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Development as Freedom - Amartya Sen

Reviewed by: Aaron Kearney-Keaveny

Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner, giving a lecture in Cologne 2007

Amartya Sen is one of the most distinguished theorists in the field of development. Born in Bengal, British India, he draws an understanding of development from observations of

poverty and conflict during his early years, such as the connection of the Hindu-Muslim

conflicts in the region with economic restrictions for individuals and communities. He studied economics in the University of Calcutta and Cambridge, specialising in welfare economics, development economics, Human Development theory, and has incorporated philosophy into his economic understandings, most notably justice theory.

Sen assisted Mahbub ul Haq in designing the Human development Index (HDI) which is the most-commonly used measurement of national development in ID theory, factoring economic indices (GNI per capita), health (life expectancy), and education (mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling). Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize for economic science, and in the following year wrote “Development as Freedom” as an accessible book for understanding his views on development.

Development as Freedom aimed to change people’s understandings of what we ought to

pursue as developmental theorists, economists, and political theorists. Drawing from

philosophy of justice, he explains the issues with the libertarian focus on development,

claiming that it lacks consideration for the actual economic livelihoods of individuals. He also critiques the utilitarian focus, claiming that it should not forsake the value of self-

empowerment that liberty can bring. He combines the goals of both schools, under his theory of development as freedom, claiming that freedoms from tyrannical government or slavery should be valued as well as the freedoms of access to economic goods. In political philosophy these different forms of freedom are known as “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” respectively. This view also incorporates the value of human capability: one’s ability to achieve what they desire by minimising arbitrary or economic restraints. He claims that freedom is central in development in two ways: the evaluative reason- wherein development should be seen as the measurement of development, and the effectiveness reason- claiming that enhanced freedoms of individuals is the method of achieving greater development.

The book investigates many different questions and topics in development, first addressing

more abstract concerns in the field, such as:

What is development?
What are its ends and means?
What is a just society?

The book then tackles more worldly issues, such as the practical role of democracy, famine

prevention, women’s rights, and the connection between the individual and the social

sphere. Throughout the work, Sen draws the topic back to his theory on how the

enhancement of freedom as the means and ends is the ideal model for development. Being

an economist, he often offers purely economic reasons for social justice, such as the

economic benefits of educating women, while recognising the social arguments. Ultimately,

he tries to tie in economic, political, and social understandings together within a given


The theories not only offer a revolutionary way of understanding development, but also attempts to undermine misconceptions held within the field. In the first chapter, he shows the need to study differences between regions or social groups in development, not just

international disparities. Statistics show the startlingly low survival rates of black American men compared to the average man in China and Kerala, India, despite being in a more developed country as a whole. This pushes us to understand developmental inequality as an issue within, as well as between, societies. Sen also argues against the belief that there is an inherent divide between the West and East in political mentality. This stance generally claims that the West naturally values liberty and individualism, while the East values order and collectivism. Sen uses many examples of how theorists in both sides of the world proposed both set of values as ideal throughout history, as well as noting the present movements supporting opposing societal values. Sen ultimately promotes the more individualistic values, and claims that the collectivist mindset of the East is not a fair understanding of individuals or even of general populations, many of which are coerced under more restrictive governments.

One of the most interesting insights in the book is the correlation made with democratisation and the elimination of famines. His theory explains that pressure from voters and the available information from a free press pushes governments to take action. Food production levels are actually less of a factor in causing famines compared to democratisation levels or industrialisation. This is backed up by Sen’s example of India, which suffered from many famines under British rule, but after becoming what he describes as one of the best functioning democracies in the developing world, has since managed to avoid them completely.

Development as Freedom offers great insight to development, utilising economic, political,

social, and philosophical understandings to defend the argument that the enhancement of

human freedom and capability is the best method of measuring, achieving, and viewing

development. Sen offers a chance to learn a great amount about a wide and varied number

of topics concerning the world today, proposing a human-centred method of solving global

issues. The critiques of traditional views on development and the field’s misconceptions

gives refreshing and convincing arguments that can engage economists, political theorists,

cultural theorists, and sociologists. It also serves as a brilliant introduction to development,

helping people of other disciplines or beginner development theorists to understand the

distinct nature of the school of thought.

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