Enlarging the concept of development

Print edition : January 22, 2000
C.T. KURIEN

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen, Alfred A.Knopf, New York, 1999, pages 366; also Oxford University Press; Rs.545.

FAIRLY soon after Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, Frontline had carried a three-piece article by Amiya Bagchi summarising and commenting on Sen's contribution to the subject (June 18, July 2, July 16, 1999). Bagchi's article (based on one earlier published in Economic and Political Weekly) was a leading Indian economist's evaluation of and tribute to one who has now been recognised as not only the leading Indian economist but also one of the top economists in t he world. That article, however, might have been too technical for those who were not familiar with the economists' jargon.

Apart from being among the top in the profession, Sen is also a passionate advocate of freedom. And on issues he feels strongly about he writes in a language that can be followed by non-specialists. The book under review is a writing of that kind. Says S en in the preface: "In line with the importance I attach to the role of public discussion as a vehicle of social change and economic progress... this work is presented for open deliberation and critical scrutiny" and that, therefore, he has written in a manner that will be "accessible to non-specialist readers". However, it does not mean that he has diluted the theme to achieve that objective. Kenneth Arrow, another Nobel Laureate in economics, says: "In this work, Amartya Sen develops elegantly, compac tly, and yet broadly the concept that economic development is in its nature an increase of freedom. By historical examples, empirical evidence and forceful and rigorous analysis, he shows how development, broadly and properly conceived, cannot be antagon istic to liberty but consists precisely in its increase". The book is an excellent exposition, by Sen himself, of the essence of his technical contributions, all leading to a passionate plea for freedom - for all human beings. To anyone who wishes to get acquainted with Sen's contributions to economics and philosophy, to his wit and elegant prose I strongly recommend this work.

THE book consists of six lectures (rearranged into 12 chapters) that the author delivered at the World Bank in 1996 and 1997 at the invitation of its president. It outlines (as stated in the preface) "the need for an integrated analysis of economic, soci al and political activities, involving a variety of institutions and many interactive agencies. It concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political free doms, social facilities, transparency guarantees and protective security. Social arrangements, involving many institutions (the state, the market, the legal system, political parties, the media, public interest groups and public discussion forums, among others) are investigated in terms of their contribution to enhancing and guaranteeing the substantive freedoms of individuals, seen as active agents of change rather than as passive recipients of dispensed benefits." The text is an elaboration of this th esis and philosophy.

That economic development is not an end in itself but a means to higher purposes is not a new doctrine. Classical writers on economics - Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill among them - had seen economic growth as the way to move from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. More recent writings have also emphasised the same point as can be seen from the early publications of the United Nations on development, India's own Five Year Plan documents and papal encyclicals on economic matters. Sen's contribution in this area, it seems to me, is threefold. First, he situates the theme of development as freedom within the contemporary discourses on economic growth and poverty, democracy and regimentation, justice and equality, individual freedom and social welfare - themes that have engaged public attention in the second half of the 20th century. Few other contemporary writings can claim to have the kind of range that Sen's work has.

Second, with rational arguments and empirical evidence Sen demolishes many widely held, but not adequately examined, opinions or "superstitions". That famines are the result of fall in foodgrain production is one of the most persistent among these. Sen s hows that famines, particularly death by famines, happen because of the failure of entitlements of sections of the population, indeed the weaker sections.

Third, and most important, in each of the themes that he takes up, Sen has broadened the terms of discourse through a broader informational base, and in so doing he has been able to bring together what were considered to be irreconcilables. One of the ce lebrated theorems in economics (which Sen refers to as "one of the most beautiful analytical results in the social sciences") had claimed that all mechanisms of social decision-making that rely only on individual orderings of a set of alternatives would lead to some inconsistency. Sen has analysed the theorem and has shown that by using an informational base other than individual orderings of limited options, it should be possible to arrive at acceptable options and workable solutions. Thus, though he i s a champion of individual liberties, Sen does not fall into the libertarian trap of failing to go beyond individuals and their preferences.

NOW, for a quick tour of the text. Sen starts with economic development featuring a paradox. "We live in a world of unprecedented opulence, of a kind that would have been hard even to imagine a century or two ago... And yet we also live in a world with r emarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including the persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violation of elementary political free doms as well as basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and to the sustainability of our economic and social lives." Overcoming these problems is what development is about, thus si gnalling right at the outset that development is more, much more, than economic growth or opulence.

But then what should be treated as the goal, objective of development? There is an unambiguous answer: development is a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Real freedom must become the experience of every individual. Ultimately indi viduals themselves are responsible to make this a reality. But individuals are constrained by social, political and economic factors. Hence the centrality of individual freedom can be achieved and maintained only by a social order that accepts individual freedom as a commitment. Freedom is not a mere abstraction either. It must manifest itself specifically as social, economic and political freedoms. These freedoms (and their negation, unfreedoms) interact among themselves and can mutually reinforce one another. In this sense these freedoms have intrinsic as well as instrumental value. The removal of unfreedoms and the pursuit of freedoms in these spheres constitute the process of development and necessitate a plurality of institutions to facilitate it.

In order to emphasise the plurality of institutions, Sen devotes a substantial section of the book to deal with markets, state and democracy. Markets are generally, and rightly, associated with freedom, for the opportunity to transact with others is inde ed a legitimate dimension of freedom. It is this aspect of the market, rather than the market's contribution to economic growth, that is, the utility of markets, that needs to be emphasised. The emergence of the labour market is an expression of the free dom that a person has to decide what to do with his/her labour power in contrast to the unfreedom associated with the institution of bonded labour. However, not even Adam Smith gave unqualified endorsement to markets. He was aware of the distortions that traders could bring about in the market processes in their own interest, and was quite an interventionist when it came to the market for loans arguing strongly for legal restrictions by the state on the maximum rates of interest that could be charged. I n his Wealth of Nations Smith also dealt at length with the legitimate role of the state in economic affairs. As institutions, both the state and markets have their limitations and hence the tendency to make exaggerated claims on behalf of either of them cannot be valid.

In Sen's thinking the most desirable social institution is democracy that provides all members of society the freedom to participate in matters affecting their lives and in discussions about the common good. On the question of whether poor countries can afford to have democracy, Sen's answer is quite clear: "The intensity of economic needs adds to - rather than subtracts from - the urgency of political freedoms." He attaches great importance to public discussion and debate on all major issues affecting the lives of people. Such discussions shape the opinions and views of individuals and provide protective security to people. A claim that he makes based on empirical evidence is: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functionin g democracy - be it economically rich... or relatively poor."

One of the instrumental values of democracy is that it can lead to the establishment of a just society. A key chapter in the book is devoted to a discussion of justice. This chapter is about the most abstract in the book and is a critique of the literatu re on justice arising from the writings of modern contributors on the subject such as Robert Nozick and John Rawls. But it is typical of Sen that he starts the discussion with a simple (but profound) parable. Annapurna is considering employing someone to clear her garden. Three people, Dinu, Bishanno and Rogini want the job, each for specific reasons, but only one can be employed. Dinu is the poorest of the three; Bishanno is recently impoverished and is extremely depressed about it; Rogini suffers from a chronic ailment and badly needs money for treatment. Who among the three should Annapurna employ if she is eager to be just? The profundity of the illustration lies in the fact that the answer to the question "What is justice?" will lead one to differ ent basic principles, and these differences relate to the particular information that is taken to be decisive. Hence, the search for justice may not lead to any unique or definitive answer. This may come as a disappointment. But no, says Sen. "The greate st relevance of ideas of justice lies in the identification of patent injustice on which reasoned agreement is possible." Such has to be the strategy in the pursuit of development: not a quest for some extant formula about the ideal situation, but reasoned agreement on what needs to be done in moving towards what is considered desirable.

Of such preconditions of development Sen has a select list - literacy, health care, adequate land reforms, recognition and acceptance of women's rights - all of which are also to be considered as desirable objectives by themselves. He dwells at length on literacy and health care, frequently pointing to the achievements of Kerala in these spheres - almost on a par with what obtains in "advanced" countries, while still at very low levels of per capita income. There is a separate chapter on "Women's Agency and Social Change". Compared to these, there is very little on what is mentioned as "adequate land reforms".

In the concluding chapter Sen considers the difference between the conventional approach to development as "growth of output per head" and his more fundamental view of development as expanding human freedom. Two differences are pointed out. First, since freedom is concerned with processes of decision-making as well as opportunities to achieve valued outcomes, the foundational approach cannot be confined to outcomes: processes such as participation in political decisions are equally necessary for develop ment to be authentic. Second, even in terms of the opportunity aspect, the foundational approach insists on greater inclusiveness, opportunity not merely to have higher incomes and consumption but also the freedom to live long, the opportunity to have wo rthwhile employment or to live in peaceful and crime-free communities.

NO one who goes through the book will fail to be convinced about the need for enlarging the concept of development to mean freedom, the expansion of the capabilities of persons to lead the kind of lives they value. But what kind of society is needed to m ake this possible? It has to be one that accepts the principles of justice, freedom and responsibility, says Sen, and within this general approach considerable variations are possible and may become unavoidable. This is not merely a pragmatic affirmation . It arises from the fact that freedom is an inherently diverse concept, which involves considerations of processes as well as substantive opportunities.

In concluding this review I would like to respond to Sen's invitation for "critical scrutiny". It would have become clear to the reader that I am in substantial agreement with Sen's views on development, the manner in which he has enlarged the concept an d shown the variety of social forces and processes interrelated with it. But I find something missing in his approach which, let me designate, as a sense of social dynamics. The great writers who viewed development as a quest for the realisation of human freedom - whether it is Adam Smith or Karl Marx - situated that quest within their understanding of the evolution of society and the underlying forces that were propelling that evolution.

In spite of Sen's frequent references to development as a process, he does not enter into any discussion of the fundamental factors that contribute to social evolution. His work, therefore, lacks a sense of flux and change - and an anticipation of the sh ape of things to come. Writing at the end of the 18th century, Adam Smith saw the collapse of many local and national systems of controls and regulation of economic activities and the emergence of an expanding economic order based on the institution of t he market. In the middle of the 19th century, Karl Marx, on the basis of his understanding of historical processes, was able to say more about the same emerging system, pay tribute to its emancipatory role and yet predict its impending crisis. This sort of interpretation of the past and the capacity (or audacity) to portray the future is missing in Amartya Sen's writing, although like Smith and Marx he too is an economic philosopher. Sen was writing against the background of the failure of capitalist op ulence to eradicate economic deprivation, of the recurring crises and the rapidly globalising features of that order, and of the collapse of socialist systems which appeared, at one stage, to be a possible global substitute to it. Sen's world is also one of unprecedented technological changes that have been substantially changing the nature of all forms of social intercourse. To a world, at the turn of a turbulent century and moving on to a new millennium, waiting with curiosity and eagerness to know wh at the future holds, Sen's failure or refusal to interpret the signs of the times and to offer any guidance will come as something of a disappointment.

A rare thinker A. G. NOORANI

PERSONS qualified in the intellectual discipline in which Amartya Sen won rich fame have reviewed Development as Freedom competently. This writer does not presume to make that effort; but, to record, as a student of public affairs, an appreciation of one of the all-too-few intellectuals whose scholarship and concerns are not limited to the subject of his specialisation and whose empathy crosses national boundaries. A proud Indian, he rejects disdainfully the forms of nationalism which, sadly, are in vogue today.

It is forty years since C. P. Snow introduced the expression "the two cultures" in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge, "Two Cultures and the Scientific Resolution". The divide among intellectuals bereft of a common language and unable to speak to each other, has been a subject of keen debate since. Snow was diagnosing the divide between the scientists and the humanists. There is, however, hardly any intellectual discipline or, for that matter, profession, whose members are able to discuss intelligently matte rs of common concern with others except from their own insular viewpoints. What Edward Burke said of lawyers ages ago is true of other professions as well: "The law sharpens the mind - by narrowing it."

Amartya Sen is a rare exception as any reader of his essays in The New York Review of Books will testify. This reflects the learning and the insights which make him so exceptional. He is steeped in history, literature, and uses tools from politica l science and philosophy with accomplishment and elegance.

As we have moved from one millennium to another, in the clime of today, Amartya Sen's recall of an edict by Akbar is strikingly apt: "As the year 1000 in the Muslim Hejira calendar was reached in 1591-1592, there was some excitement about it in Delhi and Agra (not unlike what is happening right now as the year 2000 in the Christian calendar approaches). Akbar issued various enactments at this juncture of history and these focussed, inter alia, on religious tolerance, including the following: 'No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone (is) to be allowed to go over to a religion he pleased. If a Hindu, when a child or otherwise, had been made a Muslim against his will, he is to be allowed, if he pleased, to go back to the religion of his fathers'... It may not be irrelevant to note in this context, especially in the light of the hardsell of 'Western liberalism', that while Akbar was making these pron ouncements, the Inquisitions were in full bloom in Europe."

The author cites the edict to refute the charge that Islamic civilisation is "fundamentally intolerant and hostile to individual freedom" and remarks that "the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well (emphasis as in original)." The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, in the 12th century, "had to run away from an intolerant Europe (where he was born) and from its persecution of Jews, to the security of a tolerant and urbane Cairo and the patronage of Su ltan Saladin."

This is more than a refutation for Western notions. It is also a corrective for advocates of the authoritarian view of "Asian values". "The valuing of freedom is not confined to one culture only, and the Western traditions are not the only ones that pre pare us for a freedom-based approach to social understanding."

The book presents "a particular approach to development, seen as a process of expanding substantive freedom that people have." That approach is informed by amazing erudition and a vision that transcends barriers.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×