HUMAN DEVELOPMENT AND THE NOTION OF
June 20, 2002
Not long ago, certainly in the
1930s and possibly into the 1960s, belief in the notion of progress was quite widespread. Progress implies
improvement towards a goal or a more desirable state. Many even thought progress in society to be inevitable.
The Second World War dampened
the optimism, and doubts about progress were increased by books like Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows
et al, which pointed out that if we continued in the directions we were headed we would face resource depletion
and environmental catastrophe. Food shortages would cause mass starvation, pollution would foul land, air and
water, and vital minerals would disappear. Most of the "limits" cited by the authors have been expanded by
technological advance or policy change, but the Malthusian threat to our existence, or at least to our quality
of life, remains.
At the present time, probably
more people believe that a biological model of birth, development, maturity, and decline better represents the
course of civilizations than believe in a progress model. Only an extreme optimist could believe in linear and
inevitable progress for the human condition. And yet, there is cause for hope. The cycle of the rise and fall
of civilizations can be broken for a simple reason: Never before in human history has the mean level of
development of an entire population approached the levels of human development common today in Western
The key to this unique
advancement is technology. Modern technology has its down sides, including the possibility of planetary
destruction. But without it, we would have not chance to avoid the decline that befell other civilizations.
Technology has made possible the advance of civilization, but has not guaranteed it will continue to happen.
Technology creates opportunities for widespread human development in three ways:
It increases productivity to the point
where 3% of our population can produce enough food for ourselves and for many abroad. The productivity makes it
possible for us, as well as necessary, to school our children for many years through and beyond adolescence;
It permits communications on a national
and global basis which promotes the rapid adoption of new technologies and the modernization of the attitudes,
beliefs and practices of developing country populations; and
Most importantly, it creates the
environment in which we work and play which provides opportunities and incentives for continued human
development well beyond formal schooling. As we shape our technology, it in turn shapes us.
the human dimension of our achievement has received relatively little attention. We measure and take pride in
our material gains. Economic well-being is assumed to be the primary human goal. When we undertake to assist
other countries, European during the Marshall Plan and less developed countries since then, we focus our efforts
on economic development. Yet it is what has happened to our people and institutions in the course of economic
development that makes our civilization unique and gives hope of breaking the cycle of birth to decline that has
affected all previous civilizations.
We do take pride in our
institutions. Our foreign policy aims to encourage the spread of democracy around the globe, just as the
British established parliaments in their colonies before setting them free. We assume that one man one vote is
an appropriate system of governance no matter what the mean level of human development is in a particular
After a long career in the
business of international development, I am concerned that my colleagues and I have been concentrating on
secondary issues. We have promoted technological and organizational development and assumed that human
development would follow, as it did in Western countries. One problem with that strategy is that habitat earth
cannot sustain globally the stages of economic development which we went through in our history. I think we
need to focus our efforts more directly on human development goals, adapting technological and organizational
inputs appropriate to the level of the participants. Work and study environments can be consciously designed to
challenge and stimulate participants to the next level or stage.
As a discipline, adult
development psychology may not be ready to offer guidance to those seeking to promote development abroad.
Recent significant theoretical advances in the field have revealed a new perspective on many of the individual
and social problems of the day, but these advances have yet to be thoroughly tested and applied by psychologists
and others, such as teachers, management experts, educators and therapists, whose work could be enhanced by the
The professionalization of the
field is overdue. Professionalization describes an attitude shift from an academic focus, where the object is
the increase of knowledge, to a service orientation, where the practical application of specialized knowledge
and training for the benefit of individuals or communities is the goal. Human development psychology, as a
discipline of applied knowledge, belongs with the professions of medicine, education, political science,
management and sociology. Joint research projects are needed to forge links between development psychology and
practitioners in these fields.
The general dissemination of
information gleaned from the study of human development has lagged behind the growth of that knowledge. Because
funding sources, academic institutes, and professional journals have emphasized the importance of basic research
rather than the application or dissemination of theory, those involved in the development of this knowledge have
had little incentive to move beyond the sphere of the university.
I suggest that a major
foundation be requested to provide substantial funding over a considerable period of time to support the
professionalization of this important discipline, the application of knowledge to other fields, and the training
of professionals from developing countries as well as industrial ones. An initial exploratory grant could
enable the potential organizers of such a program time to come up with a program strategy, assess controversial
issues relating to the field, and identify priority activities in need of funding. An SRAD member grounded in a
university could be principle investigator for the exploratory study, guided by a committee of SRAD members.
Foundations are uniquely
equipped for major undertakings such as the professionalization of a discipline. Their time horizon is long
enough to enable them to forgo immediate results. An example of successful foundation support to an emerging
profession is described in the attached pages. In that case, the Carnegie Corporation helped to professionalize
museum curators in the inter-war period.