Highlights from the prestigious HDCA international conference in Sofia


The annual conference of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) was successfully held in Sofia, Bulgaria on 11 – 13 September 2023. Co-organized by the Open Society Institute – Sofia, this was the first annual conference of the Association to be organized in a Central and Eastern European country. The theme of the conference was ” Vulnerability, human development and cooperative re-building in turbulent times”.

A truly global event, the conference was hosted by the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” with more than 300 participants from 60 countries from Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, South and North America. The conference was opened by a special guest speaker – Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, Booker International prize winner for 2023. Over four days, the conference hosted 9 keynote speeches by notable speakers, high-level panel discussions, and 84 parallel sessions.

The conference was jointly organized by the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IFS-BAS), Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, “Open Society” Institute – Sofia (IOO-S), Trust for Social Alternative (TSA) and Sustainable Cooperation (SCOOP) from the Netherlands and supported by the Austrian Embassy in Sofia.

The Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) is a global community of academics and practitioners focused on people-centred development and the capability approach. The mission of the association is to promote both research and policy in the area of human development and well-being. The HDCA consists of members from many disciplines and professions, including economics, philosophy, development studies, health, education, law, government, and sociology, among others. Among the founders of the association are the eminent American philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the Indian economist Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.

HDCA’s annual conferences aim to promote high-quality academic research, and intellectual debate and support collaboration between scholars and practitioners. This conference will feature in-depth academic research that has the potential to shape policy at both national and local levels.

The theme of the conference in Sofia was selected in the context of current social and environmental challenges, which include widening inequalities, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and environmental disasters, growing insecurity, the war in Ukraine and other conflicts around the world.

The annual conference sought the answers to number of questions, including:

  • How to conceptualize and measure vulnerability and human development in turbulent times at the micro and macro levels – national, regional and global?
  • How can the new challenges facing modern societies enhance or limit human development and social inequalities?
  • How to promote cooperation between different institutions and organizations in order to enhance development outcomes for all social groups, localities, nations, and regions?
  • How to develop capacities related to well-being and justice that respond to changes in work, family, knowledge production, political and social relations, environment, and non-human beings?

Martha C. Nussbaum, one of the co-founders of HDCA, who took part in the Sofia event, has been described as one of the 10 most influential philosophers and a foremost intellectual of our time.  She won a number of awards, among which the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, the 2018 Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture and the 2020 Holberg Prize,  considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Nussbaum’s wide-ranging work spans moral and political theory, emotions, human rights, social equality, education, the philosophy of literature, feminism, animal rights, and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. She is the author of over 27 books and over 500 academic articles.

Martha C. Nussbaum presented in Sofia her latest book ‘Justice for Animals’ before the start of the conference. In the talk about her new book, described as “a revolutionary call to action on animal rights, ethics, and law”, Nussbaum highlighted the widespread injustices animals face, from factory farming to habitat destruction. She advocated for an ethical awakening, urging humans to become true friends of animals rather than exploiters. Nussbaum emphasized the need for humans to collectively address animal harm and provided a new theory to guide politics and law in fulfilling the human ethical responsibilities towards animals, with a compelling and urgent guide for change in the treatment of animals worldwide.

Martha C. Nussbaum also delivered a thought-provoking keynote address on ‘War and Types of Pacifism’ as part of the conference. Martha C. Nussbaum said that Europe was once again at war as the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its second year. Many European nations joined the conflict by sending weapons to the Ukrainians, as did the US.  Nussbaum asserted that Since World War II we have not seen anything like Russia’s arrogant disregard for human rights, territorial integrity, and the recognized laws of war.  She drew parallels with the past as currently, the vast majority of the people of Europe supported the cause of the Ukrainians and deplored the aggression of an imperialist Russia – just as, back then, many nations were united in their opposition to Hitler’s imperialism.

In her speech, Martha C. Nussbaum distinguished between retributive anger as an emotion that seeks pain for pain and introduced the concept of ‘emotional pacifism’ as the refusal of retributive anger and the embrace of universal love and brotherhood, understood to be not romantic love, not friendly love, but an attitude that sees potential good in all people. Nussbaum said that some could be some – action-pacifists as Nussbaum dubbed them – who abhorred war and acts of physical violence, while still believing that retributive anger can be a creative force, and even that the criminal law should be developed in a retributive spirit. She asserted that was also possible for a pacifist – emotional-pacifist in Nussbaum’s understanding – who endorsed and cultivated in oneself a spirit of non-anger and love while permitting violent actions in certain circumstances, particularly those of individual or communal self-defense. Such a person will abhor violent acts, but might still think them necessary at times to defend self or others.

She explored the challenges of maintaining emotional pacifism in times of war and the perspectives of historical figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela in advocating for non-violence and love even in the face of aggression. At the same time, Nussbaum discussed too George Orwell’s assertion during WWII that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist” in such a context.  In her speech, Nussbaum asked “What should nations do to avoid the insidious power of retributive anger?” answering that “…leaders should emphasize the difficulty and pain of war, honor the sacrifice of participants, and insist on the value of the positive goal the fight is protecting – while utterly refusing to demonize the people of the opposing nation…”. Recording of the keynote speech is available here.

Martha C. Nussbaum also gave an interview for the popular Bulgarian TV program “Panorama”, which was broadcast on 15 September 2023 on Bulgarian National Television 

Other keynote speakers during the conference were:

  • Melanie Walker, Higher Education & Human Development, University of the Free State, South Africa: “Of History, Futures and a Repair Praxis in Knowledge and Education Spaces”
  • Branko Milanović,City University of New York, United States, Global Income Inequality: “Recent Changes and their Political Implications”
  • Subbu Subramanian, Independent Scholar; formerly Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India: “Measurement Is Not Everything, But It Does Make A Difference”
  • Vassil Kirov, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology BAS, Bulgaria: “Digital Technologies for Inclusive Development?”
  • Ursula Holtgrewe, Centre for Social Innovation, Austria: “Old and New Vulnerabilities at Work: Workplace Inclusion and Innovation on Whose Terms?”
  • Joost de Laat, Professor of Economics and Director, Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges, the Netherlands and Eugenia Volen
  • Program Director, Early Learning and Care, Trust for Social Achievement, Bulgaria: “Sustainable Development through Evidence-Based and Collaborative Policymaking: The Case of Removing Financial Barriers to Early Education in Bulgaria”


For more information: https://hd-ca.org/conferences/2023-hdca-conference-sofia-bulgaria



Marin Lessenski, Program Director European Policies, OSIS

Email: mlessenski@osi.bg Mobile: +359- 0887510641