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“Development as Freedom” - Amartya Sen’s Grand Reconception of Development

I believe Amartya Sen’s famous Book, “Development as Freedom” has contributed to setting a whole new direction on the basis of which policy can be formulated and this is the primary criterion on which his work in this area needs to be studied and  assessed. The concept of 'Development as Freedom' is really a culmination of Sen’s capability approach which he had developed earlier. This line of thinking in development is also manifested in the approach of developing the UN Human Development Index which was formulated by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Professor Amartya Sen.

Sen has developed “an alternative approach to evaluation that focuses directly on freedom, seen in the form of individual capabilities to do things that a person has reason to value” (Sen 2000, 56). Sen emphasises this distinction with the traditional approach when he remarks that “the discipline of economics has tended to move away from focussing on the value of freedoms to that of utilities, incomes and wealth” (Sen 2000, 27) and that this leads to a “narrowing of focus” (Sen 2000, 27).

He then moves on to make two key assertions which run through his whole approach of Development as Freedom.

First, he defines development as expansion of freedoms, or the removal of various types of unfreedoms (Sen 2000, xii) such as undernutrition, lack of access to health care or premature mortality (Sen 2000, 15).

He then states that there is empirical evidence to show that there are positive linkages between different types of freedoms and that “they may also serve to complement each other” (Sen 2000, 10).

Another key concept Sen emphasises is “human agency”. He stresses that Individuals have to play a positive role in bringing about the change they wish to see. They should move from being passive recipients of cunning development programmes to being seen as active agents of change (Sen 2000, 13).

I now give three examples of the broad policy implications that follow from Sen’s distinctive approach.

First, Sen has very clearly brought out the positive linkages between economic and social freedoms by contrasting the examples of China, which met with considerable success when economic reforms were introduced in 1979 and India, which met with only limited success when economic reforms were introduced in 1991. According to Sen, China did better because it had better social freedoms at the time of introducing its reforms. China had a more educated and healthy population, which was able to make better use of the reforms as compared to a socially more backward India (Sen 2000, 42). This provides an important guideline for policy.

Second, in the case of poverty, Sen approaches it from a capability deprivation perspective. Addressing the causes of capability poverty can help in the removal of income poverty. Better basic education and health care improve the quality of life directly; they also increase a person’s ability to earn an income and be free from income poverty as well. Thus, the capability perspective enhances the understanding of the causes of poverty and helps in its mitigation as well (Sen 2000, 90).

Third, Sen has pointed out that even in developed countries, there can be deprived sections. In the United States, Sen gives figures to show that the mortality rate of Blacks is much higher than those of Whites (Sen 2000, 97). Thus, Sen has given policy formulation a new meaning by applying development concepts to rich countries as well.

It has also been argued that Sen’s concept of 'Development as Freedom' is not always explicit at a specific (as opposed to broad, directional) policy level. It very clearly states what needs to be done but it isn't always so forthcoming on how this can be achieved. Also, Sen treats all freedoms as foundational. This has been one of the major criticisms levelled against Sen that he not given a specific list of freedoms that he considers essential. This may be contrasted to Martha Nussbaum who has clearly given a specific list of essential freedoms. This would help in prioritising policy goals.

Yet, overall, Sen’s conceptualization of development as freedom needs to be recognised as a bold new step in the study of development. It brings both practical and ethical considerations into the picture and significantly broadens the understanding of development. It stresses the importance of empowering people and increasing their choices to enable them to have more fulfilling and enriching lives. 

From Sen’s perspective, the area that CMF is researching may be broadly considered as one that focuses on how to how to remove certain financial unfreedoms (lack of access to a means of saving, credit, insurance, pensions etc.) among deprived sections of society. Addressing this set of issues, as he has pointed out would have positive spin offs on other types of freedoms as well (such as the capability to access quality healthcare or education).

The importance of Sen’s work, I believe, lies in changing the goal posts for policy formulation. 'Development as Freedom' is an eloquent argument for a new and more sensitive direction in policy to improve the quality of life of all human beings.

All references given above are from:
Sen, Amartya. 2000 (1999). Development as Freedom. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


  1. which of the studies is studying the unfreedom of not being able to "access financial services" ?


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