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Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

Amartya Sen is an Indian Economist and is one of the chief architects of postcolonial development theory. In his magnum opus, Development as Freedom, Mr. Sen lays out his views on development and what nourishes it globally.

He presciently postulates that we live in a world of unprecedented opulence, of a kind that would have been hard to imagine a century or two ago – and this observation sets the stage for his optimistic outlook that transcends any ideology.

Mr. Sen rightfully notes that there have been remarkable changes beyond the economic sphere­. For instance, the twentieth century has established democratic and participatory governance as the preeminent model of political organization. As many political scientists from Fukuyama to Huntington note, concepts of human rights and political liberty are very much a part of the prevailing rhetoric in the late 20th century.

There are two worlds unfolding before our eyes, according to Mr. Sen. On the one hand, people live much longer, on the average, than before. Also, the different regions of the globe are now more closely linked than they have ever been. Our worlds and civilizations are linked by the fields of trade, commerce, communication, and interactive ideas.

Mr. Sen rightfully claims that our world is animated by remarkable deprivation, destitution, and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including the persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, the occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violations of elementary political freedoms as well as of basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and to the sustainability of our economic and social lives. In this passionate passage, Mr. Sen is identifying the challenges of the 20th century and beyond.

The contrast between the virtues and ills of our globalized world that Mr. Sen so eloquently postulates can help us as the reader feel both optimistic and concerned about the future. Thankfully, Mr. Sen begins to identify what makes our societies flourish and how we can best remedy human suffering.

His prescient and nuanced observations can be used for policy makers to enhance development and democracy around the global. Mr. Sen’s optimistic approach is refreshing and unique in the field of post-colonial development studies, as his observations can be more easily translated into public policy.

To illustrate Mr. Sen’s optimistic and practical approach to development studies, he emphasizes that overcoming humanities problems is a central part of the exercise of development.

He notes that we must recognize the role of freedom in countering the challenges of our world and ultimately, individual agency is central to addressing societies depravations. To counter the problems that we face as a civilization, we must see individual freedom as a social commitment, Sen claims. This what he fundamentally seeks to examine in his opus.

Central to Mr. Sen’s thesis is this brilliant and scalable idea that development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedom that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedom that Mr. Sen advocates for can help nourish malnourished societies the fruits of democracy and economic development.

Mr. Sen then further elaborates by emphasizing the intrinsic importance of human freedom, in general, as the preeminent objective of development. The linkages between different types of freedoms are empirical and casual, rather than constitutive and compositional. For instance, there is strong evidence that economic and political freedom help to reinforce one another, according to Mr. Sen.

He expands further by brilliantly claiming that social opportunities of education and health, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation, and can also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations.

Mr. Sen’s rich and intriguing scholarly work outlines the need for an integrated analysis of economic, social, and political activities, involving a variety of institutions and many interactive agencies.

It concentrates particularly on the role and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.

The most crucial component of this text is Mr. Sen’s view of development, which is both unique and full of nuance. Development is defined in the text as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. This definition is simple yet intricate, and it deviates from other definitions of development from the postcolonial development school of thought.

Mr. Sen himself notes that focusing on human freedoms vividly contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological innovations or with social mobilization. The central premise here is that development is a complex phenomenon that effects different people in different ways, hence why it sometimes can’t be measured, it can only be felt.

It is noted that growth of GNP or of individual incomes can, quite obviously be crucial to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. However, Mr. Sen then brilliantly notes freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements. For instance, these can include facilities for education and health care as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny).

Industrialization or technological progress or social modernization can substantially contribute to expanding human freedom, but freedom depends on other influences as well. If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on the overreaching objective, rather than on some means, or some specifically chosen list of instruments, Mr. Sen claims.

Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, and this premise if central to Mr. Sen’s Avant Garde thinking about development.

Viewing development though Mr. Sen’s eyes can help provide policy makers with a glimpse of how freedom and development interact and nourish one another to yield human flourishing. Taking Mr. Sen’s approach to development can help the reader dissect major sources of unfreedom and how these ills can be an impediment to development.

As Mr. Sen notes, development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states.

It is timely noted in the text that despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers – perhaps even the majority ­of people.

Mr. Sen seems to be alluding to the fact that although economic development has yielded vast amounts of wealth, inequality and injustice is still commonplace in our world. As a result, policy makers must promote policies that will maximize human flourishing and minimize human suffering.

The lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illness, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities.

This is a crucial point since a lack of development is often correlated with a lack of democracy and freedom. Popular uprisings that demand more freedom often ignite because of economic poverty.

One of the most crucial components of this text is Mr. Sen’s definition of freedom. In his eyes, freedom is central to the process of development for two distinct reasons. The first one is the evaluation reason: which is the assessment of progress that must be done primarily in terms of whether the freedoms that people have are enhanced; and the second is the effectiveness reason: which refers to the achievement of development, which is thoroughly dependent on the free agency of people.

To conclude, Mr. Sen’s text provides us with a rubric of how to evaluate freedom, development, and quality of life. The text identifies crucial links between freedom and development, and it identifies how unfreedom leads to malnourished and unequal societies.
The brilliant and prescient insights provided in the text gives policy makers the tools to nourish societies and minimize harm. This text imagines a world free of tyranny, corruption and unfreedom ­– and it dreams of a world full of development that leads to equitable outcomes. Mr. Sen has a simple way of achieving this utopia. Promote freedom he says. Then human flourishing will follow.


Sen, Amartya. "Development as freedom (1999)." The globalization and development reader: Perspectives on development and global change 525 (2014).


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