What is “development”? How do we know if a country is “developed”? Who decides that a country is “underdeveloped”? Is development a short term or a long term process? All of these questions are difficult to answer in simple, clean, and concise answers. However, there are leaders in the field – such as Amartya Sen – who offer valuable and irreplaceable insights into the field that build on and move past traditional conceptions of development.
If we look at history, development as a field of practice has gone through cycles. Post-World War II, development was seen as a long-term process with emphasis on economic institutions and having nation’s shift from agrarian economies to industrial economies (Sumner). Since the 1990s, development has taken a much shorter-term view focusing on policy objectives and performance indicators (Sumner). In addition, the scope of development work has shifted from just focusing on “Third World” nations to focusing on newly industrialized countries (NICs), middle income countries (MICs) and low income countries under stress (LICUS) (Sumner). In short, as time has progressed development has become broader in scope and has grown from the traditional view of only looking at economic growth.
Development scholar Amartya Sen fits in nicely with the post-1990s, broader, more diverse view of development. Sen departs from the traditional notion that development should be entirely economic in nature in his book Development as Freedom published in 1999. Sen posits that development must remove “unfreedoms” that prevent people from having access to crucial freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security (Sen). This shift from the economic prosperity, GDP model is huge. With Sen development became much more focused on the individual and their capacity to access freedoms.
I’ve personally had the privilege of interning with an organization that takes the “freedom” approach to international development. I worked for the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) for about six months and was amazed at how inclusive IFES is when creating programs to increase participation globally in elections and democratic processes. In addition, IFES has a publication, in partnership with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), titled “Equal Access: How to Include Persons with Disabilities in Elections and Political Processes.” By ensuring that PWDs are not excluded from exercising Sen’s political freedom, IFES is actively working to push this post-1990s, human oriented view of development that is so crucial moving forward.