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The American Human Development Project is a nonpartisan, non-profit initiative established to introduce to the United States a well-honed international approach and tool for measuring human well-being: the human development approach and the human development index. The project’s mission is to stimulate fact-based public debate about and political attention to human development issues in the United States and to empower people with an instrument to hold elected officials accountable for progress on issues we all care about: health, education and income.
Co-founders Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis formed the American Human Development Project in 2006 and gained non-profit 501(c)3 status in 2007. The project is funded by Oxfam America, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council with additional funding from the Annenberg Foundation.
On July 16, 2008, the project will launch The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009, the first-ever study of human development in the United States or any affluent nation in the world. The Report is published by Columbia University Press and contains forewords by Nobel Laureate and Harvard Professor in Economics Amartya Sen and venture capitalist William H. Draper III.
The report introduces for the first time the American Human Development Index, with rankings for U.S. states, congressional districts, and ethnic groups. Although its work is modeled on the approach pioneered by the United Nations in its annual Human Development Reports, the American Human Development Project has no affiliation with the United Nations.
Human development is defined as the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being. Human development is about the real freedom ordinary people have to decide who to be, what to do, and how to live.
The human development concept was developed by economist Mahbub ul Haq. At the World Bank in the 1970s, and later as minister of finance in his own country, Pakistan, Dr. Haq argued that existing measures of human progress failed to account for the true purpose of development—to improve people’s lives.
In particular, he believed that the commonly used measure of Gross Domestic Product failed to adequately measure well-being. Working with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and other gifted economists, in 1990 Dr. Haq published the first Human Development Report, which was commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme.
Central to the human development approach is the concept of capabilities. Capabilities—what people can do and what they can become-are the equipment one has to pursue a life of value. Basic capabilities valued by virtually everyone include: good health, access to knowledge, and a decent material standard of living.
Other capabilities central to a fulfilling life could include the ability to participate in the decisions that affect one’s life, to have control over one’s living environment, to enjoy freedom from violence, to have societal respect, and to relax and have fun.
Our capabilities are expanded (or constrained) by our own efforts and by the institutions and conditions of our society. People with extensive, well-developed capabilities have the tools they need to make their vision of “a good life” a reality. Those poor in capabilities are less able to chart their own course and to seize opportunities. Without basic capabilities, human potential remains unfulfilled.
The Human Development Index was developed as an alternative to simple money metrics. It is an easy-to-understand numerical measure made up of what most people believe are the very basic ingredients of human well-being: health, education, and income. The first Human Development Index was presented in 1990.
It has been an annual feature of every Human Development Report since, ranking virtually every country in the world from number one (currently Iceland) to number 177 (currently Sierra Leone).
The Measure of America presents a modified American Human Development Index. The American HD Index measures the same three basic dimensions as the standard HD Index, but it uses different indicators to better reflect the U.S. context and to maximize use of available data. For example, while the standard index measures access to knowledge in part using adult literacy data, we have chosen instead to use educational attainment, a more demanding indicator.
The Human Development Report series advocates a shift away from a sole focus on economic growth as an end in itself and income as the final measure of a person’s well being. This approach considers both income and growth as important means for human progress, but also looks at other things people value that do not show up in growth figures such as a quality education, a long and healthy life, personal safety, a secure livelihood, and a say in decisions that affect one’s life.