What is Development?

There are three perspectives on development often debated in the international community. The first considers development as the long-term process of structural change in the international system. Another refers to it as short to medium-term poverty reduction and MDGs. Finally, development is often expressed as a discourse; a set of ideas that shape and frame reality. These definitions are derived from impressive works written by experts in international development studies and philosophy; Amartya Sen, Andy Sumner, and Michael Tribe. This post will focus on Sen, a renowned economist and philosopher, and his book Development as Freedom, published in 1998. Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. 

Sen argues that development requires access to freedoms. He characterizes poverty as the lack of at least one freedom: political freedoms and transparency in social relations, freedom of opportunity, or economic protection from abject poverty. Development is the end and a means to development. I agree that development cannot be reduced to basic and per capita incomes. Countries and communities are only able to develop based on the social, economic, and political opportunities provided to their citizens. Further, each freedom encourages the other. “Economic and political freedoms help to reinforce one another, rather than being hostile to one another. Similarly, social opportunities of education and health care, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation and also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations (Sen 1999).”

Innovation occurs when these freedoms flourish. When individuals are supported by the system, not struggling to make ends meet, feed their families, or keep a roof over their heads, they are able to foster innovation which generates development. Historically, countries with certain freedoms have made more progress, stimulating their nation’s economy and benefiting the overall population. One brilliant example of this is the United States, while a counterexample would be China. China has severe limitations on privacy, political, and social rights. However, the country has still managed to develop at an astonishing rate in the last decade. Although, this does depend on your definition of development. As many critics argue, Sen’s claims are somewhat insufficient because they do not adequately analyze the power relations that cause and reproduce underdevelopment within international and national institutions.