Theoretical and Conceptual Approaches to Development

Within the field of international development, there are many different approaches to the definition of development and how to best approach it. Nobel Prize winner and famous development scholar Amartya Sen defines development as “a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (Sen 3). Sen looks at development through the lens of freedom, first by defining the concept of “unfreedoms” in the context of poverty and tyrannical societies. Sources of “unfreedom” include poor economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities, and and intolerance of repressive states (Sen 3). He reasons that the removal of “unfreedoms” will move society towards development and freedom, as a more developed society will provide its citizens with a greater amount of freedom.

By Sen’s definition of development, countries and regions are currently not equally developed because there is an inequality in the freedoms that people around the world are able to enjoy. Sen would argue that countries and regions will be equally developed when all citizens are able to enjoy the same freedoms. He believes that development can be accelerated by promoting institutions that work to remove unfreedoms from society. Sen outlines a set of five institutions that promote the advancement of freedoms: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security (Sen 10). Examples of these institutions could include health care or educational facilities, institutions that promote local peace and order, and markets and market-related organizations (Sen 8-9).

Sumner and Tribe focus on three different definitions of development. The definitions include development “as a long-term process of structural and societal transformation,” development “as a short-to-medium term outcome of desirable targets,” and development “as a dominant discourse of western modernity” (Sumner and Tribe 11). All three of the definitions that Sumner and Tribe have merit. Development is a long-term societal process because in several different ways, it seeks to improve the structural inequalities that exist within a society. Development is also a short-to-medium term process with specific targets, because without including achievable targets, the process of development as a whole would be difficult to achieve. In addition, development has historically been a discourse of western modernity, which is very important to be cognisant of in the area of international development.

While the term “meta-narratives” refers to grand theory, the term “micro-narratives” refers to context-specific theory, and both can be a guiding force in development studies research (Sumner and Tribe 81). Different theories of development provide a “better overall understanding of development” and serve as a base for research (Sumner and Tribe 82). It is important that research on international development continues, especially as the concept of development progresses, so that the world can have a better understanding of what it means to provide equality and freedom for all people.


Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, Introduction, Chapters 1-5

International Development Studies, Sumner and Tribe, Chapters 1-4