Although those of us in the international relations field love to talk about development, we rarely take a moment to consider the actual meaning of the word. Most often, we think of development in terms of the different factors that relate to it such as education, gender equality, economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and so on. But it is crucial to understand the meaning and theories behind development, and how we came to understand development in the way that we do today.
According to Sumner and Tribe, there are three main ways to understand development. First, development can be understood as a long-term process of structural societal transformation. This viewpoint looks at the changes in society over time as development. Second, development can be understood as a short- to medium-term outcome of desirable targets. This second perspective can be seen in the form of the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. And third, development can be seen as a dominant discourse of western modernity. Those who view understand development this way tend to see development as something forced on developing countries by the dominant, developed Western world. All three of these views have their own merits and truths to them in terms of understanding development.
However, one of the most influential ideas within the development field was presented by Amartya Sen in 1999 in his famous book Development as Freedom. Before Sen, development was viewed exclusively from an economic standpoint. The only indicators that mattered were those that measured economic growth and prosperity. However, Sen challenged this accepted truth and instead offered a new perspective. Rather than solely focusing on economic factors, Sen presented the idea of considering the freedoms offered to the people in the country as a measure of development. Sen believed that different factors such as education, health care, democratic norms, employment and more should also factor into development. He also discussed the removal of unfreedoms, or restrictions that prevent people from making their own life decisions. Amartya Sen’s transformative work changed the way development is discussed and implemented around the world. In the development field today, we can see the many influences of Sen’s ideas in places such as the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. Understanding development as freedom has greatly improved how development is measured and implemented around the world since the turn of the century.