Global Citizenship

Amartya Sen Shares His Theory of Development As Freedom

In this brief paper, Professor Sen articulates the themes of the lecture he delivered at the Center on Tuesday, April 3, 2001. These issues have been more fully discussed in Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1999). Dr. Sen is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

The relationship between freedom and development has been debated — explicitly or by implication — for a very long time. While some see freedom as a great ally of progress, others are fearful of individual freedom as a spoiler of development and as a source of adversity. The latter group can entertain disparate beliefs, held by different (and often conflicting) schools of thought, with very different diagnoses of the alleged poison: democratic rights, civil liberties, freedom of market transactions, or basic social opportunities (such as emancipation involved in women’s being schooled). Their common suspicion of freedom leads to the advocacy — and imposition — of “unfreedom” of one kind or another, in political, economic, or social fields.

It is important to counter, in a comprehensive and congruous way, the diverse manifestations of this skepticism about freedom, which can be found plentifully across the contemporary world. In contrast with each of these distinct views, a good starting point for the analysis of development can be the basic recognition that freedom is both (1) the primary objective, and (2) the principal means of development. The former is an evaluative claim and includes appreciation of the principle that the assessment of development cannot be divorced from the lives that people can lead and the real freedoms that they enjoy. Development can scarcely be seen merely in terms of enhancement of inert objectives of convenience, such as a rise in the GNP (or in personal incomes), or industrialization, or technological advance, or social modernization. These are, of course, valuable — often crucially important — accomplishments, but their value must depend on what they do to the lives and freedoms of the people involved.

Freedom is not only the ultimate end of development; it is also a crucially effective means.The relation between freedom and development goes, however, well beyond this constitutive connection. Freedom is not only the ultimate end of development; it is also a crucially effective means. This acknowledgement can be based on empirical analysis of the consequences of — and interconnections between — freedoms of distinct kinds, and on the evidence that freedoms of different types typically help to sustain each other. What a person has the actual capability to achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social facilities, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives. These opportunities are, to a great extent, mutually complementary, and tend to reinforce the reach and use of one another.

A freedom-centered view of development has several advantages over more conventional views. First, it provides a deeper basis of evaluation of development, allowing us to concentrate on the objective of individual freedom rather than merely on proximate means such as the growth of GNP or industrialization or technological progress. The enhancement of lives and liberties has intrinsic relevance that distinguishes it from, say, the enlargement of commodity production or of other material of convenience.

Second, since freedoms of different kinds contribute to enhancing freedoms of other kinds, a freedom-centered view also offers instrumental insights. By focusing on the interconnections between freedoms of different types, it takes us well beyond the narrow perspective of seeing each freedoms in isolation. We live in a world of many institutions (involving the market, the government, the judiciary, the political parties, the media, and son on), and we have to see how they can supplement and strengthen each other, rather than getting in each other’s way.

Third, this broad perspective also allows us to distinguish between (1) repressive interventions of the state in stifling liberty, initiative and enterprise, and in crippling the working of individual agency and cooperative action, and (2) the supportive role of the state in enhancing the effective freedoms of individuals (for example, in providing public education, health care, social safety nets, good macroeconomic policies, and in safeguarding industrial competition and epidemiological and ecological sustainability).

Finally, the freedom-centered view captures the constructive role of free human agency as an engine of change. It differs radically from seeing people as passive beneficiaries of cunning development programs. The need to overcome that misleading image of development is as strong today as it has ever been.