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on 24 June 2005
This is a superb book that sets out Sen's influential approach to thinking about economic development. In it he combines economics and political philosophy to show how thinking about what people have and what they are capable of attaining, given their situation, can yield important insights into the nature of development. The focus is not just on the material aspects of development, but also on considerations such as political and societal participation, human rights and institutions. Sen views the ultimate goal of development as maximising peoples' freedom to lead the lives they wish within the context of society.
Among the 12 chapters, a couple of my personal favourites include his analysis of the problem of "Missing Women" in China, a chilling illustration of the consequences that a prohibition of societal participation can bring about. Also, his discussion on famines, which views their possible cause not just as crop failiure, but as a failiure of democratic rights.
Sen's writes with the aplomb that one would expect from a philosopher (he is published in ethics and political philosophy as well as economics). There are many parts of the book, especially one of the earlier chapters, that require some concentrated reading (several times in my case!) to fully grasp the ideas, but the rewards to be had are more than worth any effort put in.
I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with any interest in the developing world. This is a human, hopeful, brilliantly lucid and intelligent read that does what all the best non fiction does: really makes you think.
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on 27 March 2001
A readable and reasoned evaluation of the need to place "humanity" rather than "Economics" at the forefront of development. Sen questions the rational behind economist's supremacy in the field and graphically illustrates the dangers of such a myopic view. Sen places the "freedom" to live the life one has reason to value at the forefront of his argument. What lies at the heart of this book is the belief that the object of development is "increasing the range of human choice".
The most powerful example Sen gives of the danger of blind faith in the power of the Markets is the lesson taken away by the Development Community from the experience of the East & S.East Asian Tigers. In contradiction to the commonly held view which sees the Markets as central to the Tiger's success, Sen considers the E.Asian economic boom to be the result of the implementation of basic social policies, such as an emphasis on elementary education and health. He compares them to South Asia who duly swallowed the "lesson" and followed the East Asian market formula. Despite this S.Asia has consistantly failed to achieve the expected economic growth. Sen points to the S. Asian government's failure to implement basic social policies and stresses the fact that those implemented are often counter productive, such as an emphasis on higher education at the expense of universal elementary education etc.
He does not deny the necessarily close relationship between economic improvement and social improvement but he takes an extra step back and reminds his readers that true economic improvement, which will benefit a cross-section of society (rather than a privledges elite, and this is the main crux), is often a by-product of social development rather than the other way round.
Sen's seemingly radical stance is merely a return to older thought on the subject. Among others, he quotes from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to illustrate his point: "Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else".
Sen's is a valuable lesson, not only to all who work in the "Development Industry", whether Economists or otherwise, but to those politicians and think-tanks who take development in the "First World" for granted.
Criticism of his work as "impractical" merely outlines the Development Industry's fascination with quick-fixes, whose long term consequences often prove disasterous. His stress on basic freedoms of choice is highly adaptable. Sen presents us with a foundation on which to build . His is not a cure all formula to be rigidly applied.
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on 5 July 2005
This book describes new concepts and presents important, controversial, conclusions. The concepts are relevant for developed and developing countries. The foundation is Sen's view of well-being formulated as follows: "We all want the capability to live long (without being cut off in our prime) have a good life (rather than a life of misery and unfreedom)" and "We would all like to lead a kind of life that we have reason to value". To achieve that goal requires the removal of unfreedoms like poverty, lack of ability to be accepted for a job, lack of economic opportunities, health problems, discrimination, repression and arbitrary justice.

Freedom is an end in itself a means to be able to lead a satisfactory life. Individual freedom is also a condition for being able to act responsibly. Without opportunities because of a lack of capability, no responsibility. Increasing freedom as a goal is more complete than increasing the GDP per person. People have good reason to want income and wealth precisely because it "produces" freedom. GDP/person and freedom are related. When people can act responsibly because they have capabilities and can a find job, the GDP will increase automatically. .

The book is very rich in "surprising" conclusions all convincingly documented and presented. Only a few will be referred to here.

(1) An important cause of poverty in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia is explosive population growth. If women have the freedom to decide the number of children to have the explosive population growth stops. There is no justification for using violent means to reduce family size. (2) All poor countries can afford basic healthcare and basic education as these are labour intensive and therefore low cost. (3) The opinion that democracy with free speech and elections is not suitable for Asians because of different Asian values has no factual basis.

(4) One of the fundamental freedoms people cherish is to buy what they want from whom they want and sell what they can to whom the want, that is the"free market". The idea that the free market can be left alone and will function perfectly as it is based on self-interest and greed is false. It requires effective legal structures that support the rights ensuing from contracts, that people can trust each and behave decently. Sen warns on the danger of "high minded sentimentality, assuming that all people are peculiarly virtuous and keen to be just" or the equally unrealistic "Low-minded sentimentality, which some economists appear to prefer, that we are only influenced by crude consideration of personal advantage". The free market" to function requires freedom, regulations and ethical values beyond greed and self-interest.

The book is brilliant but requires effort to read. Read at least chapter 1 The perspective on freedom, 6 The importance of democracy, 9 Population, food and freedom, 10 Culture and human rights and 11 Social choice and individual behaviour (100 pages).
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on 11 May 2009
This is Amartya Sen's, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and collaborator of Martha Nussbaum, most famous work. In "Development as Freedom" he gives a broad and general overview of his views on development economics, and in particular on the priorities that must be made in creating social and economic policy in the developing world. The general thesis of the book is that many economic advisors have far too much relied on measurements of real income alone, and ignored the fact that income and wealth are a means to an end, and that this end is freedom (broadly defined as capacity); and that for this reason any policy which increases income but decreases freedom must be rejected. This thesis of itself is strong and well-made, and a deserved rebuttal to the ideas of many Asian development economists and politicians who see a right-wing dictatorship à la Lee Kwan Yew as the most effective way to create economic growth, and therefore desirable.

But that is, unfortunately, the only point of the book. Sen's actual discussion of which economic policies would lead to the results of increasing freedom is so general as to be practically unusable. He has a completely unwarranted faith in the capacity of markets (albeit interventionist ones) to create these increases in freedom, and incorrectly claims that the proof is overwhelmingly in favor of markets leading to growth on their own, when the evidence is in reality wildly conflicting and the strongest proofs are against markets. What makes this even worse is his ignorant conflating of markets as such with capitalism, which leads to such silly canards as dismissing criticisms of capitalism as not understanding freedom, since after all, what can be more free than freedom of exchange? In this way, his defense of mainstream development policy is worse than undergraduate level.

Moreover, the very greatest part of the book is filled with meaningless and saccharine rhetoric of the most astonishingly unintelligent kind. In each short chapter addressing some major aspect of development economics and its problematic, he will, after much talk, come to such stunning conclusions as "take the middle road" and "there are arguments for and against interventionism and we must consider both", as well as the whopping conclusion that we need to take the whole spectrum of effects on people into account when suggesting policies. One hardly needs to have a Nobel Prize to come to these 'insights'.

To add insult to injury, his discussion of past economic policies and economists in general is incompetent and historically dubious. He claims that no democratic state has experienced famines, but then qualifies this by excluding colonies of such states, without however giving any reason for this - creating a wholly ad hoc argument for an unproven link between 'democracy' (which apparently includes pre-Reform Bill Britain) and well-being. Similarly, he constantly cherry-picks quotes from Adam Smith to cast him as a concerned and judicious proponent of development, while a more objective look at the entirety of Smith's oeuvre would quickly reveal the degree to which he appeared as a propagandist for the Glasgow mercantile and industrial interests. It must be said in Sen's favor though that he does recognize that famines can easily occur where free markets are present, which at least puts him at a level above most apologetics for economic orthodoxy.

On the whole this book is a major disappointment. Sen's vague and hand-waving rhetoric is useless for any kind of policy purpose and yet fills most of the book, even obscuring the one point he does have about freedom as end and means. With the idea he originally had, he could have done a lot better, but his unwarranted support for mainstream economics and its equivocations has made this impossible.
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on 19 December 2008
I was drawn to Amartya Sen's work because of his concern for the poor and his undoubted intellectual mettle. (He won the 1998 Novel prize in economics). I was not disappointed with my choice - Development as Freedom.

Unlike many economists, Sen speaks the language of humans and is concerned with the real life impact of development not on `efficiency' of the market but on ordinary people; their ability to live the lives that they have reason to value. Hence, the title of this book, Development as Freedom, is apt; Sen is concerned with framing the discussion on economic development in terms of freedom of the individual.

Sen's approach to development, which is evident throughout the book, is that the existing literature on development tends to focus almost entirely increase in growth rates and gross national product (GNP). While stressing the importance of GNP, Sen argues that this `human as capital' approach to development is too narrow. Indeed, he stresses than humans are far more than capital in the productive process. Using the examples of China and India, Sen demonstrates that arguing that good education, nourishment and health are important to the GNP growth, it is by no means that only raison-d'être for education. Education may have other benefits such as reading, communication and being able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Indeed, in Sen's viewpoint, education and social development is a fundamental freedom that is desirable in itself and not just because of its impact on the commodity production process.

Development as Freedom touches on every topic under the sun; from philosophy to sociology and from science to - of course - economics. Of all the topics, that Sen's keen mind surveys, the following stood out:


The market mechanism works in a society where there is free flow of information and when the `invisible hand' is not used only in the service of the powerful. The problems that arise from market mechanisms often have little to do with markets themselves but with the lack of underlying institutions, such as the rule of law, conflict resolution, trust and contracts. The solution lies not just in scrapping markets altogether but in establishing the institutions upon which markets can thrive.
The market mechanism alone cannot solve all of society's problems. Sen shows that in the context of developing countries in general that there is a need for public policy needs that create social opportunities. The author argues that in the past of the rich countries of today that there was concerted government action on education, health care and land reform. Why should it be any different today? Sen observes that the problem is really an unspoken belief that human development i.e. health, education and welfare are really luxuries that poor nations cannot afford. By showing examples from Kerala and Sri Lanka, Sen debunks the argument that GNP growth is the only determinant of social development.


Sen challenges the Lee thesis (formulated by the former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew). The thesis holds that freedom and democracy impede economic growth. As a consequence, if given the choice between fulfilling economic needs and political freedom, poor people would rather choose the former. But is the Lee thesis really true? Sen shows that the evidence for the Lee Thesis is very thin on the ground. The only way to judge whether the thesis is acceptable to the poor is to put it to a vote. Alas, that is precisely what the authoritarian ruler fear.

Food, Famine and Population Growth

There is a perception in the especially in the developed world that the poor (in Africa and Asia) are breeding like rabbits and that soon there will be little food to feed all those poor, hungry mouths. Again, Sen presents evidence to the contrary; Malthus definitely got it wrong. Food production has been increasing at an ever increasing pace in the last five decades. Furthermore, food prices had been falling (at least until 1999 when the book was published). While there are good reasons to limit family sizes, the Malthusian doomsday scenario that has been expected since 1800 shall not happen anytime soon.

There is very much else I like about Sen's deeply reflective (if philosophical as opposed to statistical) approach to economic and social development. He tackles everything from corruption to inequality. However, his writing style/expression can be convoluted and high falutin.
Sen sees himself very much in the same tradition as Adam Smith; a champion of liberty who happened to set his mind on economics and politics.

Development as Freedom is a timely call to focus on human beings not because they are producers in a faceless machine but as intrinsically important entities. It is a worthy read and deserves 4 stars.
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on 20 November 2014
Interesting book which is made more difficult to read by the constant use of brackets within the text. It was a recommended read from my University tutor, so the information is relevant to my course in International Studies. I just found the book a bit of a slog.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 March 2012
The central argument of this book is simple-freedom and the capacity and willingness of individuals to access the opportunities that additional freedom(s)present them is the key to economic development.By focusing on the ability of men and women to have to work towards ends that they value,lie the route by which societies can gain both as economic units and as maximisers of social welfare.

Simple as this notion is,what makes this book a challenge is the fairly dense (although readable) prose style and the scope of the materials deployed in defense of the author's central claim.You will find yourself considering the role of markets,the evaluation of ethical judgments in relation to policy issues,as well as a discussion on the idea of Human 'rights'- via Aristotle,Adam Smith,John Rawls and a host of other eco-political theorists and commentators. Equally impressive (and comprehensive)is the historical sweep of the discourse.For instance the chapter on famine illustrates how a problem that is still shamefully with us today has solutions that our ancestors arrived in different times and places in the past.In addition,there are also many illuminating present day case studies and related data tables to pour over,to help give context to the line of thought.So as good as this book is, it requires concentration and thought. Probably avoid using it for entertainment on the beach!

Essentially then individuals have to be free to choose.In doing so, they will make the decisions that are right for them.If development is to have meaning it has to mean more then just growth of GDP.Development according to Sen is about the encouragement of removal of what he calls 'unfreedoms' and the promotion of choice,enterprise and individual decision making. So instead of a sterile promotion or demolition of 'free market' type agendas by the author we get the idea that markets hold part of the key to development even if they are not in themselves sufficient.For markets to work in Less Developed nations, citizens need access to them , information about them and sufficient education and capital resources to exploit the opportunities they present.The key is involvement.Get citizens involved in the promotion of their own well-being, rather then being passive recipients of aid or government diktat,suddenly the productive capacity of communities and by extension,the country within they are located, will have the capacity to expand.Here Sen covers the role of education (micro)finance, the role of women and the need for the state to provide some degree of social welfare guarantee.So,as long as markets work in favor of the many and not just the few,the author has much to say in defense of them as one of the central pillars of economic development.

The whole point of this book is that development is possible, it simply needs the right conditions under which to flourish.The message is an optimistic one. Governments can be more responsible and transparent (more democratic),markets can be made to work for the common good and individuals can prosper if given the incentive and opportunity.Development has to be about the inclusion of all citizens not the control of the many by the few.

I found this book a pleasure in several regards - firstly from it's unrelenting optimism and humanity and secondly from the idea that development or it's lack (and all that implies)is not a problem that someone else has to deal with. In other words,even in a self- interested world,it is to our benefit to be concerned about the welfare of our brothers and sisters,even if our only motivation is prevent 'their' problems spilling out over to us! I would have liked a little more outline on practical policies for encouraging development.Questions that could have been more fully addressed:how do corrupt governments reform themselves? how could aid be used more effectively? How can citizens in less developed nations get access to markets in a world of trade barriers? This however, is a small complaint.

'Development as Freedom' is a hugely impressive study - inspiring,thought inducing and well argued. Would that many other books in this field could have similar virtues!
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on 31 December 2014
Although the author says that he is tried to avoid big economic theories and formulae in this book, without a background in economics, I still found it difficult to read it beyond a few chapters. Have been carrying with me for 4 years now. Would love to be able to complete it someday, but today is not that day.
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on 9 November 2010
In this classic work, leading political economist Amartya Sen writes, "Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers - perhaps even the majority of people." "It is hard to understand how a compassionate world order can include so many people afflicted by acute misery, persistent hunger and deprived and desperate lives, and why millions of innocent children have to die each year from lack of food or medical attention or social care."

He points out that female literacy and employment have the only proven, statistically significant effect on cutting fertility. He notes, "we would expect the Chinese fertility rate to be much lower than the Indian average, given China's significantly greater achievement in education, health care, female job opportunities and other ingredients of social development."

He also observes, "the Maoist policies of land reform, expansion of literacy, enlargement of public health care and so on had a very favourable effect on economic growth in post-reform China. The extent to which post-reform China draws on the results achieved in pre-reform China needs greater recognition."

Sen writes, "in terms of life expectancies, the communist countries often did quite well, relatively speaking ... several of the ex-communist countries now are in a significantly worse position than they were under communist rule."

When there are 20 million unemployed in the EU, he asserts that `policy in Europe has to give real priority to eliminating the capability deprivation that severe unemployment entails'. He argues against the dogmatic prioritising of deficit reduction.

He consistently stresses that people are active agents of change, not passive recipients of aid or benefits. He points out, "The acknowledgement of the role of human qualities in promoting and sustaining economic growth - momentous as it is - tells us nothing about why economic growth is sought in the first place. If, instead, the focus is, ultimately, on the expansion of human freedom to live the kind of lives that people have reason to value, then the role of economic growth in expanding these opportunities has to be integrated into that more foundational understanding of the process of development as the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives." In particular, female literacy and employment are vital to development and freedom.

He concludes, "the big challenges that capitalism now faces in the contemporary world include issues of inequality (especially that of grinding poverty in a world of unprecedented prosperity) and of `public goods' (that is, goods that people share together, such as the environment). The solution to these problems will almost certainly call for institutions that take us beyond the capitalist market economy."
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on 20 April 2001
Quite simply anyone interested in the issues of poverty, and development in the developing world should read this.
It is simply fantastic in its analysis, and unputdownable. It leaves you optimistic that the problems that people face in the developing world CAN be solved, and explodes the arguements of those that say nothing can be done. A must read!
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