Social development and human development

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This Topic Guide aims to answer the question ‘What is the interaction between social development issues and human development outcomes?’ An individual’s right to lead a long and healthy life, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living cannot be realised without addressing social development issues. This is because these issues determine individuals’ access to resources – who gets what, where, and how. This in turn affects whether human development is inclusive and equitable or perpetuates inequalities and exclusion.

Two main rationales for considering social development emerge from the literature. Without understanding and addressing social drivers of development, human rights will not be realised and development gains will be undermined. Secondly, by taking social development issues on board, development actors will achieve better results and better value for money.

This guide provides an overview of available evidence on how social development influences human development outcomes. It focuses on five social development issues (human rights, accountability, gender inequality, age and social exclusion) and their influence on four human development sectors: 1) health; 2) sexual and reproductive health (SRH); 3) education; and 4) water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Human rights-based approaches form the basis of much of the literature. Rights underpin the purpose of human development interventions, and provide the guiding structure for measuring outcomes. As such, human rights encompass all aspects of social development. There are, however, four distinct social development issues under the human rights umbrella that deserve particular attention:

  • Accountability of governments, services, and interventions helps ensure transparency and fulfilment of obligation in realising human development. Rights-based development is based on development actors’ accountability in protecting and delivering those rights.
  • Gender inequality remains a significant driver of poverty and gender inequity. Unequal power relations between men and women affect people’s ability to fully access resources, services, institutions and power that lead to human development. This applies at both individual and structural levels.
  • Children, adolescents and older people warrant special consideration in the realisation of human development. Poor human development at an early age can have a strong impact on the rest of life. Adolescents and older people have specific vulnerabilities and human development needs, which may not be adequately catered for in broadly targeted programmes.
  • Socially excluded groups experience discrimination and inability to access services and institutions. Ethnic minorities, people living with disabilities (PWD), and those in isolated, rural locations experience individual and structural disadvantages, which restrict their ability to realise their rights and human development.

Almost all of the literature in this guide adopts an equity or inequality approach. Many papers recommend an equity approach to service provision. An equity approach is firmly embedded in human rights and, by recognising different individual and group needs, ensures greater access to services for a greater number and range of people than a blanket approach which offers the same services to everyone. On the whole, the literature recommends a multidimensional, relational, and inter-sectoral approach to research and interventions.

See the Evidence table (4pp; PDF, 400 kB), which provides a visual summary of the evidence base on the links between social development issues and human development outcomes.


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