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.

Sen’s Development Theory

Amartya Sen’s perspective on the importance of individual freedoms is more convincing than differing developmental theories.  In chapter two of his book Development as Freedom, Sen writes, “Development…is the process of expanding human freedoms, and the assessment of development has to be informed by this consideration” (1999, 36).  Sen (1999) explores the relationship between individual freedoms and development, as well as the ways in which freedom is both a fundamental component of development and an enabling springboard to other aspects.  Dominant views of development tend to revolve around GDP growth, industrialization, and technological advances.  Sen (1999) defies those models, highlighting three themes that I see emerge from his writing:  first, urbanization does not mean development; second, social welfare must come before economic growth; third, growth in the community means focusing on social and economic human rights.  Framed by these three themes, I argue that Sen’s focus on substantive human freedoms challenges other development theories, such as Modernization’s, idealized set of Eurocentric assumptions about what a developed society ought to include.  Continue reading

Towards Inclusive Development

As stated by Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe in their book International Development Studies, there are three different definitions of development. It can either be a long-term process of structural transformation, a short-to-medium term outcome of targets, or a Western discourse. In Armatya Sen’s well-regarded book Development as Freedom, development is expansion of the five freedoms listed by him. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson propose in their book Why Nations Fail that development entails inclusive political and economic institutions. These are some theoretical understandings of development. Some of these theories overlap and complement with each other while others disagree with one another. An easier way to understand development for the general public is to observe the global reality. In the beginning of their book, Acemoglu and Robinson depict the drastic difference in all aspects of life between the US side of Nogales and the Mexican side of Nogales. The vast disparity is hard to neglect and is also the cause behind many global crises.

In my opinion, the origin of the field of development is embedded with many historical problems, such as the legacy of colonialism. As Acemoglu and Robinson have argued in their book, different colonial experiences lead to different political and economic institutions that shape the societies in various ways. Without colonialism and the exploitation and human abuses that it has brought upon societies, our world today would have looked quite different. It is unfortunate that the world system today is perpetuating the same power dynamics as colonialism, with the former metropoles in the powerful situation to provide aid to former colonies. This prevents international development from becoming more inclusive. Whether it’s development as a long-term structural change, as short-term outcomes, as five freedoms, or as inclusive political and economic institutions, the mainstream development discourse indeed reflects Western countries as ideal models, and grant these countries the legitimacy to tie development aid with conditionality. This is not to say that the experience and practices of more developed countries do not have anything to offer or that all donor countries are post-colonial. I am simply suggesting that we should also value the perspectives from the developing world on the matter of their own development. In order for development practices to become more inclusive, development theories have to first include more ideas. The alternative path to development offered by developing countries such as Russia, China and Brazil, is seen as a threat by many Western governments because of ideological differences and competition over spheres of influence. In a multi-polar world, this inevitable collision opens up room for choices in development and helps make development more inclusive by incorporating different and even conflicting ideas. Development theories and practices today should reflect the multi-polar international society and should include more actors from the developing world.