Can the 2020 Human Development Report be reframed as a decolonizing tool?

Anisa Khadem Nwachuku, Ph.D.
6 min readApr 3, 2021

The 2020 Human Development Report (HDR) articulates in depth the unprecedented nature of the current relationship between people and planet and the attending complex crises our species faces as a result. It further locates humans and our agency to effect transformation at the center of a viable path forward through this new geological epoch — the Anthropocene.

This question of agency has long been recognized in development spaces as an indispensable element of the kind of transformation required to generate prosperity and ultimately propel societies forward. Although a mainstream decolonization agenda is relatively new, terms like “empowerment”, “participation”, “collective decision-making” and “community-led” have featured for decades in development discourse, evaluations and strategies. Over 20 years ago when Amartya Sen received his Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, he was championing “development as freedom”. Why then, do these challenges continue to persist? Why do “agency” and “participation” stubbornly feature as an afterthought in development programming?

The bold assertion of the HDR 2020 offers an opportunity to invert this problem — instead of seeing enhanced human agency as the “how” of development, now we may have the requisite traction to prioritize it as the “what” itself, placing decolonization at the center of development practice. The HDR 2020 triangulates the notion of human agency according to three dimensions: equity, innovation and stewardship. These three elements can be reconceived as the democratization (equity) of a material (innovation) and spiritual (stewardship) knowledge enterprise. We must abandon the conventional idea of development as the rigid application of technical expertise usually from minority (economically-dominant) countries to plug certain holes or “deficiencies” in majority countries. We must be able to draw upon the whole world’s multiplicity of voices and experiences if we are ever to rise to the scale, scope and complexity of the challenges we face.

“Agency” framed in these terms would seem rather uncontroversial, but it requires a radical re-conception of whence knowledge and prosperity can originate and emerge. The conventional notions of an implied development hierarchy no longer hold — “rural development”, for example, ceases to be an exercise in alleviating the suffering of people who are simply waiting to urbanize or are otherwise passive recipients of innovation and benefit defined and developed elsewhere. Instead, it is part and parcel of a deliberate effort to carve out, hold space and bring “online” to a collective knowledge enterprise the masses of humanity daily engaged in a process of their own data-gathering, optimization, sense-making and storytelling about their reality. This is the only way we can surface crucial insights and arrive at that more complete picture of how to tackle the immensely complex and unprecedented challenges we face.

How do we “create” that space, and how do we actually establish equity as a prerequisite in this knowledge enterprise? Consider the approach to development as an evolution from abstract to concrete:

Starting with Operating Principles at the most abstract relates to the underlying values around which a development effort is ultimately trying to optimize. These are typically implicit and rarely stated nor interrogated. In the development and humanitarian space, it is often presumed that these are universal values such as justice or peace, but in practice can often reveal themselves to prioritize lesser principles such as political expediency or pragmatism — hence the term “Operating” Principles which refers specifically to the principles that are actually applied in practice. Next is the “Diagnostic” which is an implied perception of a gap between Operating Principles and reality that motivates intervention. That gap determines the Problem Identification level which relates to the scope of what qualifies as a legitimate problem that must be addressed. The Operating Principles that motivated the Problem Identification lead to a particular Definition of the Solution Space. For example, improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers may imply a solution space of increasing access to high-yield variety seeds, fertilizers, and improved irrigation methods; it may imply a solution space of tackling agricultural subsidy regimes in minority countries; or it may imply a solution space of restoring traditional scientific knowledge and practices. These framings of different elements of human and social reality are intimately related to our Operating Principles. Next, the Measures of Success result from the cascade of all the previous levels. Contrary to the popular notion that they represent the most objective element of the development enterprise, they are in fact an output of what are usually unexamined and flawed assumptions about the priority and nature of the problems we face.

Now what can this “dial” tell us about agency or equity? If we reconceive development as a knowledge management enterprise, it becomes apparent how power is allocated:

Essentially, where we choose to set this dial — meaning the space we leave open for “participation” — dictates the allocation of power in a development effort. Most development efforts (and development discourse) are limited to the concrete red region starting at X, where the Operating Principles are latent, the Problems have already been identified, and to a large extent, so have the range of acceptable Solutions. “Participation” is often invited as part of tailoring implementation of pre-determined solutions in order to achieve “buy-in” or cultivate a “sense of ownership”. It is treated as a prerequisite for the sustainability of an effort, not as intrinsic to shaping our understanding of what constitutes development itself. What if effective development programming were not a matter of wielding sophistication and technical prowess to traverse that narrow space from X to 100, but were actually a matter of ceding some of that claimed green territory on the dial to others? In other words, what if decolonization is not something we do to development, what if it is development? Centering this effort as the “what” of development is how we achieve an ever-expanding base of knowledge that engages the entire global citizenry in a process of discovery and innovation to read and shape our diverse — but ultimately shared — realities.

This abstract-concrete spectrum can also be conceived as the evolution from theory to practice, thought to action, ethical to technical or its analog — religion to science. The overwhelming focus in development on the concrete side of this dial has created a technical bias in development work and inquiry in the field. The inadequacy of this approach becomes apparent when we remember that development is essentially motivated by the virtue of justice; its challenges cannot be resolved simply through technical inquiry alone. When we consider that the vast, vast majority of the world’s people (93%) have some conception of the divine[1] and it is a crucial, conscious feature of how they read their reality and move in the world, we also must reckon with the necessity of accommodating orientations, paradigms and ways of knowing that are grounded in spiritual traditions. Pulling the dial further to the left democratizes the knowledge enterprise which in turn holds space for the generation, application and diffusion of knowledge related to stewardship that represents the final pillar of agency described in the HDR 2020.

The HDR 2020 affirms that the Anthropocene mandates a wholesale planetary transformation. This begins with a transformation in our understanding of the nature of development itself. We don’t simply need to decolonize global development — decolonization is global development.

[1] Keysar, Ariela; Navarro-Rivera, Juhem (2017). “36. A World of Atheism: Global Demographics”. In Bullivant, Stephen; Ruse, Michael (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978–0199644650.



Anisa Khadem Nwachuku, Ph.D.

Anisa is a Sustainable Development and Global Health consultant. Her work challenges core assumptions shaping development and the balance of economic power.