Thirty years ago – in 1990 – the first Human Development Report (HDR) was launched. As an independent review of development progress and of the evolution of development thinking, it marked a new era. Based at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) but enjoying considerable autonomy from that organisation’s decision-making structures, the HDR and the associated Human Development Index quickly established themselves as the key measure of global development progress. The report has been published – with a few gaps – every year since. If one wants to know what point our development thinking has reached, and how development progress is best to be measured, the HDR is the accepted reference.

The two originators were prominent development thinkers in their own right. Mahbub Ul Haq, a Pakistani economist and former Minister of Finance, led the movement to measure development not in terms of income alone as it had been in the past, but in terms of development of human potential. His strong focus on the developing world shifted perceptions of where development priorities lay for ever.

Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, insisted that development consisted in expanding “agency” – the control of the individual over his or her destiny and prospects, equating agency with freedom. He pointed out that there has never been a famine in a country with democratic institutions and a free press. Sen saw development as the expansion of human capability, like Ul Haq placing the human being at the centre of – and the proper focus for – human development.

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So the Human Development Report is the flagship publication for a movement that believes that human well-being is the proper objective of development. This development can – and ideally does – give central importance to the expansion of stable economies as an essential factor among others underpinning human well-being. But in the case of trade-offs between quantitative growth and human improvement, the latter is to be favoured.

Thirty years is a long time in the evolution of development thinking and practice, but aside from a few conservative business schools, the notion of human-centred development is now widely accepted. The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals lay out areas of action central to human development and well-being, and even the more economically-oriented goals link economic activity to the imperative of improving human well-being.

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Heading into the 30th anniversary of the HDR, we may be at a tipping point of another fundamental rethinking of the meaning of development and its purpose. Moving from dry growth statistics to the focus of the human individual and community, in 2019 the HDR took a clear stand. Development is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The end must be built around human beings and relate closely to their progress towards a secure state of well-being – towards a growth in human capacity and the acquisition of the power to make the choices necessary for this well-being to be achieved and secured.

The 2019 HDR, the first such report under the current UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner and the new Director of the HDR team Pedro Conceiçao, opens a new era. The 2019 HDR recognises emphatically that opportunities to pursue human well-being are determined by baseline factors which, if ignored or given inadequate importance, will not only stunt progress towards human well-being but also reduce the opportunities for such progress in the future. Decisions taken by countries or communities singly or multilaterally, while vital for the advancement of development, will not lead to the desired goals unless the baseline conditions are favourable.

HDR 2019 looks at two seismic shifts: climate and technology. It has long been accepted that the environment has a profound impact in either limiting or expanding opportunity and thereby human development. We are now seeing this play out in terms of inequitable exposure to physical climate risk and unequal access to climate resilience. By limiting the agency of the poorer and more vulnerable communities, extreme weather from a rapidly warming planet can reverse development success and increase the gap between the rich and the poor, both as the result of acute climate shocks as well as chronic stresses of other climate-related changes over time.

The same uneven impacts are also true of technology and these may well accelerate in the future. In addition to technology being a broad enabler of human development, access to the technology needed to address climate change is considerably greater among the well-off. This, too, serves to deepen the gap between rich and poor and set back the process of development that we are seeing in so many other fields – health, education, mobility, access to credit, access to information, access to justice and legal recourse, and other drivers of human well being. Even worse, these drivers compound and amplify each other.

HDR 2019 underlines that global environmental issues must now be regarded as central to prospects for reaching Agenda 2030, and that in the absence of adequate action to address them, prospects for human development are seriously diminished. The point is made cogently using the notion of “climate inequality” – or the development-related inability to achieve agency in respect of climate futures.

2020 has been called the “Super Year for Nature”. Having introduced this fundamental change of perspective in 2019, it is now vital that the HDR move forward and argue the case for nature to be placed at the core of all notions of human development. Nature and biodiversity took centre stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. The momentum will build through the World Conservation Congress in June in Marseilles and culminate in the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in China this October.

The opportunity is here for HDR to take the next step, and make the case for a development paradigm in which nature is the core; in which development repairs and enhances the ability of nature to sustain human life and well-being; and in which economic activity is organised within the boundaries that will allow for the continued long-term flourishing of civilisation and improvement in human lives.

The models exist, certainly in theory. A great deal of work has been done to define and measure the Planetary Boundaries beyond which human use of the planet and its resources must not extend. And efforts exist to use these Planetary Boundaries within the context of a Sustainable Development Index proposed to replace the HDI. We have similar efforts to define a “social floor” below which social and development factors should not be allowed to sink. Between the two is “a safe operating space for humanity”, popularised by economist Kate Raworth in her book, Doughnut Economics. How can we plot development trajectories that steer us into that space, that build from the social floor and bring us back within Planetary Boundaries?

Surely that is the right challenge for the HDR in this Super Year for Nature. This approach would solidly secure the HDR’s leadership role in development thinking and articulate what must become the most profound rethinking of human development since Ul Haq and Sen placed the human being at its centre – a trajectory for development with a healthy environment as the precondition for the expansion of human agency and freedom.