Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Critique of Development as Freedom – Part I: Freedom as a Non-universal Value

As I wait for another skewering from Professor Prado regarding my anti anti-corruption stance, I want to begin advancing another idea that Mariana asked me to develop for this blog, and that is my disagreement with Amartya Sen’s particular notion of development as freedom.  As with my previous part, this critique will involve a somewhat complex argument, which I will break into parts so that you don’t miss your stop when you’re reading this on your way to work.

Sen’s idea of development as freedom is probably the most important and influential development in the project of development to come along this century.  It seems to be almost unanimously endorsed by the development community, at least in the advanced industrial world.  Nevertheless, I find it highly problematic.  In a nutshell, what I will argue is that Sen’s conceptualization of development as freedom embraces a particular value, freedom, which is not universal, and which therefore threatens to distort our efforts to promote development. 

Of course, phrased this way, this critique sound like old hat.  So let me first say what I am not arguing.  I am not arguing that freedom is a distinctly Western value, or that it is a value that does not resonate in most if not all other parts of the world.  Rather it is a value that is localized in something akin to class rather than in some particular territory or intellectual tradition.  This is the focus of this particular entry.  In the next entry, I will address how the non-universal nature of freedom as a value can distort developmental programs.  Finally, in Part III, I will offer some speculations of what this critique might mean for the developmental project.

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Sen’s argument for development as freedom depends on freedom being a universal value.  If the value of freedom is not universal, if it is distinctive to a particular population, then an model that advocates development as always being about promoting freedom threatens to devolve into a form of imperialism, one in which the values and goals being advanced are those of the program designer and not necessarily those of the target population.   

And this, I will argue, is indeed the case with the value of freedom.  This can be shown by reference to the physiological phenomenon known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.’  Maslow’s hierarchy describes a particular phenomenon in which a human’s focus of wants change in response to changes in her condition and environment.  According to Maslow, human confronting brutal poverty or chronic threat of violence or instability will focus their wants on material and physical security.  Once these are satisfied, that focus changes to a focus on securing social intimacy with family and friends.  Once these wants are satisfied, the focus shifts again to concerns with status and esteem.  And it is only when these wants are satisfied that the individual begins to concentrate on what Maslow called ‘self-actualization’ – concerns such as morality, creativity – the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

As a focus of want, freedom lies most naturally in this highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy.   It reflect the preoccupations of a particular class of people, namely those people whose life conditions are such that they do not need to concern themselves with issues of security, isolation, or lack of status.  And for this reason, it is not universal as a focus of want.  And perhaps more damningly, it is not a focus of want that is likely to vest in the very populations that development is seeking to serve – the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated and the alienated.

It is in this way that freedom can be seen to not be a universal value.  It is a value that is indeed likely to resonate with development project designers, but not with the vulnerable, insecure and impoverished populations that these projects are supposed to be serving.  But of course, there are responses that one could make to this argument.  One might argue, for example, that Sen meant ‘freedom’ to mean something different and more than what Maslow meant by ‘self-actualization’.  And indeed, I suspect that this was indeed the case.  Nevertheless, as will be explored in the next part to this argument, this response is not sufficient to re-establish the universality of the value of freedom.  Even meaning what I think Sen wants freedom to mean, characterizing development as ‘freedom’ will always threaten to reduce developmentalism to an imperialist project.

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