Human Development in the times of COVID-19: a collaborative challenge

May 5, 2020

Margarita Vaca Cuevas
Data for Sustainable Development area

May 5, 2020 

The promise of human development

In the late 1980s, the human development paradigm shook the foundations of utilitarianism by stressing that a country’s  development could not be defined solely as the accumulation of wealth. On the contrary, it had to transcend the capacities that people had to live a life that they valued, that is, the “process of expansion of real liberties that individuals enjoyed” (Sen, 2000: 55).

From 1990, with the first measurement of the Human Development Index (HDI)¹ by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), decision-makers began to redirect their attention towards development, focusing on human beings and the generation of strategies that promote the progress of societies (UNDP, 2010).

Since then, achieving the long-awaited promise of human development -the starting point of individuals does not affect their achievements, capacities, or freedoms for the rest of their lives- has become the most ambitious challenge for all actors from governments to civil society and multilateral organizations. They have proposed to respond to this challenge through more democratic states, more robust fiscal and tax policies, and evidence-based global agendas such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

And although significant progress has been made, such as the 59% decrease in the under-5 mortality rate between 1990 and 2018 (World Bank, 2019), there is still a long way to go to ensure that both current generations as future have the opportunity to develop their full potential. According to the 2019 Human Development Report, 600 million people continue to live in extreme economic poverty, 1.300 million, according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index; Approximately 262 million children do not attend a primary or secondary school, and 5,4 million children do not survive until the age of five.

Likewise, while human development assumes the task of reducing inequality in such areas as life expectancy at birth, access to primary and secondary education, access to health, among others, it must also seek solutions to new types of inequality: climate change (direct impact in tropical countries) and the acceleration of technological progress (for example connectivity, access to digital media) that affect the most vulnerable populations and lead countries to go into a vicious circle.

If achieving the concept of human development was a challenging mission in “normal” conditions, in critical situations such as wars, natural catastrophes, economic or health crisis, it requires twice as much the effort from everyone. This is the challenge that COVID-19 is presenting to us today.

Pandemic and government

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the different structural gaps in all countries, showing that no nation, regardless of its level of development, was prepared to face a total reconfiguration, either due to the lack of a robust health system, the presence of weak formal and informal institutions², the abuse of government power, among other factors, which have evidenced the fragility of the freedoms and capacities of the most vulnerable groups.

Faced with this situation, the discussion on the efficiency of government systems has resurfaced. On the one hand, authoritarian governments have drawn attention for their ability to make the population comply with the measures imposed and for investing their resources in infrastructure almost immediately, thanks to the centralization of power, but they have also concealed processes and political decisions of public interest, and measures have been taken unilaterally.

One cannot denied that in an emergency like this authoritarianism can seduce. However, as Sen (1999) mentions, “when something starts to go wrong, the political incentives that democratic forms of government can provide acquire considerable practical value” (p. 18) since a democratic government must face the citizens’ elections, the opposition parties that will question every decision that is made, and the press that will communicate each step, be it to inform, persuade, educate or entertain.

In this sense, governments around the world have declared states of emergency or similar that have given them the power to make timely decisions, relocate the nation’s resources, assume activities that were not within their competence, among other powers, to carry out efficient actions to respond to the demands of their populations, keep the social order and reduce negative impacts in scale.

Governments must be guarantors of rights and promote national well-being, as well as prosperity, to allow development processes of their population to be unaffected. However, the particularities of each country are obstacles to achieving this purpose. For example, the informality rate³. By 2018, this was equivalent to 2 billion people, more than 61% of the active population in the world. Informal work is the main source of employment/income for 63% of men and 58,1% for women (ILO, 2018).

This population is just one example of the different vulnerable groups that lack social protection and rights at work, whose livelihood, like that of their families, depends on a daily income. It is probable that human development in these groups, even with State aid, will be stagnant or null.

The list of areas to attend, innovate or adopt has started to become very extensive, given that in addition to responding to the economic base of millions of people, it must also cover basic and essential needs, such as education, health systems, drinking water, access to information and health, not only for nationals but also for migrants.

Human Development challenges 

The challenges for human development have multiplied, perhaps not in number, but in magnitude and scope. The reconfiguration in the new ways of living, social interactions and economy have set a historical change that can only be overcome with the commitment and innovation of all actors. In line with the HDI dimensions, not with its indicators, the most significant challenges are described:

🔎 Education: In most countries, there has been a sharp transition from traditional teaching methods to remote and digital learning, which requires ensuring that all children and adolescents, both in rural and urban areas, have access at least to the internet and a computer. To date, of the 1.500 million students in the world, there are 826 million who do not have a computer and 706 million without Internet access (UNESCO & ITU, 2020). This represents a fairly wide gap to be solved in record time both by the government, which must have the necessary infrastructure and resources, and by parents or guardians, who must adapt to new educational models, as well as the use of digital media. It is important to mention here, that even if the classes are managed to be taught, a significant gap will persist in the pedagogical component of the educational process, especially in children who for different reasons don´t have enough support from their parents or cannot attend virtual classes.

Therefore, distance learning should include components beyond the theory and the official curriculum of educational institutes. It should contemplate new activities that help students and parents to cope with this situation and assimilate knowledge in the best way.

🔎 Health: Although it is clear that the COVID-19 virus represents a challenge for national health systems, it also revives the debate on public health management from the perspective of human development. In other words, public health management cannot be equivalent to a social policy that only compensates for the effects of a disease on the population or stratified medical care.

From human development, the sphere of health must be governed by social justice, which demands both the right to receive timely medical attention by the State, without any type of discrimination and the implementation of collective responsibility of all actors, where the promotion of life is conceived as a supreme right of all individuals.

Thus, it is necessary to define a set of harmonized actions that respond to the norms of prevention and control established by the State, as well as to generate awareness of the capacities and rights of each individual.

🔎 Standard of living: The world economy was showing slowdown signs before the pandemic exploded. There is no doubt that, given the new situation, the economy will undergo a reconfiguration that will affect all sectors at different levels. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that the world economy will show a 0,9% reduction during 2020, in the worst-case scenario, and that the worst-hit sectors could be tourism, manufacturing, and goods export consumption from developing to developed countries (United Nations, 2020).

Regarding employment, the economic contraction would represent a 6,7% reduction in hours worked, equivalent to 195 million full-time jobs. Similarly, measures to restrict economic activity already affect the 2.000 million people who work in informality (ILO, 2020).

On the other hand, under the assumption of a 20% income contraction, the Oxfam organization calculates that 6% and 8% of the world population would be at risk of falling below the poverty line. It would imply a 10-year reversal in the fight against poverty.

To reduce the strong negative impacts that the economic recession can have on poverty levels and the middle class, governments must continue to promote fiscal stimulus packages, prioritizing financial support for the most vulnerable households (basic income, food, access to public services) and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to cushion unemployment rates.

In the coming years we will witness a setback in human development in all countries, turning the mission of human development progress from complex to titanic. Therefore, to counteract the consequences of this pandemic in the short and long term, we should resort to discipline, the construction of innovative solutions, the adoption of new lifestyles (healthy and collective care), home office, distance and quality learning (articulation between teachers-parents-students), the shaping of a new map of priorities by sectors, international cooperation, and other measures that allow us to adapt to changes without neglecting the human development of the most vulnerable.


1. The HDI is a synoptic measure of the human development of the countries that synthesizes the relative achievements made in three dimensions: health, education, and standard of living. Its result allows countries to be classified into 4 human development groups: low (<0.55), medium (0.55 – 0.70), high (0.70 – 0.80), and very high (> 0, 8).

2. Institutions are rules and norms that allow interaction between people and determine results in all spheres of society. Formal institutions are laws, regulations, organizations, contracts, and agreements. While informal institutions refer to social norms, conventions, and moral rules. For example, punctuality.

3. In Africa, 85,8% of jobs are informal. The proportion is 68,2% in Asia and the Pacific; 68,6% in the Arab States; 40,0% in the Americas, and 25,1% in Europe and Central Asia (ILO, 2018).

Bibliographic references

Banco Mundial (19 de septiembre de 2019). A pesar de los notables avances, 15.000 niños y 800 mujeres mueren aún todos los días, principalmente por causas prevenibles o tratables Banco Mundial [online] available at

Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (1 de abril de 2020). World Economic Situation And Prospects: April 2020 Briefing, No. 136. United Nations [online] available at

Organización Internacional del Trabajo. (2020). Observatorio de la OIT: El COVID-19 y el mundo del trabajo. Ginebra: OIT  [online] available at—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740981.pdf 

Organización Internacional del Trabajo. (2018). Mujeres y hombres en la economía informal: un panorama estadístico (tercera edición). Ginebra: OIT [online] available at—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_635149.pdf

Oxfam. (2020). Elijamos dignidad, no indigencia. Boston: Oxfam [online] available at

PNUD. (2010). Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano 2010, PNUD: Nueva York; Capítulo 1  [online] available at 

PNUD. (2019). Informe de Desarrollo Humano 2019 | Más allá del ingreso, más allá de los promedios, más allá del presente: Desigualdades del desarrollo humano en el siglo XXI. Nueva York: PNUD [online] available at

UNESCO & UIT (21 de abril de 2020). UNESCO calcula que más de la mitad de alumnos están sin clases en el mundo. UNESCO [online] available at

Sen, A. (2000). Desarrollo y libertades. Barcelona: Planeta.

Sen, A. (1999). ‘Democracia Como Valor Universal’, Journal of Democracy, 10(3): 3-17.

“An additional 43,691 cases were reported in the past 24 hours, representing a 3% relative increase in total cases compared to the previous day. Due to reporting errors over the weekend, the number of deaths has been revised for the United States, Guatemala, Ecuador (probable deaths) and Puerto Rico (see footnotes under table) – hence the relative change (%) was not calculated.”

PAHO, May 4, 2020.

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