Social Responsibility Versus Sustainable Development in United Nations Policy Documents: A Meta-analytical Review of Key Terms in Human Development Reports

  • Johannes M. LuetzEmail author
  • Mohamed Walid
Part of the World Sustainability Series book series (WSUSE)


Social responsibility (SR) and sustainable development (SD) are dissimilar yet complementary concepts. Over recent decades their increase in popularity has seen the two terms become firmly integrated within international development policy discourse. Nevertheless, even though both terms are intertwined and cannot be meaningfully discussed in isolation, there is a paucity of research that addresses the interrelationships of the two terms in human development and policy discourse. To address this gap in the literature, this research employs an inductive and exploratory methodological approach. Conducting a systematic keyword search and expert literature meta-analysis in all 25 United Nations (UN) Human Development Reports (HDRs) published to date from 1990 to 2016, the study investigates what prioritisation the UN ascribes to ‘economic’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social’ development. Keyword analysis reveals that ‘economic’ perspectives dominate ‘sustainability’ and ‘social’ perspectives by a factor of 2 and 4.67 respectively. In synthesis, the UN remains espoused to ‘economic’ development as its primordial panacea for poverty reduction, which it increasingly advocates under the guise of ‘sustainable’ development. Relatedly and importantly, UN HDRs continuingly advocate ‘economic growth’ as a solution instead of identifying it as a problem. This study extends previous research by focusing expressly on the intersection of economic development, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility as a fertile space for inquiry. The research proposes a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) approach as a bridging notion for a more holistic human development agenda.


Social development Sustainable development Economic development Social policy Social responsibility United nations (UN) Human development reports (HDRs) Development discourse Policy analysis United nations development programme (UNDP) 



The authors of this meta-analytical review wish to thank Ms. Kirsty Andersen for her copy-editorial support, Kirk Huffman and Dr. Jens Unger for their constructive comments, and Ms. Karen du Plessis and Dr. Jer-Ming Chen for their assistance with data analysis.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CHC Higher EducationBrisbane, CarindaleAustralia
  2. 2.University of New South Wales (UNSW)SydneyAustralia
  3. 3.London School of EconomicsLondonUK

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