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Development as freedom
Wednesday, 12 August 2009 06:43

Over the centuries, there have been very many theories of development.  According to 1998 Nobel prize winner, Amartya Sen, freedom is both the primary objective of development, and the principal means of development.  The human being is an engine of change.


It is of course nice to hear an economist discussing such issues, rather than reciting equations.  But let’s first have a look at Sen’s views.  He is both the first Indian and the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for economics.  In winning the Nobel prize, Sen was praised by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences "for his contributions to welfare economics" and for restoring "an ethical dimension" to the discussion of vital economic problems.


According to Sen, development is enhanced by democracy and the protection of human rights.  Such rights, especially freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and so forth increase the likelihood of honest, clean, good government.


He claims that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”.  This is because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes”.


Development is the process of expanding human freedom.  It is “the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to live”.  Hence “development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systemic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states”.


Sen argues that there are five types of interrelated freedoms, namely, political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency and security.  The state has a role in supporting freedoms by providing public education, health care, social safety nets, good macroeconomic policies, productivity and protecting the environment.


Freedom implies not just to do something, but the capabilities to make it happen.  What people can achieve (their capabilities) is influenced by “economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and the enabling condition of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives”.  Sen calculates that if women in Asia and North Africa were given the same health care and attention, the world would have 100 million more women.


For Sen, “capability deprivation” is a better measure of poverty than low income.  While higher GDP does produce improvements in most measures of the quality of life, but there are exceptions.  Some places with low GDP/capita like Sri Lanka, China and the India state of Kerala have higher life expectancies and literacy rates than richer countries like Brazil, South Africa and Namibia.  And Afro-Americans have a lower life expectancy than males in China and parts of India, although their average real income is far higher.


Some see freedom as a potential disturbance to political stability and development.  They recommend repressive interventions of the state in stifling liberty, initiative and enterprise, and in crippling the working of the individual agency and cooperative action.  Sen attacks Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his theories of Asian values which are used to justify political repression.  For Sen there is no such thing as Asian values in a continent with vastly disparate populations and traditions, and containing 60 per cent of the world’s population.  And as Dani Rodrik said, the economic performance of authoritarian regimes is either very good or very bad – and usually very bad.  Most democracies occupy the middle ground.


So how did the dynamic economies of East Asia develop so rapidly?  Sen highlights “social opportunities” provided by government in the form of schooling, basic health care, basic land reform, and microcredit.  These economies were riding on the success of the individual entering the market.  While many of these economies were not democratic, some like Korea, Taiwan, Thailand became more democratic.


Sen has been instrumental in the thinking of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on human development, including the creation of the human development index (HDI) which is a composite index that measures the average achievement in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth; knowledge, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrolment ration for primary, secondary and tertiary schools; and a decent standard of living, as measured by GDP per capita in purchasing power parity US dollars.  While the concept of human development is much broader than any single composite index can measure, the HDI offers a powerful alternative to income as a summary measure of human well-being.


Sen worked closely with the UNDP on its Human Development Report 2004, “Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World”.  This report argues that an essential element of human development is cultural freedom, namely the freedom to choose one’s identity and to exercise that choice without facing discrimination or disadvantage.


Cultural freedoms should be embraced as basic human rights and as necessities for the development of the increasingly diverse societies of the 21st century.  All people should have the right to maintain their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identities.  The adoption of policies that recognize and protect these identities is the only sustainable approach to development in diverse societies.  Economic globalization cannot succeed unless cultural freedoms are also respected and protected, and the xenophobic resistance to cultural diversity should be addressed and overcome.


Very few people would quibble with what Sen has to say.  In fact, many observers find his views somewhat trite.  But the real challenge is how to transform a state that does not accord freedom to its citizens into state that does so.  Sen has very little advice for us here.


Moreover, freedom deficits still exist in so-called developed countries, and the situation may be moving backwards.  Political freedoms are compromised by vested interest politics in the US, and oligarchic powers in Japan and much of Europe.  Protectionism of large enterprises, especially in Europe and Japan, limit the economic freedom of small and medium size enterprises.  Social opportunities are constrained in most countries as the rich have much better access than the poor to health and education services.  Sen does us all a good service in raising the issue of cultural freedoms.  The more these issues are discussed the better.  But progress will require massive changes in attitudes.


More fundamentally, Sen does not address the issue of how individual freedoms should be nested into society, where we all have to forego some freedom in order to live together peacefully.






Human Development Report 2004, “Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World”, UNDP.



Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen


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