Development as freedom: Amartya’s importance for ID

Book: Development as Freedom

Author: Amartya Sen

This is a world of unprecedented opulence, which coexists with remarkable deprivations. Overcoming these deprivations is central to development. Sen argues that individual agency is key to addressing these deprivations, but it should be recognised that agency is constrained by social, political and economic opportunities. Sen argues for “integrated analysis of economic, political and social activities involving a variety of institutions and many interactive agencies”. In my opinion Amartya Sen offers the most sophisticated view of institutions and their relevance for development; Development as freedom is the culmination of many decades of his work.

Evaluating development

Sen argues that ‘growth’ or ‘income’ focussed assessments of development are limited and do not give us a full understanding of what is happening. For example, he points out that though African-American men in USA tend to have higher incomes than poor people of Kerala, China or other parts of the world, they have a significantly less life expectancy. If we concentrate only on incomes, we would make an unqualified judgement that the African-American man is better off than the poor person. Increasing the ‘informational base’ of our judgements will enable us to have a fuller view of development – and he argues that looking at development as freedom provides us with a much better informational base than contending theories of development.

Instrumental and intrinsic importance of freedoms

Freedoms from hunger, illiteracy, etc. are valuable ends in themselves (and are intrinsically important) and these freedoms enable people to pursue (instrumental importance) other things that are valuable to them. In this approach ‘individual agency’ is central to promoting development, but our understanding of agency is conscious of the institutional context.

Sen, institutions & development

In my view, Sen’s most important contribution to institutions & development lies in his conception of individual agency as central to development. Individual agency is situated in the institutional framework – and thus institutions have a bearing on what freedom people have, and what how they are able to pursue other freedoms. For example, he points out that slavery and bonded labour are noting but an unfreedom on the part of these people to access the market institutions for their labour (here the institution of labour market is evaluated by the fact that it does not allow certain people to participate). To take another example, Sen points out that no country with democratic institutions and free media has ever had a substantial famine. In other words, the freedom to participate in governance through democratic institutions ensures that people can get their governments to respond to an urgent need.

Sen’s portrayal of development enables us to evaluate institutions firstly by looking at how free they are to access for different social groups, and secondly by seeing what freedoms these institutions promote. In shifting from development as growth to development as freedoms, Sen changed the fundamentals of decades of work in institutional economics that have solely focussed on the role of institutions in promoting growth.

No institution has a bearing solely on growth. In the last few decades when economists championed certain institutions, they did so by focusing on growth, completely ignoring what impact these institutions may have on other aspects of development. This is one reason why there have been such strong protests against the so-called reforms, even when they were well-intentioned. If the role of institutions in development is reconceptualised taking into account a broader view of development, I am certain that ID will be able to make major advances in the times to come.

Amartya Sen’s contributions have tremendous implications for understanding institutions & development. This will be one of the recurring themes of this website. All articles will be tagged with ‘Amartya Sen, institutions and development

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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