Some things become clearer with time. In the three years since the publication of “International Development: Ideas, Experience and Prospects” I have come to appreciate the magnitude of an intellectual debt the editors and contributors owe to Amartya Sen. In many ways, his ideas and writing inspired and guided how we understand thinking about development, and how it has evolved. Below are some of the main influences from the over fifty times Sen’s works are cited throughout our volume.
The most obvious influence is the concept of human development, including the HDI and the capability approach. Sen was not alone in pointing out the limitations of GDP as a proxy for measuring development. Yet his writing helped refocus my generation on the ends of human development, rather than the means of income and growth. At its simplest, it is the opportunity for every person to pursue a life that she or he values.
“Development as Freedom” inspired scholars and continues to resonate in a world that struggles to overcoming poverty, inequality, and exclusion.
Sen’s framing of human freedom found particular -and somewhat unexpected- purchase in the field of ICTs for development, as well as debates on innovation as well as internet freedom. His works clearly influenced the authors of chapters on these topics.
A second influence is how expanding freedom and justice are enhanced and created through civil and political life. Building upon Sen’s eloquent definition of democracy as “government by discussion”, the practice of development is a discussion through which society envisions and pursues a better world. Far from being confined to concept and theory (Part II), Sen’s influence is evident in the reflection on the real-life experience (Part III) particularly by the authors on Chile and on the State as a development actor.
After the rapid succession of security, conflict –and now social resilience- dominating development policy, it is refreshing to re-read Sen and Ogata’s writing at the beginning of the 21st century on human security through empowerment. The idea of justice may remain elusive, but continues to play a real role in how people live, and the extent to which they derive satisfaction out of their lives.
A third influence is Sen’s classic contribution on understanding famine, not as a lack of food, but as a failure of entitlements. Harvests and droughts matter, but hunger starts with the limited means by the disadvantaged to procure the food they need. Thinking on entitlements –and how inequality is created– comes out in the chapters on agriculture, climate adaptation, and global health.
The editors and contributors are also indebted to Sen for his championing of gender in development thought. There was an awkward moment at one workshop when our volume was (justifiably) critiqued for not having more women authors and more content on gender inequalities. Amartya’s delayed arrival at that moment changed the energy in the room, and revitalized authors’ attention to how women experience development –and shape it– differently than men.
Looking back, I have a new appreciation for how thinking about development –and the practice it inspired– elaborates, borrows and accumulates ideas. Amartya has deeply influenced contemporary practitioners, yet he readily recognises his own debt to earlier thinkers, including Adam Smith relating individual satisfaction to the happiness of others, Peter Bauer on expanding the range of human choice, and Paul Streeten on enabling people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.
In 2005, writing on how does development happens, Sen defined epistemology as “learning from discussion.” The editors and authors remain indebted to Amartya, his writing and cherished conversations. Moving forward, we aspire to continue the discussion, and spark more of them, to better trace how our ideas evolve and to further contribute to new thinking on development.