Sen’s Theory Toward Inclusive Development

Development is a loaded term, difficult to define in one finely packaged sentence. Traditionally (and wrongly), the picture that comes to mind with “development” is a cross-comparison, one side in a remote village with no running water, children working the fields rather than attending schools, etc. with the other side taking the shape of a large city, covered in high-rise buildings, cars crowding the streets, the latest mobile technologies in everyone’s hands. In the past, “development” was seen as a mission, something the picture on the right needed to intervene and help the picture on the left achieve. I recall being guilty of this myself, even. In a World Studies course in middle school, a woman came to speak to us about Africa as a continent. She showed us a series of pictures, some of naked children, wild animals, women with water in jugs on their heads, and small huts and some of tall buildings, bustling city centers, and highway systems. She asked us “which of these photographs are of Africa?” and we all chose those that seemed to fit our definition of “underdeveloped,” a notion that she quickly turned over on its head.

Much like this guest speaker did for me (and I am so grateful to her that she did), Amartya Sen has done for development as a concept on a global scale. In Development as Freedom, Sen has changed the discourse on development from the “developed” saving or fixing the “underdeveloped” with an end goal of increased income to an understanding of freedoms and unfreedoms. Thanks to Sen, we know that it is an unfreedom for people and entire countries to be left out of the discussion on what makes them “developed” with countries that claim to be already developed making all of the rules.

He defines development as discourse and more importantly, development as freedom, noting that it goes beyond income and applies to freedoms as the opportunities and choices that exist for people. These choices may included where you live and who you live with, what type of transportation you take, where you go to school, what you study in college, and what career you will have.

In turning our previous notions of development on its head, Sen acknowledges that by these standards, some “developed” countries are not truly developed at all and sets the standard for inclusive and sustainable development. As we move from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs to the CRPD, WSIS, and Habitat III and the NUA, it is exciting to see the impact a theory of inclusive development has on the progress we are making and the lens through which we frame these goals and their results.