Human development and human dignity

By Aung San Suu Kyi, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 1991

Respect for human dignity implies commitment to creating conditions under which individuals can develop a sense of self-worth and security. True dignity comes with an assurance of one’s ability to rise to the challenges of the human situation. Such assurance is unlikely to be fostered in people who have to live with the threat of violence and injustice, with bad governance and instability or with poverty and disease. Eradicating these threats must be the aim of those who recognize the sanctity of human dignity and of those who strive to promote human development. Development as growth, advancement and the realization of potential depends on available resources—and no resource is more potent than people empowered by confidence in their value as human beings.

The concept of human development is no longer new. But some analysts still consider its aspirations bold and daring—some might say overwhelming and foolhardy. The problems are innumerable, forever changing and forever the same—a complex, fluid spectrum of social, economic and political issues that is impossible to grasp entirely. That it defies delimitation is the core of the challenge posed by the task of human development. It demands constant effort and capacity for rethinking, flexibility and fast reactions. The process of human development calls for human resolve and ingenuity. Hopeless, helpless people stripped of their dignity are hardly capable of such activities. And so we return to the link between human development and human dignity.

Human development encompasses all aspects of human existence. It is generally accepted that its scope includes political and social rights as well as economic ones—but the different rights are not always given the same weight. For example, some people still claim that humanitarian aid and economic assistance cannot wait for political and social progress. This insidious idea creates dissonance between complementary requirements. If the people that aid targets are not empowered, it cannot achieve more than a very limited, very short-term alleviation of problems rooted in long-standing social and political ills. After all, human development is not intended to produce impotent objects of charity.

At this time when the world is preoccupied with the menace of terrorism, it is worth considering that people who feel deprived of control over their lives— necessary for a dignified life—are liable to search for fulfilment along the path of violence. Merely providing them with a certain material sufficiency is not enough to win them over to peace and unity. Their potential for human development has to be realized and their human dignity respected so that they can gain the skills and confidence to build a world strong and prosperous in harmonious diversity.

This blog entry is a special contribution made to the 2002 Human Development Report “Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World”