Development Theory and the Influence of Amartya Sen

The definition of development is one that has been contested by many economists, cultural theorists, politicians, and international organizations. Questions of “What is Development? How do we measure it? And how can we promote it internationally?” have long dominated discourse surrounding international development and have been answered in many different ways. Most notably, three major theories of internationally development have emerged over the course of history, with each building off each other. Modernization Theory, the idea that societies transition from pre-modern ones into modernized ones through similar processes, was a popular development ideology in the 1950s but eventually declined with the rise of Dependency Theory. Dependency Theory was theorized in direct response to the claims of Modernization Theory and suggested that development is driven by the flow of resources from undeveloped periphery states to industrialized core states, at the expense of the periphery. While neither Modernization Theory or Dependency have many modern day adherents, the ways in which the they came to prominence shows the way in which theories of development interact with one another and change over time.

One of the more significant contributions to international development discourse in recent history is that of economist Amartya Sen. For Sen, traditional measures of development that solely focus on economic production and growth cannot fully measure the living conditions and general well being of a nation’s people. In Development as Freedom, Sen outlines his “capabilities” approach to development in which human well being is best measured by assessing standard of living and access to individual freedoms like healthcare and education. Stemming from his conception of development, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) adopted the Human Development Index (HDI). The index incorporates Sen’s ideas of measuring well being by compiling indicators like life expectancy, expected years of schooling, and Gross National Income (GNI) into a single measurement.

In my opinion, Sen’s contributions to the way in which development is understood globally are incredibly valuable, especially in encouraging a more nuanced understanding of development that promotes sustainability and inclusion. In a world of incredible economic affluence, as well as immense poverty and inequality, it is easy to get trapped in the “GDP ideology” conception of development. But, to fully understand where societies need to improve, an understanding of development in terms of ability of all people within a nation to live a healthy, prosperous, and free life is essential. By adopting Amartya Sen’s understanding of Development as Freedom, the international community can work towards an inclusive, sustainable world that is not inherently biased towards Western conceptions of development.