In the course of a long career in international development, I have found that human development psychology helped to explain many otherwise puzzling observations. The extraordinary cultural distance one notes between highly educated Asians, Arabs, and Africans, and their less fortunate kinsmen, for example, attests, not only to the transformation of individuals that occurs in the development process, but also to the rapidity in which the transformation can occur given favorable environmental stimulus and opportunity.   


Wissa Wassef, Egypt

          The lasting impact made on Sudanese attending a junior secondary teacher training school at Bakht-er-Ruda, a hundred miles up the Nile from Khartoum, was detectable thirty years later when the graduates were senior figures in Government and other organizations. Something happened to those boys, shielded from the bright lights of Khartoum and subjected to Outward Bound-type of character building, that set them apart from their cohort all through their lives. And they knew it. A group of them asked the Ford Foundation for funds to re-establish Bakht-er-Ruda, but with Sudanese values. As the Foundation’s representative, I declined the request, to my lasting regret.   

         Also in the Sudan, an irrigation scheme called the Gezeira, launched by the British between the two Niles, succeeded as intended in producing the cotton needed to cover the foreign exchange costs of the colonial government. Even more remarkably, but less noted, was the fact that the semi-nomadic population brought in and settled on the Scheme produced half the student body of the University College, Khartoum, after two generations as farmers. They had become wealthy in local terms when they were selected to participate in the Gezeira, but soon coming to understand that irrigation is a repressive livelihood, they undertook to ensure that their progeny had a chance for a better life. 

          These and other examples led me to resume reading in the area of human development psychology after I retired. Twenty years ago, when the Ford Foundation sent me to Harvard for a year, I had begun reading in the field. Between then and now the field made substantial theoretical advances, particularly in the area of adult development, but seems to have done so at the expense of application. Perhaps due to the absence of research funding, or possibly because of the tendency of each scholar to work out her or his own stage theory, the expansion of knowledge seems to have had little impact on the world of affairs. True, Kegan’s work helps to explain why the complexity of modern life leaves so many of our population on the sidelines, [1] but the pioneering work of Alex Inkeles in exploring the changes of values, attitudes and beliefs brought about by modernization seems to have disappeared without succession. [2] 

          Conventional analyses leading to interventions on social issues, domestic and foreign, have often had disappointing results. Human development psychology may very well be the missing ingredient in current analytical methods. By assuming a false homogeneity among people inter-culturally and within a single culture group, interventions often fail to produce the intended outcomes. In order to see how a human development perspective might be applied, I have done two preliminary papers, one [3] on three cases where authors sought to apply human development concepts in their fields (management [4], faith [5], and education [6]). The second [7] is a critique from a human development perspective of Professor Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations. [8] The human development perspective leads one to conclusions differing not only from Huntington’s, but also from his many critics, writing in Foreign Affairs. [9] 

          I want next to do a more comprehensive study, for which I seek funding, of the human development dimension of the policies of a successful developing country, Singapore. I hope to demonstrate that a nation that consistently favors education and training, and thus human development, can achieve its development objectives faster than others, even those with more abundant resource endowments. By development objectives I mean elevated income levels, improved health and education status, increased longevity, lower fertility rates and a concern for environmental quality. 


          The project will have primary and secondary objectives. The primary ones are to define an improved development strategy in which a higher than usual value is placed upon human development, and to suggest why global efforts to assist nations to develop in this way deserve high priority. 

          An improved development strategy is needed because of the environmental consequences of current practices. If the countries that remain poor, especially China and India, develop through industrialization, with lagging education and training, as most successful countries have done, the burden of increased population and environmental deterioration on our planet will be enormous. Economic growth cannot be ignored, of course, but a growth pattern emphasizing human development measures could, I believe, achieve lower fertility and greater environmental concern among a population much earlier than would be the case from the more traditional pattern. In countries the size of China and India, choice of development path can have major consequences for the rest of the world, including the United States. 

          Singapore, fortunately, provides a successful model, albeit on a small scale, of extraordinary economic growth and rapidly rising educational and health status indicators in the population. Its usefulness as a model is enhanced by the pluralism of its population: more than half are of Chinese origin, and sizable fractions of the remainder are of Malay and Indian extraction.  It was the first country in Southeast Asia to adopt a family planning program, and fertility dropped so rapidly that the Singapore Government is now pro-natalist. (This is not to say that the family planning program in itself led to the decline in fertility; increasing incomes and educational status doubtless had much to do with it.) 

          Environmentally, Singapore is one of the neatest and cleanest cities of its size in the world. True, this has much to do with the paternalistic policies of the Government, but evidence of the environmental concerns of the people will be sought in the study. The authoritarian style of the Government may make the choice of that country as a model problematical for some people. I would concur with the opinion that the current level of government control is unnecessary, perhaps even repressive, given the level of maturity of its people, and I will of course cite whatever evidence of this I find in the course of the study.       

          An important element in the human development thesis I am proposing is the parallels between levels of human development and levels of organizational development and governmental organization. That is another way of saying that as the modal level of individuals participating in organizations or societies increases, decision-making devolves downward in the case of organizations, and societies become more democratic, or at least they should for optimal effectiveness. The notion of a parallel structure ideally existing between modal human development and organization is not commonly found in social science literature, although authors like Ken Wilber [10] and Dalmar William Torbert [4] have dealt with it to some extent. The implications of this concept for the proposed study are that we should not be quick to apply our own standards of democracy and rights to other societies and cultures without understanding their circumstances. For much of Singapore’s history, a firm hand on the tiller may have been quite efficacious. 

          The secondary objective of the project will be to demonstrate the utility of the human development perspective in analyzing social issues. Human development psychology focuses of course on the individual, and our intellectual tools for moving between the individual and the collective are not strong. Nevertheless, an awareness of individual developmental stages in an historical context can be very helpful in understanding today’s problems.  

          The average American of a century ago was a very different person from the average today; different in cognitive capacities, in attitudes and beliefs and values. Conversely, our society demands more of each of us today than any society in the past. Recognition of the higher level of demands modernity exacts from the average individual is critical to the notion of national development, and to the consideration of alternative strategies for bringing it about. 

          Few of us recall how recent a notion it is that all societies can achieve a fully mature level of civility, education, income and appreciation of environmental quality. Indeed, some may still not be persuaded; but since the Second World War, international organizations, and most importantly the United States, have acted upon the assumption that all societies can achieve an advanced technological and civic level if they have the will and the opportunity to do so. In historical terms, this is a very fresh idea indeed. But the same egalitarian impulses that led us to conclude that universal development is possible seems to have precluded us from carefully examining what it takes at the individual and the institutional level to bring it about. 

          Abraham Maslow [11, 12] pointed out that individuals can and do improve; and that societies can and do improve. These seemingly obvious observations point to the need to bring all the knowledge we can muster to bear on the issues of how and why such improvement can be consciously brought about. Singapore, whatever its failings, has brought its people to a high level of consciousness, education and productivity in a remarkable short time. As a species we need to understand how this can be accomplished, because the shorter the transition between traditional high fertility / high mortality societies to low fertility / low mortality societies, the lower the level at which the global population will level off. 

          If, as I seek to demonstrate in the case of Singapore, a policy framework conducive to the improvement of an entire population can be designed and implemented without the egregious use of repressive power by the authorities, it may be possible to design measures for enhancing the development of lagging populations in societies such as our own, where the gap between bottom and top income and social strata seems to be widening. A human development perspective could lead to a very different set of interventions than those normally proposed on the basis of conventional analysis. 


          I intend to use the broad concepts of human development psychology, not the measurement devices it has produced, in my study. Measurement techniques, such as Loevinger’s sentence completion exercise, [13] are the means of refining theory and delving more deeply into the particulars of an individual’s development. My purpose is to broaden the utility of human development psychology at the collective level, not to deepen its understanding at the individual level. 

          Consequently, I intend to study the policies of the Singapore state as they have affected the development of its people. Education and training policies will be a central focus, but minimum-wage legislation and other economic policies will also play a role. Singapore consciously promoted the education and training of its people, a subset of human development and perhaps the most rapid route of advancement, but not the entire concept. Nor is human resource development, an economic concept that evaluates humans as factors of production, a notion of adequate scope for my purposes. We are after all not solely interested in Singapore’s economic success; we are also concerned with its success in limiting fertility and maintaining a healthy environment. 

          Measures of education achievement and of fertility-rate decline should be easily come by. More difficult is the measurement of awareness of environmental quality. I will need to search for indications that the people of Singapore, not just their government, care about environmental quality. 

          A good deal of information on Singapore is available on the internet and in the stacks of Widener Library at Harvard University, to which I have access as a Harvard retiree. To capture the full flavor of the Singapore experience, however, I believe I need to spend three months there, interviewing people and consulting documents not otherwise available. In addition, I would benefit from brief visits to Kerala State in India, and to Kuwait. Kerala has achieved many of the benefits of development, including longevity, basic education, and health status, without substantial economic development. Kuwait had economic growth thrust upon it, and quickly provided vast educational opportunities for its people, but there is evidence that human development still lagged behind that of Singapore. The drop in the Kuwaiti fertility rate, for example, was much slower than Singapore’s and has not progressed as far. Evidence of environmental awareness will be sought, but solid data are unlikely to be available. 

          Although I will gather as much data as I can to illustrate the importance of human development to international development strategy, the compass of the work is too broad to expect to prove my case beyond dispute. I will need to interpret and juxtapose data so that the reader will see evidence in a different light and perhaps challenge some of his or her assumptions about the development process. For this I will rely heavily upon my experience in different parts of the world, including Southeast Asia. I will seek to illustrate and persuade, rather than prove, my point of view. 

            In the course of the study, my primary base will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Preliminary conversations indicate that I can have an office at the Harvard Institute for International Development, an organization from which I retired a few years ago, which will allow me to exchange views with other development professionals on a regular basis. 


          Two fields are the central foci of the work. The overseas development field is still celebrating the failure of centrally planned economies and the triumph of free markets. Resistance to a perceived undue reliance on market mechanisms exists in the UNDP and elsewhere, but their call for more concern for human development is couched in terms of human resource development, an economic term that owes nothing to the psychological concept. 

          The UNDP position [14] favors increased investments in education and training, a step in the right direction but alone inadequate. Inkeles [2] found thirty years ago that formal education, along with factory employment and exposure to mass media, were powerful instruments for the modernization of values, attitudes and beliefs. By now, however, we should be able to devise technologies and organizational principles that will accelerate human development much beyond the early stages of modernization as studied by Inkeles. Environment, along with genetics, is recognized to shape our development, but the work environment where most of us spend the bulk of our waking hours is seldom considered from the point of view of its impact on our continued growth as people. Management theory is still tied closely to productivity and profitability, with little regard for maturation of the managed, as well as the managers. 

          This project will not resolve the contradictions in our theories of organization and management, but it may illustrate some neglected dimensions of most of them. To my knowledge, only Fisher and Torbert have begun integrating human development psychology and organizational development. 

          What I hope this project will accomplish is to put development strategy into a different context, to strengthen the case of the UNDP for more attention to the human dimension of development, and to attract development psychologists to the application of their knowledge to social issues. 

          In the field of human development psychology, as noted above, applications of theory to social problems are lagging behind the development of theory. In the past ten years, theory has expanded at a rapid rate. We now have enough variety of hearty theoretical ideas about intellectual, moral, and emotional development to begin to speculate about the conditions that support or impede such growth. Cross-cultural and longitudinal evidenced has clearly supported the existence of stages of intellectual growth, as originally propounded by Jean Piaget [15], and this work has been extended into adult years. If it is true that we have at least a beginning understanding of the course of intellectual, moral, and emotional development across the life span, then the time has come to seek the dissemination and application of that knowledge to the larger problems of human life. 

          We now know, for example, that the ability to grasp and manipulate abstract problems is a product of adolescence and is most likely to appear in the presence of conventional secondary education. It rarely occurs in social settings that do not offer structured secondary education. This set of developments is called formal operations. Formal operations are requisite to rational, scientific thought, and to the ability to take the point of view of another in a systematic way. “If…then” thinking is a product of formal operations. 

          Most of the larger problems of human life, from war and violence to overpopulation and famine, are problems greatly exacerbated, if not wholly created, by human beings. In order to grasp the implications of such problems as war, overpopulation, famine and environmental deterioration, for the future well-being of the species as a whole, there is little doubt that formal operations are necessary. Yet, formal operations are not the norm for traditional societies, nor are they prevalent in many third world populations. 

          The developed world has, generally, taken macro-economic approaches to the solution of such dire problems. It has tried to support the growth of third world economies, the development of free trade, and the democratization of political processes. It has provided medical and subsistence aid to countries in crisis. There has never been any consistent application of psychological or developmental principles to the problems of development on the national and international scale. 

          Macro-economic / social programs have often not been particularly successful. Human development theories would suggest that part of the reason for this failure has to do with the imposition of ideals and programs that are either too far ahead of the intellectual and social development of individuals within a society, or that are not sufficiently embedded in the conditions of everyday life to affect individual development. The development of the species has to be a grass-roots affair, from this viewpoint. It entails a consideration of the development of individuals within their primary settings. 

          Theory in the field of human development is now advanced enough for us to begin a systematic program of research and action that could move beyond the individual level to address the systemic problems faced by the species. The proposed project represents one small step in that direction.  


          My longer-term objectives, to be advanced but not achieved in the proposed project, are to bring human development psychology to the table when measures to deal with social problems are considered. For this to happen, the usefulness of the perspective needs to be demonstrated. Then the profession itself must gain confidence that it has something to offer to the real world, and collaborative projects between psychologists and scholars in other disciplines can begin to explore how the perspective alters the conclusions reached by other social sciences. Eventually, one would hope that a major foundation might establish a program for “professionalizing” the human development psychology discipline, much as the Carnegie Corporation long ago helped professionalize museum curators. I would like to help design such a program. 


          The proposed project addresses at least two of the three core global issues in the Foundation’s Global Security and Sustainability Program. Its primary objectives are directly related to shortening the demographic transition of the globe’s human population, thereby benefiting the environment and lowering the point at which total population levels off. Although not in itself likely to yield discernible progress on those mega-problems, if the project influences in the slightest the development strategy of developing countries, particularly India and China, it will be a major step forward. The path such influence would be likely to take would be through the World Bank and the governments of the industrialized countries. Development interventions tend to follow intellectual fads because strategists are constantly seeking better ideas for combating poverty. When a new idea comes along that seems to improve existing strategies, as the Basic Human Needs idea did at first, major development institutions can change course with sometimes alarming rapidity. One should not be overly optimistic about the impact of one small study, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a well-crafted book taking a fresh view of effective development strategy could have an impact upon the policy people at the Bank, the UNDP, and USAID, and through them on countries in need of their assistance. 

          Indirectly, the project could also benefit national security. If a more effective development strategy could be formulated, tensions between the rich and poor nations could in time be alleviated and the poor gain hope for their future.  Moreover, if the American public became convinced once more that foreign aid could be effective, and that good results were within our national interest, our government might again assume leadership of the global development effort.  


Objective:  The objective of the project is to identify the policies that were key to Singapore’s success in human development terms. The state’s economic success has been much remarked upon, but its success in human terms, as exemplified by the levels of educational achievement, health and longevity, lowered fertility, and environmental awareness, is perhaps even more remarkable. 

          By analyzing the Singapore experience in human development terms, I hope to improve conventional development strategy. Typically, development interventions focus on increasing economic product and building state institutions, allowing the development of individuals to occur in response to the skill demands of the economy (human resource development) or later, as better educational facilities become affordable. In other words, people are regarded as factors of production, or as the consumers of the benefits of economic growth. 

          By placing emphasis on training and education, Singapore not only shaped and accelerated its economic growth, it seems to have shortened the path to other benefits of development, notably the rapid lowering of fertility, the preservation of the environment, and the improved health and longevity of its people. For example, Singapore, the first country in Southeast Asia to promote family planning, now has a pro-natalist policy because the fertility rate has fallen below replacement levels. 

          Methodology:  I plan to collect, and analyze from a human development perspective, the Singapore government’s policy objectives, and the policy framework in such areas as education, training, and minimum wage legislation, which have affected human development in Singapore since independence. Human development indicators will include educational attainment, health and longevity, fertility rates, and environmental awareness, insofar as data are available. 

          I plan to spend three months in Singapore examining data, then to visit Kuwait, an economically successful state where less emphasis has been put on human development, and Kerala State in India, where a relatively high level of human development, as measured by literacy, longevity and fertility rates, has occurred at a low income level. 

Significance:  I believe that our species is in a long-term population crisis, accompanied by environmental degradation, which may threaten our very existence. The least objectionable solution of this crisis, it seems to me, is the rapid development of the earth’s inhabitants to the level where each society is able to take responsibility for its own collective behavior. The emphasis should be on “inhabitants” rather than “economies,” because the globe could probably not sustain universal development using energy technologies currently in use. If a way could be found to shorten the industrialization phase of the development process by emphasizing human development, as Singapore seems to have done, it could be possible for the global population to level off sooner than otherwise, and for the environment to incur less damage than traditional strategies produce. 

          The broader significance of including a human development perspective in social and political problem-solving would be to improve the effectiveness of interventions. Current analytical techniques consider people to be homogeneous in their responses to incentives and disincentives, which is one reason they often fail. 


 1.    Kegan, R. In Over Our Heads: The mental demands of modern life. 1995, Cambridge: Harvard. 396.

2.     Inkeles, A. and D. Smith. Becoming Modern: Individual change in six developing countries. 1974, Cambridge: Harvard. 437.

3.     Nelson, C. “Human Development Theory Applications.” 1997, The Fielding Institute: Wells.

4.     Fisher, D. and W.R. Torbert. Personal and Organizational Transformations: the true challenge of continual quality improvement. Developing Organizations Series, ed. M. Pedlar. 1995, New York: McGraw-Hill. 270.

5.     Fowler, J.W. Stages of Faith: the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. 1976, San Francisco: Harper. 332.

6.     Kohlberg, L. Essays on Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development. Vol. I. 1981, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

7.     Nelson, C. “Progress and Global Politics.” 1998, The Fielding Institute: Wells.

8.     Huntington, S. P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996, New York: Touchstone. 367.

9.     Huntington, S. P. et al. “The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate.”  Foreign Affairs 67 (1996).

10.   Wilber, K. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The spirit of evolution. 1995, Boston: Shambhala. 831.

11.    Maslow, A. Motivation and Personality. 1954, New York: Harper & Row. 368.

12.    Maslow, A. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. An Eselen Book. 1971, New York: Penguin. 400.

13.    Loevinger, J. Ego Development. The Jossey-bass Behavioral Science Series. 1976, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 503.

14.    UNDP. Strategy Paper on Governance. 1995, UNDP: New York.

15.    Piaget, J. The Essential Piaget, ed. H.G.a.J. Voneche. 1977, New York: Basic Books.

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