Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

In this selection of 12 essays – built around six lectures delivered at the World Bank in 1996 when he was a Presidential Fellow – Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, reintroduces us to some of his now-famous repertoire of terms: capabilities, entitlements, cooperative conflict and development as freedom.

Written as a ‘general work on development’, which he defines as ‘the removal of various types of unfreedom’ (p36), Sen takes us on a convincing journey through the highways of developmental economics. Challenging the general belief that human development is a luxury to which only the developed nations are entitled, he questions the validity of economic growth as an end in itself. Rather, it has to do not only with augmenting incomes but also with the expansion of workable social safety nets such as access to education, healthcare, sanitation, potable water and clean air.

These are to be achieved in a political regime of democracy; Sen strongly contests the view of Lee Kuan Yew (the Lee thesis) that economic growth and political freedom are inimical. In a fresh enunciation of his well-publicized position on famines, he shows that it is not always  shortages that cause these but more the inability of families and individuals to ‘establish their entitlement’ to food, which depends on a range of factors such as floods and drought. Arguing for effective public and governmental action such as anti-poverty programmes and disease control, Sen also shows that effective dissemination of information – always a possibility in a democracy – allows governments and politicians to be alerted in good time to outbreaks of famines and natural disasters.

Acknowledging that debates around human rights – which he views ‘as a set of ethical claims, which must not be identified with legislated legal rights’ (p229) – have gained currency in recent years, Sen cites Confucius as well as ancient Indian sources and Islamic texts to prove that Asian values are not in opposition to basic political rights. (CRH – Sen’s term). If this sounds a trifle defensive, the author swings the argument around by drawing our attention to the hegemonizing influence of the globalizing world, which threatens ‘indigenous cultural modes’, thereby imposing an unfreedom of another kind. He argues convincingly that ‘we must not lose our ability to understand one another’ (p240) and to appreciate our different cultural qualities – an important message in a world where development practitioners have often to cross many seas as well as invisible barriers so as to be able to reach out meaningfully.

Amartya Sen is particularly sensitive to issues of gender equality, drawing our attention to the world’s ‘missing women’ or the ‘terrible phenomenon of excess mortality and artificially lower survival rates of women’ (p104). Corroborating the work of social scientists and activists who show that the neglect of girl children and their lack of access to basic entitlements in South Asia lead to their subsequent ‘disappearance’, he looks at the family as an arena of cooperative conflict. This dynamic phrase (perhaps an oxymoron to some) outlines how potential conflict situations are resolved in the interests of familial unity; he suggests not unexpectedly that as women are often deprived, it is necessary to have programmes and policies to empower them.

The discussion on the modalities for women’s agency, a ground well ploughed by the women’s movement worldwide, reminds us that for a sensitive mind, the theory and praxis of social science are no longer separated by a deep divide. Sen’s capacity to meld theory and his basic thesis with examples and instances makes this book accessible to most – a must-read for development planners and practitioners alike.

Dr Malavika Karlekar is Editor of the Indian Journal of Gender Studies of the New Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies, published by Sage. A social anthropologist educated at Oxford and at the Delhi School of Economics, she can be contacted at

Development as Freedom
Amartya Sen
Oxford University Press £17.99
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