Development and Development Theory

Despite the ontology of development studies (DS) having an unclear definition and dependent on the disciplinary perspective one takes in engaging in DS, its cross-disciplinary, or the term I prefer, trans-disciplinary nature makes it a fascinating field to delve into. In my studies so far, I have engaged with grand theory in DS—primarily by critiquing purely economics-based theory as western ethnocentrism. As I am warming up to my capstone project and begin background research, however, I intend to grapple with context specific theory to understand how human trafficking of persons with disability can occur in a country which has ratified inclusive development treaties and been an active player advocating for human rights in the international community.

While the classic historical development perspective and policy-related development certainly have their merits and deserve recognition within the development community, my focus in this blog post will be on post-modernist development, as written about by Amartya Sen. In his book, Development for Freedom, Sen breaks down how wealth—the basic indicator for development as seen by the West—carries its usefulness in the things or substantive freedoms it allows us to achieve. However, wealth is neither necessary to achieve these freedoms nor particularly desirable if people are allowed these freedoms through other means. He decouples the time-honored pairing of income and development by instead examining development through the freedoms a citizen is allowed in their country and, he argues, that this decoupling is crucial to better understanding poverty and the many ailments of humankind.

Sen’s establishes mutually-beneficial exchanges as the base for development rather than the competitiveness which often characterizes capitalist economic development. He uses case examples to disprove the “common knowledge” that social development and expansion of freedoms follow economic development and that the process and opportunities which allow for freedoms have not been and are not limited to rich countries. Sen includes the example of South Korea as a country which has achieved economic development more easily due to having more social freedoms and focus on human welfare. While South Korea’s economic development is certainly profound and the social wellbeing has substantially grown when compared to its post-Korea war state, I was at first surprised when Sen included it as an example due to the severe gaps in Korea’s welfare for swathes of minority groups. But this surprise brought me back to the post-modernist idea of context-specific development in which South Korea cannot and should not be compared to other countries, only its former state.

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