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What’s missing from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach

October 19, 2010

I first read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom in undergrad 8 years ago or so. I thought it was brilliant, and I was never presented with any coherent critiques of Sen’s “capabilities approach”: that we should be looking at various kinds of freedom (not just political freedom and civil rights, but also freedom to make an adequate living, freedom to avoid premature death, etc), not just economic measures, as indicators for development. On its own, Development as Freedom is a cogent and well-argued plea for a more inclusive approach to development.

Rereading parts of it now, I can see what the critiques are (and a quick Google search of the literature largely confirmed my suspicions). I still think that Sen’s sophisticated reframing of the means and ends of development to focus on a vast array of human freedoms is incredibly useful. In his book, Sen doesn’t really provide any framework for action, but I do think that his redefinition what it is we should be measuring is a significant step forward. The capabilities approach seems much more holistic and humane than any traditional approach based solely on economic indicators.

That said, the step Sen doesn’t take is as important as the one he does. Sen offers no critique of the systems that have resulted in the unfreedoms he makes such a passionate case for fixing. In emphasizing individual agency and capabilities as the necessary unit of change, he seems to leave out any analysis of the structures that have caused underdevelopment and unfreedom. How are we to give people the freedoms they deserve without looking first at the systems, structures and institutions that perpetuate their unfreedom?

This is not to minimize the magnitude of Sen’s contribution to development thought – but I do think that it is necessary to expand the capabilities approach such that it does not merely look at agency in a vacuum, but also addresses larger macro-level concerns.

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One comment

  1. […] previous post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, and I think I have a more comprehensible version somewhere in my […]



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