Development as Freedom

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The Author

Amartya Sen is an Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory and for his interest in the problems of society's poorest members. Sen is best known for his work on the causes of famine, which led to the development of practical solutions for preventing or limiting the effects of real or perceived shortages of food. [1]

The Book

Development as Freedom[2] introduces five types of freedom that contribute to economic development:

  • Political freedom and civil rights
  • Economic freedoms
  • Social opportunities
  • Transparency guarantees
  • Protective security

Sen argues that these five freedoms must be realized in order to further development. In Development as Freedom Sen believes that it is these five freedoms, in addition to the normal measures such as GNP per capita, that determine whether or not a person is in poverty, differing from the norm of only viewing poverty in the sense of income. Sen also introduces the concept of "relative deprivation" which is, as Sen describes, a case of poverty where a person is above the accepted poverty line, yet still is denied basic freedoms. Sen describes the elderly, disabled, or ill as members of the relatively deprived, as they require a higher level of care than the average person and the accepted poverty level line could be too low relative to their needs and right to a standard of living.

Sen also highlights certain capabilities that must be realized for a citizen of a country to be considered well off, the foremost being a supportive social background. A social background consisting of high levels of literacy, numeracy, basic education, healthcare, and completed land reforms. Sen uses Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India (particularly the region Kerala) to illustrate that the most impoverished regions of the world are those that lack these social backgrounds; the two areas discussed have the lowest literacy rates and the highest rates of infant mortality.

Central Contention

Development as Freedom was presented in its incipient form to The World Bank in 1996 as a series of lectures. Theories within the book suggest that development is measured incorrectly according to traditional metrics of GDP, GNP, income per capita etc. Sen furthers that this improper measurement inspires the consequential improper pursuit of satisfactory sums in these categories. Nations denying the majority of their population any actual development are granted immunity, sometimes even international applause, if able to declare a high per capita income, satisfactory GDP. Sen insists that under his definition of development, a nation must abolish tyranny and systemic and state perpetuated social deprivation, the nation must maintain the good status of public facilities, must suppress intolerance, must abolish intolerance and provide economic opportunity by ensuring free markets proliferate and are accessible to every citizen of the nation.

Sen doesn't believe the five above freedoms can exist without another to have a developing nation grow and reach its' potential. He has a firm belief that all must exist simultaneously for a nation to develop economically. He believes that, for freedom to exist, the government must be a democracy. He shows that limitations on citizens' role in the government process has proven to lead to less than optimal results. The collapse of the USSR is an example he provides as well as the fact that no truly democratic nation has ever experienced a famine. He believes the transparency that exists in governments that are democratic leads to those in power making more sound decisions which leads to better and more ideal development. Thus greater development occurs with greater freedoms.

Related Article


  1. "The Guardian Profile: Amartya Sen"
  2. Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.
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