An Unequal Development

Development as Freedom. By Amartya Sen. 366 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. $27.50.

What are the goals of development, and what are its constitutive features? As much because of years of 'economistic' over-simplification as because of sloppy habits of thought, a predictably standard response would be to identify development, nearly exclusively, with the growth in per capita gross national product (GNP). Amartya Sen takes a much more inclusive view of the subject than is afforded by this narrow window. For him, the end of what we call 'development' is sensibly seen in the light of the old Aristotelian conception of 'human flourishing,' which translates to the requirement of expanding the substantive freedoms which people have reason to value. There are two aspects to freedom that Sen emphasizes: 'the process of decision making' and 'the opportunities to achieve valued outcomes.' Crucial to the process of decision-making are the requirements of political rights, civil liberties and participatory democracy. Central to the notion of opportunities is the concept of human capability. The capability in question is the capability to function, a functioning being a state of 'doing or being,' of achievement or realization. A person's freedom may be assessed in terms of her 'capability set,' that is, in terms of the collection of various combinations of functionings which are available to her to choose from.

Typically, functionings would cover a wide range of outcomes, the more 'basic' among which include those of being literate, of being reasonably well-fed, of being reasonably healthy and of enjoying the prospect of a reasonably long life. Given this set of elementary freedoms one can already see a shift away from the narrow and exclusive concern with income, as such. By concentrating on these functionings directly, one accesses a wider and richer range of those features that shape human freedom than would be afforded by the summary statistic of income per head. For example, one obtains a picture of one aspect of global deprivation and abundance when one notes (from data available in the UNDP's 1999 Human Development Report) that in 1997 Sierra Leone's per capita GNP (in 'purchasing power parity' dollars) was $410 while that of Luxembourg was $30,860. One obtains a tighter and more complete picture of capability deprivations and the extremes of the human predicament when one additionally notes that in 1997 Sierra Leone's adult illiteracy rate was 67% and its under-5 mortality rate was 316 per one thousand live births, while the corresponding figures for Luxembourg were 1% and 7 per one thousand live births respectively.

But apart from the fact that income is a very restricted, and contingently means-related, indicator of achievement, it can also be a misleading indicator. For example, even though income is strongly correlated with more general aspects of capability realization, the fit is far from perfect: empirical scrutiny of cross-country data confirms that there are some countries which score high on the income dimension but low on the knowledge or longevity dimensions, and vice versa. Going entirely by income statistics alone could, therefore, lead to either unwarranted complaisance or misplaced pessimism regarding how a society is faring. Furthermore income, as Sen stresses, is only a means to an end -- the end of satisfactory functioning. But arising from interpersonal variations in age, health, gender, location, etc., there would be corresponding interpersonal variations in the ability to transform incomes into functionings -- variations that would simply 'come out in the wash' when there is an exclusive reliance on the money metric in reckoning human advantage.

The general point is that by viewing development as an integrated process of expanding substantive human freedoms, Sen is able to take comprehensive stock of various elements of the development process which are conceptually and empirically interrelated. He is also led to examining those institutions that might be expected to play a central role in this view of development as freedom. An important such institution is the market, both the virtues and limitations of which are subjected to a typically clear-eyed appraisal. By taking a more expansive view of valued human functionings than is afforded by the perspectives of income or commodities or resources in general, or utilities that have been integral to much received theory in economics and philosophy, Sen is able to focus attention on a variety of compelling contemporary problems that have to do with seeing poverty as a capability deprivation.

In this book, as in much of a lifetime's work leading up to it, Sen has done a great deal to bring to our attention the horrors of this world's manifold deprivations and disparities. He also brings hope for redeeming this state of affairs, by pointing to the relative ease -- in terms of carefully considered costs and benefits, feasibilities and desiderata, priorities and institutional arrangements, planning and rational strategies -- with which these seemingly insuperable problems can be overcome.

This is indeed a book of great importance. Indeed, I would recommend this book to every sentient person above the age of fifteen.


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