In U.N. report, Brown scholar urges more focus on equality and freedom in human development

An essay by Anthony Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown, anchors a scholarly discussion in the United Nations’ 30th-anniversary Human Development Report.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a newly released United Nations report, Brown University professor Anthony Bogues urged leaders across the globe to sharpen their focus on equality and environmental sustainability as they consider building and legislating for the future.

An essay by Bogues, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and a professor of Africana studies, humanities and critical theory, anchors a scholarly discussion in the 2020 Human Development Report, an annual publication released jointly by the U.N. and the International Science Council. This year marks the report’s 30th anniversary.

Bogues’ essay, “The Human: An Alternative Ground for Development,” argues that to move the world forward, leaders must place more emphasis on the “human” portion of the phrase “human development.”

“What we need to do is think about what really constitutes a human being,” Bogues said. “How do we construct a different social system in which we do not create forms of inequality or racial or gender domination? How do we construct a different relationship with the planet Earth in which we are not simply plundering its resources without thinking about the environmental consequences? How do we manage dramatic technological changes alongside human freedom?”

Historically, Bogues said, major conversations about human development have focused primarily on strategies for economic growth in areas that are often considered “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped.” But he said many of those discussions sidestep the harsh reality that many “developed“ countries are successful today because they were founded on principles of colonialism and reliant on slavery, resulting in persistent racial inequality and a continuous ravening of natural resources centuries later.

To build up capital, infrastructure and institutions in so-called “underdeveloped“ countries based on recommendations from today’s wealthiest nations, Bogues argued in his essay, is to risk reproducing systems of inequality that still plague economic powerhouses in the West and elsewhere.

“You cannot think about economic growth without thinking about questions of freedom and equality,” he said. “This particular moment, with COVID-19, is a perfect example. In the United States, you have a significant number of people of color and people of Hispanic descent who, it is now acknowledged, find themselves adversely impacted by the virus due to the racial structures of the health system and living in a society where racial justice is absent. In such a context, one question we should be asking is, why, in this country, is health so connected to profit? Shouldn’t we be thinking about health as a human right?”

Leaders at the U.N. and International Science Council invited him to contribute to the 30th-anniversary edition of the Human Development Report because Bogues’ scholarship offers a seldom-spotlighted perspective on the topic — one informed by the writings of black thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Sylvia Wynter, who both contemplated what defines a human in the context of racial discrimination and inequality. Bogues is among many Brown humanities scholars who have built a reputation for tackling compelling, complex questions that impact key aspects of human experience.

Bogues’ commentary kicked off a wider scholarly discussion exploring what “human development” really means and what it hopes to achieve. In another essay in the report, retired Harvard University business professor David C. Korten asked whether humanity’s defining economic goal is to grow the gross domestic product or to secure the well-being of people and the Earth. And Arthur Grimes, a scholar in New Zealand, argued in his essay that the purpose of human development should be to help people attain their aspirations. 

Since Bogues’ commentary was published, the International Science Council has issued an open call for additional scholarly contributions to the discussion.