andri Stahel, and Manfred Max-Neef. "Towards a systemic development approach: Building on the Human-Scale Development paradigm." Ecological economics 68, no. 7 (2009): 2021-2030.
  6. Gasper, Des. "Is Sen's capability approach an adequate basis for considering human development?." Review of political economy 14, no. 4 (2002): 435-461.
  7. Elson, Diane. "Economic paradigms old and new: The case of human development." In Global Development Fifty Years after Bretton Woods, pp. 50-71. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1997.