Development as Freedom

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. 

What is Development?: Theoretical & Conceptual Approaches

Development is a key thematic area of focus within the study of international affairs. Although I do not come from the background of ‘Development’, these theoretical and conceptual approaches are very familiar to an international relations researcher, like myself.  In fact, development theories reach deeper into the practicality of solving foundational issues which are commonly based on economic or social policies. According to Development Studies literature, such approaches in development consists of means, opportunities and substantive freedoms that bring human beings value. 

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Development Theory and Actors: An Understanding of Development

The readings from this previous week delved into the first chapters of Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and International Development Studies by Sumner and Tribe. Amartya gives an initial overview as to what freedom means in development and how current indicators value policies and individual well being. He discussed how evaluative purposes should be based on substantive freedoms that consider functionings and capabilities. Functionings are certain things a person may value doing or being, such as being free of disease. Capabilities are the combinations of those functionings feasible for a person to achieve, and that capability represents the freedom to achieve. Freedom has two parts: the processes that allow for it and the opportunities people have. You can define a more developed society based on how much access to these freedoms (health care, education, employment, etc.) a person has. The World Economic Forum published an article back in 2016 where the New Economics Foundation attempted Continue reading

Development Theory as a Rubik’s Cube

Development as a whole is an area of study that has a diverse set of beliefs and assumptions. Nevertheless, “a common theme within most definitions is that ‘development’ encompasses ‘change’ in a variety of aspects of the human condition” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, p. 10). What distinguishes the path to this goal is the theories and approaches used to get there. Additionally, what must be considered in development theory is where or not change is considered good or bad on both a short and long term timeline.

Sumner and Tribe identify a three-dimensional puzzle, similar to a Rubik’s cube that encompasses multiple facets of development. Understanding each aspect of this puzzle helps decipher that different views that one can hold on development and how best to approach it. Continue reading

World Bank as a “knowledge bank”

The World Bank has a long and integrated history with development. This institution started out as a lending agency, supporting post-war programs and countries that were able to convince the World Bank that their projects would make some sort of marked improvement on the world. Decisions on what received funding and what did not relied heavily on traditional data, such as economic reports, employment records, and health statistics. Project management was mostly delegated to organizations and institutions outside the World Bank, giving the project management a hands-off feel.

The World Bank has since shifted to assume the role of the dominant provider of development-related information on the global scale. Now relying more on secondary data sources which are the result of lengthy social processes and which are shaped by the biases of agents involved, the World Bank advises other lenders on which projects or aspects of development should be supported. The World Bank now aims to be the “first port of call for development expertise.”

Although some consider it to be helpful to have an authoritative global voice on development, the World Bank as a “knowledge bank” of development expertise is also loaded with Western biases, neoliberal assumptions, and rigid theories. The secondary data that the World Bank is doling out is chock-full of inaccurate reporting, underrepresentation, and misconceptions of qualitative measurements. Although this type of data is important to give a human face to information and to help give focus to development policy, it is critical to recognize the implicit opinions and beliefs that make this data impossible to be objective.

In terms of inclusive sustainable development, the monopoly on knowledge that the World Bank has also has problematic implications. Even if the World Bank supports the CRPD and other policies that advocate for persons with disabilities, the data that they are receiving may place them in the background or, even worse, forget about them entirely. Trying to complete a cross-country analysis with secondary data is also extremely difficult as the World Bank does not have a standardized comparative study of the data that is collected.

The World Bank also tends to focus only on the poorest countries (measured by GDP, GNP, or some other traditional neoliberal measure of development), leaving middle and even high-income countries where the poor, and persons with disabilities, still live at the mercy of their government. This is a major problem in places in the US where public infrastructure is not accessible to people with disabilities and basic human rights like healthcare and internet are not evenly distributed.

If we are truly to regard the World Bank as a trustworthy institution that conducts rigorous development research, we need to look critically at the type of data they are collecting and the biases that are implicit in its construction and development studies.

World Bank’s work on person’s with disabilities https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability

International Development Studies, Sumner and Tribe, chapter 6 http://sk.sagepub.com/books/international-development-studies

Development Theory and Actors

Last week we discussed and read about development, its’ complicated definition and the different frameworks that we use to analyze it and implement development theory. How one defines international development is a contested topic by theorists and has evolved over time. International development once meant that “developed” countries such as the United States and Western European states would give aid to “underdeveloped” countries in Latin America and Africa. This definition focused completely on GDP and how those “underdeveloped” countries did not look like the so-called “developed” nations. Readings from Amartya Sen and Sumer and Tribe helped to paint the evolution of development theory and how we should be looking to “develop” moving forward.

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