Development Theory and Actors

This blog post discusses the varying ways of defining development outlined by Sumner and Tribe, as well as Amartya Sen.

Unlike a hard science, it is difficult to put into words what exactly development as a social science studies, as “the definition of ‘development’ has been controversial and unstable over time” (Sumner and Tribe 2008). Three views of development are identified by Sumner and Tribe: development as the long term process of structural societal transformation, development as the short-to-medium term outcome of desirable targets, development, and development as a dominant “discourse” of western modernity. Separately, there is the view expressed by economist Amartya Sen of development as freedom.

Each definition by Sumner and Tribe conceptualizes the use of development to focus on a different perspective. In the long-term approach, it is the “meta-narrative” of structural change that is emphasized; it is a descriptive method rather than explanatory and development is seen as socioeconomic change (for example: stages of growth, industrialization, modernization, and gross national income level classifications). The desirable targets short-term definition positions development as a set of performance targets related to poverty (for example: life expectancy, infant mortality, or other specific indicators). The foremost criticism of this short term view is that it de-politicizes development by taking it out of a greater context (frequently post-colonial) and is paternalistic in its imposition of standards to measure a community by. The third view described is the post-development ‘power to define reality’ analysis in which development  “has consisted of ‘bad’ change and ‘bad’ outcomes through the imposition of Western ethnocentric notions of development” (Sumner and Tribe 2008). This third view relates to Edward Said’s framework for ‘orientalism’, where countries are positioned as inferior through labels such as “developing”.
A different and comprehensive framework for understanding development is put forth by Sen in which freedom is both the end and the means of development. Being both the process and the product means that freedom is essential to achieving development and that development should be measured by the enhancement of freedoms (Sen 1999). Sen points out that the freedoms are important to development even without consideration of their direct contribution to GNP (which is positive). The use of freedoms (and the deprivation of them) in this context is broad, including political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security. Sen’s use of freedoms is also a model based on individual agency; whereas the per capita income approach to measuring poverty is oriented towards what a person can have, freedoms represent a person’s capabilities to function – what they can be or do. The advantage of a freedom approach is its concern for the individual’s overall quality of life.

As to my personal opinion, I think that there are benefits to not limiting oneself to a specific framework. Meta-narratives are important as historical accounts of economic trends, while short-term metrics give the narrowed focus that is necessary to push for certain achievements. Yet at the same time, development must be understood as socially constructed and this construction must be inclusive of all voices. The Sen framework is broad, which fits will with development narratives that are not always easily quantifiable.