Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Critique of Development as Freedom – Part II: From The Perspective of the Everyday

     In my previous post, I questioned the analytic utility of Amartya Sen’s conceptualization of development as freedom, by arguing that a freedom is a value that is more likely to reflect the life interests of more wealthy classes of society than of the impoverished populations it is intended to benefit.  But of course, my argument is dependent of a particular definition or understanding of freedom that values freedom principally as a means of realizing that more elite order of psychological needs that Abraham Maslow termed “self-actualization”.   To be honest, I don’t think that this is what Sen means by freedom.  Sen’s notion seems akin to that advanced by Immanuel Kant, in that it sees freedom not as one of a number of psychological needs, but as a condition that embraces all the other hierarchies of needs identified by Maslaw (and others).  Certainly, security, community and respect, for example, can themselves all be seen as critical aspects of freedom.  Does not this broader definition restore to ‘freedom’ the status of a universal value even accounting for Maslow’s hierarchy?
     Absolutely — if the law and development world were populated by Kantian philosophers.  But it’s not.  In everyday conversation, we would generally not characterize getting a job that pays a living wage as getting ‘freedom’, even if that’s what it is from a Kantian perspective; we would not say that we merely desire friends, family and community simply because they are stepping stones to maximizing our freedom.  And extrapolating from this, I suspect that if we ask the impoverished and vulnerable in the underdeveloped world what they want from development, they would not say ‘freedom’ – again, even if that is what they do indeed want from a Kantian perspective.   In the non-Kantian language of everyday life, the word ‘freedom’ is indeed most often associated with Maslow’s highest order of want, that of self-actualization.
    And it is in this transference from the world of analytic philosophy to the world of the everyday that development as freedom threatens to introduce distortions into the development project.    For example, some years ago (February of 2011, to be exact), a then Ph.D. student from the University of Melbourne named Jolynna Sinanan (currently, as best as I can tell, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University College London) gave a presentation at the Asian Research Institute of the National University of Singapore on “The Construction of Development ‘Subjects’: Expanding Microfinance to Vulnerable Groups in Cambodia”, in which she discussed a developmental (microfinance) program that looked to help impoverished and vulnerable women in Cambodia move out of sex-work by helping them set up their own businesses, generally as hairdressers or as seamstresses.  What her own interviews with these women revealed, however, was that what these women themselves actually wanted was not to become business entrepreneurs, but simply to get a job working in a factory.  And in that, they probably had a point:  working in factory could indeed offer much greater stability and day-to-day security (Maslow’s second order of wants) than running a hairdresser business in competition with the twenty or thirty other hairdressing businesses that the program had helped other women set up in on the same street. 
    But paradoxically, the program was expressly forbidden from helping these women find such factory jobs.  And it was precisely because the people who had designed the program associated entrepreneurship with freedom and factory work with lack of freedom—i.e., ‘wage slavery’.  At least in this case, a focus on development as freedom effectively distorted the developmental agenda, one that was geared more to the needs and focus of wants – i.e., the values – of those who developed the program rather than those the program was intended to serve.
    My own suspicion is that at the end of the day, we would be better of conceptualizing development using the terms and understandings that the population that that development is trying to help or target.  I also suspect that this means that we are better off conceptualizing development as a inherently pluralist phenomenon, one that is going to mean (and contribute) different and sometimes contradictory things to different classes of people, and which in this way can disadvantage some populations even as it seeks to help others (in this, I think my thinking parallel that advanced by Arturo Escobar in his classic Encountering Development (Princeton University Press, 1995).
    What all this might mean is a subject for a different day, however, because I’m still not through talking about Sen and ‘development as freedom’, because while I disagree with his prescription, I completely endorse the motives that |I think led him to propose this prescription.  I think that for this reason, Development as Freedom indeed represents a very valuable contribution to the literature.  That will be the subject of Part III.

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There seems to be some confusion as to whether I might really be Mariana Prado, because I understand that a number of people have been posting replies to my posts on Mariana’s facebook page.  It is true that I sometimes pretend I am Mariana (particularly on Chatroulette, but also on the Justin Beiber fansite), but I don’t really think I am.  But even if I am, it nevertheless appears that my Mariana personality doesn’t seem to be giving me (aka my ‘Mike’ personality) access to her (my?) facebook page.  So I (Mike) can’t know or respond to what being said.

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