Book Review: Development as a Freedom

Compelling and thought-provoking, Amartya Sen’s latest offering, “Development as Freedom”, is Nobel Prize winner for Economic Science in 1998.

Compelling and thought-provoking, Amartya Sen’s latest offering, “Development as Freedom”, is Nobel Prize winner for Economic Science in 1998. Sen provides a comprehensive summary of his thoughts on a key issue that has in recent decades, become a global debate: development.

Born in India, Amartya Kumar Sen, is a Cambridge scholar and leading political economist. From his book, first published in 1999, it is clear that he is an advocate for development that is rooted in economic development and the fundamental principles of social justice and human rights. In the book, he explores the relationship between freedom and development, stating that freedom should be seen as both a means and an end to development.

 “If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments. Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that inter alia, play a prominent part in the process,” Sen writes.

This is fundamental to understanding Sen’s philosophy. Clear, detailed and practical, Sen suggests shifting, and thus broadening, the development focus from income and wealth to substantive human freedoms – what he calls “capabilities.”

“An adequately broad view of development is sought, in order to focus the evaluative scrutiny on things that really matter, and in particular, to avoid the neglect of crucially important subjects,” he writes.

In clear, simple language Sen sets off with an outlook of the five types of interrelated freedoms, of which political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency and security, are a part. His first three chapters focus on this, weaving rather elegantly the relationship between individual freedom and the achievement of social development.

Using historical examples, empirical evidence and analysis, Sen argues, very convincingly, that what people can achieve (their capabilities) is influenced by “economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and the enabling condition good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives.”

Of particular interest is the fact that Sen is the voice for marginalised women. Women form the bracket of the population that is poor and dispossessed – victims of economic “unfreedom,” as Sen calls it. On the issue of women’s literacy and employment, he is quite vocal, pointing out that enhancing women’s agency, as well as their well-being, is critical to development. He also illustrates how functional literacy, employment and economic and social security are predictors of child survival and fertility rate reduction.

Ultimately, Development as Freedom is an inspiring read, particularly for one who is involved in development. The more engaging chapters interweave the notion of social justice and human rights with that of the more contested areas of economics i.e. the role of markets, their ability to provide public goods and their relationship with the state. With insight, he disputes the notion of imminent food shortage, arguing that the Indian city of Kerala has been more successful at limiting population growth than China.

The book is also very empowering. Sen draws one’s attention to the capabilities of people to do things and the substantive freedoms to live the kind of lives that they have reason to value. His attributes as a human being take precedence when he defends the universal value of freedom. It comes as no surprise then - that he is a champion for the poor and the dispossessed by upholding the universality of human rights. Sen articulates this universality in his chapter on culture and human rights.

Sen’s writing style is accessible and simple, if a bit wordy. Thankfully, no background in economics is required to grasp the underpinning message of the book – that quality of life should be measured by freedom, not just wealth. Of great value is the broad range of topics his book addresses. His arguments and viewpoints are in-depth and multi-layered. In his final chapters he implores one to consider the case of the helpless, arguing for an awareness of individual agency in his social choice theory. Justice, freedom and responsibility form the premise of this theory, as opposed to the narrower measures of human development.

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