Development as Freedom: The Human Capabilities Approach

Development as Freedom: The Human Capabilities Approach by Amartya Sen has been very influential in clarifying what the terms of wellbeing are for humans. Development can be seen as a process of expanding the freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.

capabilities approach

If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments.


Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that, inter alia, play a prominent part in the process.


Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states.


Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers- perhaps even the majority – of people.


Sometimes the lack of the substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities.


In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities and social care, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order.


In still other cases, the violation of freedom results directly from a denial of political and civil liberties by authoritarian regimes and from imposed restrictions on the freedom to participate in the social, political and economic life of the community.


Freedom is central to the process of development for two distinct reasons:

  1. The evaluative reason: assessment of progress has to be done primarily in terms of whether the freedoms that people have are enhanced
  2. The effectiveness reason: achievement of development is thoroughly dependent on the free agency of people



Not only is free agency itself a “constitutive” part of development, it also contributes to the strengthening of free agencies of other kinds. What people can positively achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives.


The institutional arrangements for these opportunities are also influenced by the exercise of people’s freedoms, through the liberty to participate in social choice and in the making of public decisions that impel the progress of these opportunities. The difference that is made by seeing freedom as the principal ends of development can be illustrated with a few simple examples.


Substantive freedoms – the liberty of political participation or the opportunity to receive basic education or health care, are among the constituent components of development. Their relevance for development does not have to be freshly established through their indirect contribution to the growth of Gross National Product (GNP) or to the promotion of industrialization. These freedoms and rights are also very effective in contributing to economic progress. The vindication of freedoms and rights provided by this causal linkage is over and above the directly constitutive role of these freedoms in development.


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The point is often made that African Americans in the United States are relatively poor compared with American whites, though much richer than people in the third world. It is, however, important to recognize that African Americans have an absolutely lower chance of reaching mature ages than do people of many third world societies, such as China, or Sri Lanka, or parts of India with different arrangements of health care, education and community relations.


The ability of the market mechanism to contribute to high economic growth and to overall economic progress has been widely acknowledged in the contemporary development literature. As Adam Smith noted, freedom of exchange and transaction is itself part of the basic liberties that people have reason to value.


The freedom to exchange words, or goods, or gifts, does not need defensive justification in terms of their favourable but distant effects; they are part of the way human beings in society live and interact with each other. The contribution of the market mechanism to economic growth important but this comes only after the direct significance of the freedom to interchange – words, goods, gifts – has been acknowledged.


As it happens, the rejection of the freedom to participate in the labour market is one of the ways of keeping people in bondage and captivity and the battle against the unfreedom of bound labour is important in many countries today. The freedom to enter markets can itself be a significant contribution to development, quite aside from whatever the market mechanism may or may not do to promote economic growth or industrialization.


The crucial challenges of development in many countries today include the need for the freeing of labour from explicit or implicit bondage that denies access to the open labour market. Similarly, the denial of access to product markets is often among the deprivations from which many small cultivators and struggling producers suffer under traditional arrangements and restrictions. The freedom to participate in economic interchange has a basic role in social living.


We must examine the persistence of deprivations among segments of the community that happen to remain excluded from the benefits of the market oriented society, and the general judgements, including criticisms, that people may have of lifestyles and values associated with the culture of markets.


It is hard to think that any process of substantial development can do without very extensive use of markets, but that does not preclude the role of social support, public regulation, or statecraft when they can enrich – rather than impoverish – human lives.


Economic unfreedom, in the form of extreme poverty, can make a person a helpless prey in the violation of other kinds of freedom. Economic unfreedom can breed social unfreedom, just as social or political unfreedom can also foster economic unfreedom.


A broad approach of this kind permits simultaneous appreciation of the vital roles, in the process of development, of many different institutions, including markets and market related organizations, governments and local authorities, political parties and other civic institutions, educational arrangements and opportunities of open dialogue and debate including the role of the media and other means of communication.


Such an approach also allows us to acknowledge the role of social values and prevailing mores, which can influence the freedoms that people enjoy and have reason to treasure. Shared norms can influence social features such as gender equity, the nature of child care, family size and fertility patterns, the treatment of the environment and many other arrangements and outcomes. Prevailing values and social mores also affect the presence or absence of corruption, and the role of trust in economic or social or political relationships.


The exercise of freedom is mediated by values, but the values in turn are influenced by public discussion and social interactions, which are themselves influenced by participatory freedoms. Each of these connections deserves careful scrutiny.


Five distinct types of freedom, seen in an “instrumental” perspective, are particularly important to investigate:

  1. Political freedoms
  2. Economic facilities
  3. Social opportunities
  4. Transparency guarantees
  5. Protective security


Each of these distinct types of rights and opportunities helps to advance the general capability of a person. They may also serve to complement each other. We must explore and work towards the promotion of overall freedoms of people to lead the kind of lives they have reason to value.


The instrumental freedoms link with each other and with the ends of enhancement of human freedom in general. Empirical linkages tie the distinct types of freedom together, strengthening their joint importance. These connections are central to a fuller understanding of the instrumental role of freedom.



Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means:

  • Political freedoms, in the form of free speech and elections, help to promote economic security.
  • Social opportunities, in the form of education and health facilities, facilitate economic participation
  • Economic facilities, in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production, can help to generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social facilities
  • With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other.
population matters


“While the eighteenth century French rationalist Condorcet expected that fertility rates would come down with ‘the progress of reason’, so that greater security, more education and more freedom of reflected decisions would restrain population growth, his contemporary Thomas Robert Malthus differed radically with this position…


…Indeed, Malthus argued that ‘there is no reason whatever to suppose that anything beside the difficulty of procuring in adequate plenty the necessities of life should either indispose this greater number of persons to marry early, or disable them from rearing in healthy the largest families.  The comparative merits of the two different positions – relying respectively on reasoned freedom and economic compulsion – will be investigated later on in this study. The balance of evidence, I shall argue, is certainly more on Condorcet’s side”


There is indeed a strong rationale for recognizing the positive role of free and sustainable agency – and even of constructive impatience. In analyzing social justice, there is a strong case for judging individual advantage in terms of the capabilities that a person has – that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead he kind of life he or she has reason to value.


In this perspective, poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of incomes, which is standard criterion of poverty. This view of poverty is more fully developed in Amartya Sen’s book ‘Poverty and Famines’ [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981]; also in ‘Resources, Values, and Development’ [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984], and also in Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, ‘Hunger and Public Action [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989]; also in Sudhir Anand and Amartya Sen, ‘Concepts of Human Development and Poverty: A Multi-dimensional Perspective,’ in Human Development Papers 199 (New York: UNDP, 1997).


Low income is clearly one of the major causes of poverty, since lack of income can be a principal reason for a person’s capability deprivation. Indeed, inadequate income is a strong predisposing condition for an impoverished life. Poverty can be sensibly identified in terms of capability deprivation; the approach concentrates on deprivations that are intrinsically important unlike low income, which is only instrumentally significant.


There are influences on capability deprivation – and thus on real poverty – other than lowness of income; income is not the only instrument in generating capabilities. The instrumental relation between low income and low capability is variable between different communities and even between different families and different individuals (the impact of income on capabilities is contingent and conditional.


There can be some ‘coupling’ of disadvantages between income deprivation and adversity in converting income into functionings – see for example James Smith ‘Healthy Bodies and Thick Wallets: The Duel Relationship between Health and Socioeconomic Status’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 13 (1999). There is also another type of ‘coupling’ between under-nutrition generated by income-poverty and income-poverty resulting from work deprivation due to under-nutrition.


On these issues, Partha Dasgupta and Debraj Ray, ‘Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment: Theory’ Economic Journal 96 (1986); ‘Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment: Policy’ Economic Journal 97 (1987); and ‘Adapting to Undernourishment: Biological Evidence and Its Implications’ in The Political Economy of Hunger, edited by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). See also Partha Dasgupta, An Inquiry into Well Being and Destitution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), and Debraj Ray, Development Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).


Handicaps, such as age or disability or illness, reduce one’s ability to earn an income. The large contribution of such handicaps to the prevalence of income poverty in Britain was sharply brought out by A. B. Atkinson’s pioneering empirical study; Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). In his later works, Atkinson has further pursued the connection between income handicap and deprivations of other kinds.


poverty in the uk

Handicaps also make it harder to convert income into capability, since an older, or more disabled, or more seriously ill person may need more income (for assistance, for prosthesis, for treatment) to achieve the same functionings even when that achievement is at all possible.


On the nature of these functional handicaps, see Dorothy Wedderburn, The Aged in the Welfare State (London: Bell, 1961); Peter Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom: A survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979); J. Palmer, T. Smeeding and B. Torrey, The Vulnerable: America’s Young and Old in the Industrial World (Washington D. C: Urban Institute Press, 1988).


This entails that “real poverty” (in terms of capability deprivation) may be, in a significant sense, more intense than what appears in the income space. This can be a crucial concern in assessing public action to assist the elderly and other groups with ‘conversion’ difficulties in addition to lowness of income.


If the family income is used disproportionately in the interest of some family members and not others, for example, if there is a systematic ‘boy preference’ in the family allocation of resources, then the extent of the deprivation of the neglected members (girls in the example considered) may not be adequately reflected in terms of family income. This is a substantial issue in many contexts; sex bias does appear to be a major factor in the family allocation in many countries in Asia and North Africa.


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For references see:

  • ‘Missing Women’ British Medical Journal 304, March 1992; Pranab Bardhan, ‘On Life and Death Questions’ Economic and political Weekly 9 (1974);
  • Lincoln Chen, E. Huq and S. D’Souza, ‘Sex Bias in the Family Allocation of Food and Health Care in Rural Bangladesh’ Population and Development Review 7 (1981);
  • Jocelyn Kynch and Amartya Sen, ‘Indian Women: Well Being and Survival’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 7 (1983);
  • Pranab Bardhan, Land, Labour, and Rural Poverty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984);
  • Dreze and Sen, Hunger and Public Action (1989); Barbara Harriss, ‘ The Intrafamily Distribution of Hunger in South Asia,’ in Dreze and Sen, The Political Economy of Hunger, volume 1 (1990);
  • Ravi Kanbur and L. Haddad, ‘How Serious Is the Neglect of Intrahousehold Inequality?’ Economic Journal 100 (1990).


This issue is clearly not as central in the context of inequality and poverty in Europe or North America, but the presumption – often implicitly made – that the issue of gender inequality does not apply at the basic level to the ‘Western’ countries can be, to some extent misleading. For example, Italy has one of the highest ratios of ‘unrecognized’ labour by women vis-a-vis recognized labour included in the standard national accounts (see United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1995; New York, Oxford University Press, 1995).


Relative deprivation in terms of incomes can yield absolute deprivation in terms of capabilities. Being relatively poor in a rich country can be a great capability handicap, even when one’s absolute income is high in terms of world standards. In a generally opulent country, more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning.


This consideration – pioneeringly outlined by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) – is quite central to sociological understandings of poverty, and it has been analyzed by W. G. Runciman, Peter Townsend and others (W. G. Runciman, Relative Deprivation and Social justice: A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth Century England; London: Routledge, 1966); and Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979).


For example, the difficulties that some groups of people experience in ‘taking part in the life of the community’ can be crucial for any study of ‘social exclusion’. The need to take part in the life of a community may induce demands for modern equipment (televisions, videocassette recorders, automobiles and so on) in a country where such facilities are more or less universal (unlike what would be needed in less affluent countries), and this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country even when that person is at a much higher level of income compared with people in less opulent countries. Indeed, the paradoxical phenomenon of hunger in rich countries – even in the United States – has something to do with the competing demands of these expenses.


The connection is analyzed in Amartya Sen’s Inequality Re-examined (Oxford: Clarendon Press; and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), Chapter 7. See Amartya Sen’s ‘Poor, Relatively Speaking’ Oxford Economic Papers 35 (1983), reprinted in Resources, Values and Development (1984).


What the capability perspective does in poverty analysis is to enhance the understanding of the nature and causes of poverty and deprivation by shifting primary attention away from means (and one particular means that is usually given exclusive attention, viz., income) to ends that people have reason to pursue, and, correspondingly, to the freedoms to be able to satisfy these ends. The deprivations are seen at a more fundamental level – one closer to the informational demands of social justice.


While it is important to distinguish conceptually the notion of poverty as capability inadequacy from that of poverty as lowness of income, the two perspectives cannot be related, since income is such an important means to capabilities. And since enhance capabilities in leading a life would tend, typically, to expand a person’s ability to be more productive and earn a higher income, we would also expect a connection going from capability improvement to greater earning power and not only the other way around.


It is not only the case that, say, better basic education and health care improve the quality of life directly; they also increase a person’s ability to earn an income and be free of income-poverty as well. The more inclusive the reach of basic education and health care, the more likely it is that even the potentially poor would have a better chance of overcoming penury.


Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen; India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995). Collection of papers in Isher Judge Ahluwalia and I.M.D. Little, eds., India’s Economic Reforms and Development: Essays for Manmohan Singh (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998). See also Vijay Joshi and Ian Little, Indian Economic Reforms, 1991-2001 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).


And yet the opportunity to make use of the new possibilities is not independent of the social preparation that different sections of the Indian community have. While the reforms were overdue, they could be much more productive if the social facilities were there to support the economic opportunities for all sections of the community. Indeed, many Asian economies – first Japan, and then South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and later post reform China and Thailand and other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia – have done remarkably well in spreading the economic opportunities through an adequately supportive social background, including high levels of literacy, numeracy, and basic education; good general health care; completed land reforms; and so on. The lesson of opening of the economy and the importance of trade has been more easily learned in India than the rest of the message from the same direction of the rising sun.


It can be argued that Kerala has suffered from what were until recently fairly anti market policies, with deep suspicion of market based economic expansion without control. It is however, interesting that despite the rather moderate record in economic growth, Kerala seems to have had a faster rate of reduction in income poverty than any other state in India (See G. Datt, Poverty in India and Indian States: An Update (Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 1997) See also World Bank, India: Achievements and Challenges in Reducing Poverty, report no. 16483 IN, May 27, 1997 – see particularly figure 2.3)


The reduction of income poverty alone cannot possibly be the ultimate motivation of antipoverty policy. There is a danger in seeing poverty in the narrow terms of income deprivation, and then justifying investment in education, health care and so forth on the ground that they are good means to the end of reducing income poverty.

The enhancement of human capabilities also tends to go with an expansion of productivities and earning power. That connection establishes an important indirect linkage through which capability improvement helps both directly and indirectly in enriching human lives and in making human deprivations more rare and less acute.



Adam Smith’s concern with the interests of the poor, and his outrage at the tendency for those interests to be neglected, related naturally to his use of the imaginative device of what it would look like to an ‘impartial spectator’ – an inquiry that offers far reaching insights on the requirements of fairness in social judgement (See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759; revised edition, 1970); republished, edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Mache; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976)


Similarly John Rawls’s idea of ‘justice as fairness’ in terms of what can be expected to be chosen in a hypothetical ‘original position’ in which people do not yet know who they are going to be provides a rich understanding of the demands of equity, and yields the anti-inequality features that are characteristic of his ‘principles of justice’ (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971). See also Stephen Darwall, ed., Equal Freedom: Selected Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), with contributions by G. A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, john Rawls, T. M. Scanlon, Amartya Sen and Quentin Skinner).


Patent inequalities in social arrangements can also be difficult to justify in terms of reasonableness to actual members of the society, for example, the case for these inequalities being one that others ‘cannot reasonably reject’: A criterion that Thomas Scanlon has proposed – and powerfully used – for ethical evaluation (Thomas Scanlon, ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). See also his What we Owe Each Other (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998).


Certainly, severe inequalities are not socially attractive, and momentous inequalities can be, some would argue, downright barbaric. Furthermore, the sense of inequality may also erode social cohesion, and some types of inequalities can make it difficult to achieve even efficiency.


The work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum in bringing together the Human Capabilities approach heavily informs the Ragged University project as it aims to open up opportunities for people who do not have them.


For a theory of ‘Education understood as Human Development‘ please CLICK HERE


[This is a digest of parts of Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom; ISBN: 0192893300.  The introduction of the book was particularly focused on and that of Poverty as Capability Deprivation (page 87 onwards)]