What is “Development” for the 21st Century World

GoodpalStarred Page By Goodpal, 2nd Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Money>Economics

Development is not just economic growth or technological progress; in reality, it is a more comprehensive human development. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s capability approach offers a wonderful model for the real development of the societies, nations and the world.

Has the World been Really Developing?

If the World has been really developing all these decades and centuries, people should have progressively become more contented, happier, safer and more peaceful than ever. In fact, if the societies across the world have been really developing then wars, conflicts, invasions, weapon development, military expenditures, spread of arms, poverty and hunger should have become history already; the planet should have become healthier and things like global warming or climate change should have never happened.

But what is happening is just the reverse – even the end of “cold war” with the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1989 did not stop development of arms; the US-Iraq conflict took place in 1990, the 911 terror attack shook the US out of its slumber of greatness, invasion of Iraq on the pretext of its possession of weapons of mass destruction that it did not have, the “war on terror” is going on for over a decade in Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the military strike on Syria appears next on the agenda of the “developed” West as of August 2013. The leaders of the most “developed” nations – notably the US and UK – appear ever ready to aim their war planes and missiles against any nation that is not “convenient” to them. Iran and North Korea are other “inconvenient” countries they would love to invade whenever opportunity emerges.

Question: Centuries ago, kings from the West used to invade other nations armed with bows, arrows and spears, and then came the industrial revolution, gunpowder and guns, war-planes, war-ships, and submarines. The first five decades of the twentieth century were devoted to large scale fighting among themselves – and wrongly called it world wars. Now they invade countries at will with their weapons of mass destruction in the form of fighter planes, missiles and unarmed planes made deadly accurate through technology. So, they have hardly changed, except for the technique of warfare and the manner of picking up conflicts. I fail to understand why they call themselves the “most developed” nations on the earth? What is so “developed” about waging war? Can someone help, please?

Also, the abrupt climatic disasters appear to be occurring with ever increasing frequency causing destructions and human deaths all over the world, the vanishing polar icecap is making small island nations and coastal populations around the world increasingly uneasy, receding Himalayan glaciers are pointing to an ominous future for the river water systems that are lifelines of over a billion people in the densely populated Asian continent. For example, Bangladesh in South Asia is particularly vulnerable both to rising sea level and the potential drying of the Brahmaputra River that originates from the Tibetan Glaciers in China and flows down through northeast India.

Why “Development” has gotten stuck to just Economic Growth?

Most of us have grown into thinking that progress and development only mean economic growth. This is also the only message when expert talks of development on any platform, and this is also what the “most developed” West propagates and religiously adheres to. The popular gospel truth of their traditional economics is simple: expand the economy (measured as percent GDP growth) and keep doing it till eternity, year after year. In simple words: produce more and consume more; next year you should be a still bigger producer and still bigger consumer; and go on... If you don’t have money, go for loan or credit but don’t think of stopping. You must go on, else there is a monster called “economic depression” ready to take away your job or business. This has happened when suddenly a lot of “24-hour-busy” people become “24-hour-free” and in confusion, many take to sky diving from their office windows without parachutes and some go hunting for that mysterious fellow called God. This is also the time when in the media you hear more about bankruptcies, bail-outs, lay-offs, austerity measures, public protests, and stimulus packages than the “normal news” of killings, violence, conflicts, terror attacks, suicide bombings and the US invasions.

However, this wonderful landscape of “development” measured by the magical “GDP growth” appears to be under threat because a more modern “Capability Approach” to development is attracting people from all corners of the world. The credit to this new concept of development is given to 1998 Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He and many others leading experts have never been convinced that any GDP related number alone can adequately measure progress or development of human societies or technological advancements can be equated with “development.” Under no stretch of imagination, the per capita income or GDP can be expected to measure human well-being adequately; there is much more to development than economic growth.

Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA)

Over the past decade Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) has emerged as a much more comprehensive alternative to the usual narrow economic framework to think about progress, development, or poverty. Unlike the economic growth model, the CA does not consider people as mere tools to be used for production; instead, they are the focus of development. It considers economic growth an essential component of the larger framework of development, which aims at expanding people’s capabilities and freedoms. The CA goes beyond economic growth and puts the spotlight where it logically belongs, on the people and their abilities.

The concept of capability revolves around people’s functioning capacity, their abilities to do things, perform, achieve, or to be, and also on their potential to acquire various valuable functionings given the freedom and favorable environment. Having access to goods, commodities and facilities are important because they help a person utilize or develop different abilities to do, to achieve, or to be. For instance, having a bicycle allows a person to move around in a way not possible without it – it gives the person capability to move in an enhanced way. Likewise, food provides the capability “to be adequately nourished” or the capability “to be free from hunger”.

However, if bicycle or food are there but the person can’t make use of them for whatever reason (say, he is handicapped or bed-ridden), then he doesn’t have the capability to move or to be fed. Therefore, merely having resources do not improve the quality of life unless people have the capabilities to make use of them. Further, with the same resources different people will achieve different capabilities depending upon a range of personal and social factors – age, gender, health status, level of knowledge and education, emotional framework and intelligence, social freedom and so on. Having a capability is fine than not having it. For instance, having the capability to avoid hunger (ie, having sufficient food) is preferred; the person, however, may choose to fast or go on hunger strike but he still has the capability. It is certainly bad to not have the capability to feed oneself.

Summing up, it is not the goods and resources and their expansion that is at the focus, but it is the capabilities and their expansion which is the center of attention in the CA.

Quality of Life depends upon People’s Capabilities

The quality of life directly depends upon what the people are capable of achieving or doing with they have, not on mere availability of commodities and facilities. Obviously different people and societies differ in their capacity to convert income, commodities and public facilities into capabilities. As a corollary, different people may require different resources to have similar abilities. For example, an elderly or disabled person may require extra resources (wheel chair, ramp, lift, etc) to achieve the same movement as an able person. Likewise, children typically have very different nutritional requirements than a manual labourer or a pregnant woman.

How well people are able to function with the goods and services at their disposal also often depends upon the social factors like the opportunities to participate in social activities. It is easy to understand how discriminations and social exclusion lower people’s capabilities.

In India, for instance, private schools must admit a certain percentage of children from the poor families. But in reality most school administrations put procedural hurdles and/or deal discouragingly with poor children’s parents so that they are put off. Likewise, in certain rural areas the lowest caste (called Scheduled Caste) people are prevented from accessing public water facilities or roads. Gender discrimination can be particularly seen in the health indicators of women and girls from the poor families where the male members get priority over everything including food and women and girls do disproportionately higher amount of work.

Violation of basic human rights also affect people’s freedom and hence their capabilities. Therefore, the field of CA is all encompassing and considers everything that can possibly influence people’s capabilities – whether personal, mental, social or political.

Development is Expansion of Freedom

This points to freedom (which comes from equality) as an important prerequisite to expand capabilities of people. In his famous work (1999), Development as Freedom, Sen argues that freedom is the primary goal of development; freedom is also the principal means of development. He further suggested that development is the process of expanding human freedom which in turn leads to expansion of capabilities. Therefore, development also means the removal of major sources of lack of freedom such as poverty, neglect of public facilities, lack of economic opportunities, social exclusion, and freedom limiting policies or oppressive regime.

Application of the Capability Approach

The capability approach does not offer a formula to analyze, study or evaluate the issues of development and well-being (or their deficit). It is flexible and context dependent and can be applied to evaluate a range of things such as the living standard, poverty, social justice, inequality, human rights, etc. The only thing that changes is the set of capabilities which will depend upon the issue at hand. For example, the CA has provided the theoretical foundation for the concept of human development which has resulted in the construction of a number of indices at the UNDP: e.g. human development index (HDI) (1990), human freedom index (1991), gender-disparity-adjusted HDI (1993), income-distribution-adjusted HDI (1993), gender related development index (1995), gender empowerment measure (1995) and human poverty index (1997). The functionings that are incorporated in these indices are life expectancy at birth, education (measured by adult literacy and educational enrolment rates) and adjusted real GDP per capita which is taken as a proxy for a number of functionings with material preconditions, such as being sheltered and well-fed. These indexes clearly show that GDP/capita is an imperfect indicator of human development.

In fact, the first Human Development Report of 1990 defined human development as “a process of enlarging people’s choices” and stated that “income is a means, not an end” of human development (p. 10). It was a major shift towards sustainable human development, away from taking mere economic growth as development.

The assessment of extreme poverty might involve concentrating on a relatively small sub-set of basic capabilities such as those related to hunger, malnutrition, shelter, health, and education. The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) of the UNDP is good example. It evaluates poverty on a set of ten indicators focused on health (measured by 2 indicators of nutrition and child mortality), education (measured by 2 indicators of years of schooling and school attendance), and the living standard (probed by six indicators of cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, flooring type, electricity, and assets).


Probably the time has come for the people of the world to demand real and comprehensive “human development” from their governments, on the line of Amartya Sen’s capability approach. It also offers a wonderful way forward to the Western nations – they have gotten stuck in the narrow boundaries of economic growth and technology advancement in the name of “development.” They are still as war-monger as in their pre-industrial stage. Their narrow focus on economic growth and industrial development has not only stopped improving their people’s well-being any further but has converted them into mere tools of growth and consumers of goods. This faulty understanding of human well-being, as ever increasing consumption, is already putting pressure on natural resources and has resulted in the global warming and climate change problems.

You may also like to read:

Amartya Sen’s Concept of Development and Poverty
Poverty is More than just Lack of Income
Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory of Poverty
Measuring Poverty: Different Ways to Disagree Who is Poor!

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Amartya Sen, Amartya Sens Capability Approach, Capability Approach, Development, Development As Freedom, Expansion Of Capabilities And Freedom, Functionings And Capabilities, Human Development, Peoples Well Being, Progress And Development, Quality Of Life

Meet the author

author avatar Goodpal
I am a keen practitioner of mindfulness meditation for past several years. I firmly believe in "goodness" of people, society and world. I regularly write on personal growth and social topics.

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author avatar Mike Robbers
2nd Sep 2013 (#)

Well written and interesting article. Your first picture is also great :)

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author avatar Goodpal
6th Sep 2013 (#)

Thanks Mike, for reading and sharing. Do keep visiting.

Have a good Day!

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