Development Theory: My thoughts on Sen

Amartya Sen, the author of Development as Freedom, has contributed to our conceptualization of what development means: shifting the mainstream discourse primarily centered on poverty alleviation and economic indicators such as GDP growth and personal income,  to more of a focus on humans and their lived experiences. More specifically, Sen defines development as the removal of “unfreedoms”, or aspects of life that limit one’s ability to make choices. This centers around access to five freedoms in particular: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security. 

While I do agree with Sen’s conceptualization of development as something more comprehensive than poverty alleviation, I take issue with the idea that freedom is the sole end and means of development. Although there is some validity in this argument, the rapid economic rise of a few non-democratic nations, which has significantly increased the standard of living for millions of people, must be included in what we understand as development. 

For example, China’s government structure is made up of a one-party communist system, in which the people do not have many of the freedoms that Sen posits define development. Yet, over the past few decades, Chinese people’s lives, in general, have overwhelmingly improved without the freedom to democratic processes or free markets. In a discussion with a Peking University professor, with the context of relatively recent political turmoil, famine, socio-cultural disasters in mind, for most people, they are happy if they can find jobs and feed their families. If the CCP blocks their use of Youtube or if the news is biased in favor of Xi jinping, it does not affect the way they want to live their lives day-to-day.  

I am not saying that freedom does not matter in development; surely the Chinese people would benefit from the freedom to mobilize and advocate for their needs and wants. I see the importance of Sen’s work for the development field, but do not think the Western-leaning ideas of freedom and individualism are always applicable to development. It is still a useful framework for many states in the international system to use as a guide of what to be constantly striving for, through the continuous process of human progress. Countries like the United States could look to removing “unfreedoms” as a way to raise the standard of living and make real improvements in people’s lives.

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