Human development at the emergency room? Checking the toolbox before next crisis

Gomez, Oscar A. (2014). 'Human development at the emergency room? Checking the toolbox before next crisis' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Understanding crisis in our times is a task of the utmost importance. While positive symptoms of overall human development progress are repeatedly voiced at the global level, acknowledging the rise of the south, showing a general decline in violence and heralding the real possibility of extreme poverty eradication by 2030, the recurrence of crises of different kinds—e.g., financial, food crises, pandemics—weakens the strength of those claims, for some even discrediting progress as a chimera. Whether the glass is seen half full or half empty has further implications on the way the international system works. Humanitarianism, which functions closer to the logic of crisis, sheds light over the perverse effects of emergency over our response to them: in 2010 the Secretary General lamented how the existing humanitarian system worked under the pressure of shocks instead of responding to the identification of needs and vulnerabilities; he added that the system may not be ready to face those emerging challenges, requiring the collaboration of all actors. Moreover, only 3% of official humanitarian aid between 2006 and 2010 was spent on disaster prevention and preparedness. The priority the UNSG conferred to needs and vulnerability over merely contingency (and emotional) response to crisis does link the problem in question with human development area of expertise; indeed, at the institutional level, it is very telling how the boundaries between humanitarianism and development seem to be becoming less and less clear. From human security literature we know of the imminence of this convergence for some time already but so far it is very limited what human development thinking has contributed to influence the outcome of these transformations at the global level, which may reach a turning point in 2016 at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. The present contribution explores some critical points at stake in the convergence of humanitarian and development approaches on which human development thinking may have some inputs to guide discussions.


The exploration is divided in four dimensions relevant for the framing of crises and its rationalization: 1) the model used to place crisis in human/social life, 2) questions of measurement, 3) questions regarding agency and 4) the range of actors joined up by crisis. On models, I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the compound continuum of progress and downside risks, a view linked to human development, in contrast with cyclical models common to disaster research. Hybrid representations such as the one presented by the World Bank in its 2011 report on conflict offer an appealing alternative that presents the recurrence of crisis as part of the path outside of fragility. On measurement, human development accumulated experience in developing assessments of human situation that avoid as much as possible over simplifying the complexity of persons and societies is a remarkable asset. Besides non-trivial technical hurdles, the challenge is being up to the task of providing assessments at the extremely volatile conditions of crisis, as well as managing the uncertainty behind the tipping points that conduce to catastrophe. Then, on regard to agency, I relate how humanitarianism has struggled to handle its paternalistic nature and compare it to similar long-standing discrepancies between human needs and capability, as well as capability and capabilities approaches. Since crisis tends to undermine the conditions that make democracy and justice feasible, it is not clear whether human development thinking will be of use in this dimension. The last dimension on actors seems in principle one in which human development could be of use for its pluralistic appeal and join up thinking and doing. Given that security forces are prone to enter to the equation not only as means but also as actors during crisis, the strength of human development network of actors seems less evident. However, security doing is famous for mistaking means for ends, and so human development thinking remains a potential driving force limiting 'states of exception' and suggesting other, non-military means that could satisfy humanitarian needs.


In the final discussion, I recall the great importance of the positive vision human development is imbued with, encouraging us all to pursue the real possibility of flourishing during our lifetime. If human development thinking is the antithesis of the shock-driven mentality, one may wonder to what extent direct involvement with crisis is going to bring more merits rather than muddle its tenets. Sister concepts of human security and human rights seem in better position to engage with the convergence of humanitarian and development agendas without making of crisis the new normal. Therefore, through the conclusion I invite practitioners and scholars willing to work directly on crisis to participate more actively through the mainstreaming of human security ideas and the elucidation of the interface between human concepts, in a way that maintains human development ideals as the guide for peaceful times.

scroll to top