Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom Book Review

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom Book Review


Amartya Sen’s Development as Freed

By Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud

Amartya Sen’s Book of Development as Freedom has been certified as one of the Contemporary Human Development Theories. Sen’s work was broadly acclaimed as a step forward, as in if it comes right down to a human development determination and a new remarkable change to the economic improvement pattern in academia. Sen published his book of Development as Freedom in 1999, a year after his success of the Nobel Prize from the Bank of Sweden’s Prize in economics. The author, who was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge University has collected his major ideas about international development and put under one theoretical umbrella. He started with exploring the notion of the relationship between development and freedom.  


Sen’s argument is quite clear in his text; his focal point was to critically oppose the commonly held present ideology of development to upsurge the rates of growth. Although, he admitted the current remarkable changes of democracy, concepts of human rights and the political liberty of the world governing system, which provided and contributed to the economic development of globalisation fields of trade, commerce and communication. Quite the reverse, he pointed out the dumbfounding deprivation, destitution and oppression that also bizarrely exist in our universe.


Therefore, he argued that it is impossible to eradicate the above mentioned economic hardship, if governments and economists maintain the improvement of the dominant ideology of economic development pattern alone, without the individual expansion of freedoms. According to Sen. ‘’it is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problem that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment”. 


Sen’s freedom for development was the unique economic approach at the end of the 20th Century. Sen pointed out ‘’ the intrinsic importance of human freedom, in general, as the preeminent objective of development; strongly supplemented by the instrumentality of freedoms of particular kinds to promote the freedoms of other kinds”. This ‘’instrumental freedoms” refers that Sen believes political and economic freedoms help to reinforce one another.


In other words, Sen’s theoretical approach of freedom denotes to the improvement of ‘human capabilities’. It mainly encompasses the levels and courses of decision making and the chances to attain or accomplish value outcomes. It seems that the idea is challenging in a way. The phenomenon of structure and agency, because the substantive freedom of the people in which Sen explored was to enable people to lead their lives in order to make reasoning. This is making the real choices they want, and it includes the concept of social and human capital.


On the other hand, in the twelve chapters of his book of Development as Freedom, Sen introduced the five distinct key areas of his approach. He called ‘instrumental freedoms’, and they are: – 1. political freedom; 2. economic facilities; 3. social opportunities; 4. transparency guarantees and 5. protective security. As he argued, when it comes to economic development, it only benefited a very tiny minority of the world population. While, the restrictions of the political freedoms and the boundaries of social opportunities halted the real economic development against the majority of the world population.


The matter of the GDP or GNP growth of the world countries whether they are developed or developing stage is not helping the reality on the ground. As Sen stated ‘’very many people across the world suffer from varieties of unfreedom. Richer countries often have profoundly disadvantaged people, who lack basic opportunities of healthcare, or practical education, or gainful employment, or economic and social security”. In this quotation, he measures that people are still suffering every part of the world for the reason that they lack instrumental freedoms to develop. This necessarily means that it is not only possible that countries where freedoms have explicitly prohibited gained poverty and deprivation. For the result of political tyranny and cultural authoritarianism, but also peaceful, democratic countries – because freedom is absent and not exercised for the product of cultural factors or economic practices.


Most interestingly, Sen’s argument on why freedom is the element of development is, firstly because, the human progress depends on to abolish the physical and mental constraints of human capability, which is to give freedom to individuals. Secondly, the freedom of the agency to do whatever individual wants is more controversial, and I disagreed this part of his argument. He ignored the large scale of social processes, which is the Macro-Level in sociology (structure) and the mainstream popular discourse of economics. As he denied the economic reasons of cutbacks on public expenditures at times of economic decline and financial hardships, such as cuts on education, healthcare and higher unemployment. Apart from freedom, Sen addressed the idea of utilitarianism, Rawl’s liberty of justice and Nozick’s libertarianism, but he argued to do and be what they value.


On poverty, Sen came up with a new discourse of capability deprivation and completely disregarded the mainstream poverty of economics, which is the low income. He argued that capability deprivation will focus and capture aspects hidden by low-income measures. He took his example, which was the difference between Europe and the United States, in comparisons of healthcare and mortality, the literacy and the infant mortality between India and Africa. On the other hand, Sen opposes the regulation of the markets, for the reason that these regulations impeded the freedoms of the people, but he rather appreciated the idea of the free market. For instance, he opposed monopoly of the market and its income distribution patterns. The markets and the relationship of the state, especially the role of the welfare and its means-testing system.


Sen elucidated democracy as the best system of governance by arguing that democracy plays an instrumental role to freedom and giving people a voice to construct and shape their norms and values. He pointed out ‘’ Political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, but they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves.” This quote shows that Sen supported the effective function of democracy, and without good democratic culture, formal rules will never work. In this part of democracy that Sen mentioned in his text, it seems more convincing, although he mostly avoided to critically analyse the Western individualistic culture and how Western institutions created family fragmentations and their misfortune of social cohesion.


Sen summarises some of his famous work in his book of Development as Freedom, chapter seven – in particular about famine. He described that lack of purchasing power and entitlements are the main causes of famine. In addition to that, he actively mistreated the role of actual food shortage, and also have affirmed that famine never occurs in democratic countries, but only the authoritarian states, because they lack openness of information, accountability, and transparency. I think it is not surprising that Sen received such an acclaim from the West and all other liberal states of the world as he remains on the safe ground of Western values, ethics and principles.


Sen’s primary reason on why he claimed as such was because he believed that freedom accompanies development. To clarify his argument more precisely, democratic countries prioritise economic security. Therefore, an early warning system and the prevention of famine is always possible in democratic values. While famines can only occur the unjust political systems such as undemocratic and authoritarian states because there is no accountability between these states and their societies.


Another major work was the role of women in development. In this part, Sen critically argued that women’s literacy and employability will increase the well-being of women and contribute to the development. He claimed that education and employment engagement is good for both the child and the fertility rate reduction. On the other hand, Sen predicted that an imminent food shortage would end up doomsday, which means limiting population growth will help to improve people’s well-being, because of the mismatching the demand of population growth and the limited food supply chain.


Nevertheless, the paradigm of human rights, Sen opposed and rebutted the Western notion that human rights and its freedoms could only be attained in their ways, and Western values are solely preparing the freedoms of social understanding. He showed an example of Asian values and how these values were exercised by referring historical examples. And conclusively, Sen suggested reconsidering the diversity and the other cultural values to achieve the best options of freedom. Finally, Sen studies and compares the relationship between justice freedom and responsibility. In this final chapter, he restates the importance of capabilities over the measures of human development. He praised the idea of human capital, even though he mentioned its restrictions to production and the failure to recapture the direct contribution of human capabilities to well-being and freedoms – regarding to social change.   

Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud. Department of Politics and International Studies. The University of Warwick., 



Davis, M (2002) Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso, London.

Lukes, S (1974) Power: A Radical View, Macmillan, London.

Rostow, W (1960) The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sen, A (1999) Development as Freedom, Alfred

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