21 October 2013

The Newspeak of ‘human-centred’ [Book]

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Freedom vs Necessity in International Relations
Human-Centred Approaches to Security and Development

by David Chandler
Zed Books Ltd
224 pages, 2013
[Amazon link]

Human-centred understandings of the world have become increasingly dominant over the last two decades. Indeed, it is rare to read any analysis addressing the problems of insecurity, conflict or development which does not start from the need to empower or capacity-build local agency. In this path-breaking book, Chandler undertakes a radical challenge to such human-centred understandings and suggests that, in articulating problems as a result of human behaviour or decision-making, the problems of the world have become reinterpreted as problems of the human subject itself. Within this framework, the solutions are not seen to lie with structures of economic and social relations, but with the social and cognitive shaping of those who are often seen to be the most marginal and powerless. This shift – from the material problems of the external world to the subjective problems of human thought and action – has gone hand-in-hand with the shift from state-based to society-based understandings of the world. In a provocative analysis, Chandler highlights how human-centred approaches have shrunk rather than enlarged our world and have limited our understanding of transformative possibilities

Review by James Heartfield
In his new book, Freedom vs Necessity, David Chandler, professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, […] lays bare the claims of governments to put people and their decision-making at the centre of policy. What Chandler shows to great effect is that the latest claims of policymakers and theorists to a human-centred approach result in something like its opposite. In a wide range of cases – from the United Nations’ Human Development Report to the Cabinet Office’s prioritisation of the ‘choice environment’ – Chandler explains how ‘human-centred’ policy is, in fact, very far from human-centred. The real aim is for people to align their behaviour and choices to the outcomes chosen by those in power, rather than deciding such outcomes for themselves. ‘Human-centred’ policy turns out to have as much to do with people deciding for themselves as the Ministry of Peace had to do with Peace, or the Ministry of Plenty to do with Plenty in Orwell’s novel.

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