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Competencies: Human Development beyond the individual
Individuals cannot flourish alone; indeed,
they cannot function alone. The human development approach, however, has been essentially individualistic, assuming that
development is the expansion of individuals’ capabilities or freedoms. Yet
there are aspects of societies that affect individuals but cannot be assessed
at the individual level because they are based on relationships, such as how
well families or communities function, summarized for society as a whole in the
ideas of social cohesion and social inclusion.
Individuals are bound up with others.
Social institutions affect individuals’ identities and choices. Being a member
of a healthy society is an essential part of a thriving existence. So one task
of the human development approach is to explore the nature of social institutions that are favourable for
human flourishing. Development then has to be assessed not only for the
short-run impact on individual capabilities, but also for whether society
evolves in a way that supports human flourishing. Social conditions affect not only the outcomes of individuals
in a particular society today, but also those of future generations.
Social institutions are all institutions in
which people act collectively (that is, they involve more than one person),
other than profit-making market
institutions and the state. They include formal non-governmental organizations,
informal associations, cooperatives,
producer associations, neighbourhood associations, sports clubs, savings
associations and many more. They also consist of norms and rules of behaviour
affecting human development outcomes. For example, attitudes towards employment
affect material well-being, and norms of hierarchy and discrimination affect
inequality, discrimination, empowerment, political freedom and so on. To
describe what those institutions can be and do, and to understand how they
affect individuals, we can use the term social competencies.
Central to the human development
perspective is that societal norms affect people’s choices and
behaviours towards others, thus influencing
outcomes in the whole community. Community norms and behaviours can constrain
choice in deleterious ways from a
human development perspective- for example, ostracizing, or in extreme cases
killing, those who make choices that contravene social rules. Families
trapped in poverty by informal norms that support early marriage and dowry
requirements might reject changes to such entrenched social norms. Social
institutions change over time, and those changes may be accompanied by social tension
if they hamper the interests of some groups while favouring others. Policy
change is the outcome of a political struggle in which different groups (and
individuals) support or oppose particular changes. In this struggle, unorganized
individuals are generally powerless, but by joining together they can
acquire power collectively. Social action favouring human development (such as
policies to extend education, progressive taxation and minimum wages) happens
not spontaneously, but because of groups that are effective in supporting
change, such as producer groups, worker associations, social movements and
political parties. These organizations are especially crucial for poorer
people, as demonstrated by a group of sex workers in Kolkata, India, and women
in a squatter community in Cape Town, South Africa, who improved their
conditions and self-respect by joining together and exerting collective
Societies vary widely in the number,
functions, effectiveness and consequences of their social competencies.
Institutions and norms
can be classified as human development–promoting, human development–neutral
and human development–undermining. It
is fundamental to identify and encourage those that promote valuable
capabilities and relationships among and between individuals and institutions.
Some social institutions (including norms) can support human development in some
respects but not in others: for example, strong family bonds can provide
individuals with support during upheavals, but may constrain individual choices
Broadly speaking, institutions that promote
social cohesion and human development show low levels of disparity across
groups (for example, ethnic, religious or gender groups) and high levels of
interaction and trust among people and across groups, which results in solidarity and the absence of
violent conflict. It is not a coincidence that 5 of the 10 most peaceful
countries in the world
in 2012, according to the Global Peace Index, are also among the most equal
societies as measured by loss in Human Development Index value due to
are also characterized by the absence of discrimination and low levels of marginalization.
In some instances anti-discriminatory measures can ease the burden of
marginalization and partially mitigate the worst effects of exclusion. For
instance, US law mandating that hospital emergency rooms offer treatment to
all patients regardless of their ability to pay partly mitigates the impact of
an expensive health care system with limited coverage, while affirmative action in a range of countries
(including Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa and the United States) has improved
the situation of deprived
groups and contributed to social stability.
The study of social institutions and
social competencies must form an essential part of the human development
approach-including the formation of groups; interactions between groups and
individuals; incentives and constraints to collective action; the relationship among groups, politics and
policy outcomes; the role of norms in influencing behaviours; and how norms are
formed and changed.