Reflection – Sen – Development as Freedom

One is struck, floating through Amartya Sen’s argument in Development as Freedom, by the sheer complexity that policymakers face when confronting entrenched conditions of poverty, inequality, and coercion. Incentives to increase productivity or efficiency in markets cannot, in themselves, abate these structural problems, because the aspects of development that bolster economic agency must simultaneously address governmental and cultural practices. Sen’s position, then, that freedom is both instrumental to development and constitutive of it, comes as a concrete and coherent rejoinder to those whose assumptions that certain cultures depend on illiberal traditions to function.

Rather than succumb to that flighty essentialism, Sen delineates five interrelated freedoms on which development for and towards liberal democracy can be based. Protective security, for which State institutions are responsible, provide networked mitigation against disaster and strife, through robust infrastructure and relief systems. Social opportunities, marked in particular by distribution of rights and privileges across age, gender, race, and class, rely on education and health care to flourish. Transparency guarantees, as opposed to corruption, ensure that justice can be carried out fairly across the socioeconomic fabric of society. Economic facilities, ranging from opportunities to participate in local and broader markets to land rights and credit systems, undergird the individual and organizational agencies necessary for long-term stability and healthy growth. Finally, political freedoms, and in particular the freedom of people to choose how they are governed, are not divorced from these other freedoms as an utopian goal to be achieved only after other substantive changes, but remain wedded to the ability to effect those changes, themselves.

In this framework, development need not (indeed, cannot) prioritize between types of freedoms, and must instead seek out the various combinations and permutations that link them. This is how Sen argues that these freedoms are instrumental to development. Through the strengthening of ties in one, overlapping concerns in others become more apparent and must be addressed. For example, working to improve womens’ health and literacy – a key indicator, by the way, of economic health measures such as GDP – requires that infrastructure between schools and homes be stable, that people feel safe to travel and to attend classes or clinics, that teachers and schools, doctors and hospitals all enjoy solvency and stability. By improving these aspects of markets, institutions, and daily life, the holistic approach is reinforced.

That holistic view emphasizes the second part of the doublet proposed by Sen, that freedom is also constitutive of development. In other words, one cannot speak of development in economic terms without the adjoined terms of politics, subjectivity, and ethics. To this point, Sen notes that famine, usually preventable but often exacerbated by authoritarian governments who sometimes continue to export food even while local people starve, almost never occurs in democratic societies – a testament, he argues, to the transparency that is part of that social makeup. He also indicates the fallacies of ascribing developmental patterns to cultural values alone, focusing on Asian modes of democracy in contrast to authoritarianism as well as Western traditions. Illustrations of Sen’s classical liberalism echo in his persistent concentration on how society can provide more opportunities to people to pursue their individual desires, rather than restrict those desires and the means to pursue them, in service of progressive social outcomes.

The crux, then, of the interrelated freedoms that constitute and make possible development, Sen calls “capacities,” those individual agencies and freedoms. This comes in contrast to the somewhat more limited notion, from theories of management and economic governance, of the development of ‘human capital,’ which focuses more closely on productive power and leaves aside questions of individuation. It is, perhaps, worth noting that since Sen composed this text in the late 1990s, we have encountered immense changes to the tools by which these questions are tested. In particular, constitutive communications and influential technologies, the Internet foremost among them, both allow and help define the social organization of individuals. We have also seen a groundswell of popular revolutions alongside manufactured regime changes across the globe, raising questions of both empire and religion in the context of Sen’s framework. Juxtaposing his optimism and his reliance on freedom with the changing grounds of power in contemporary global politics, we find a host of interesting questions, perhaps only answerable through a mindset as holistic as his.

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