Humanising Development with Sen’s Enhancement of Capability

Development, despites its deceptively simple name, has no singular discourse or meaning. To many, it refers to the growth of a country’s economy – a state-led drive to improve indicators such as Gross National Product (GNP).[1] This view is problematic. It poses development as a nihilistic venture, with no humane ends. In contrast to these theories, Amartya Sen (1999) proposed that development should be viewed as improving the lives of the people of a country.

This essay will be examining Sen’s idea of expanding human capabilities, then its implications on our understanding of poverty and inequality and finally on how this theory departs from older development theories.

This essay will find that Sen has established a theory that escapes the machine-like view of development, giving us a more human alternative which focuses on enacting real change for the inhabitants of a developing country.

Sen argues that development should be the expansion of ‘real freedoms’.[2] Real freedoms and capabilities to Sen are synonymous. Sen wants people to have the capabilities to live a fulfilling life. In this view, he does not reject the notion of economic growth. Rather, he argues that economic growth, income and wealth are necessary, but not sufficient for tangible and meaningful development.[3]

Wealth is a means to an end. With wealth, one can increase one’s capabilities, but income isn’t a simple ticket to real freedoms. Real freedoms are also contingent on other determinants, such as good governance, civil liberties, education and healthcare.[4] The goal of development is to have a tangible and meaningful benefit on the inhabitants of the developing society. In this way, Sen argues that development should focus on achieving that end (freedoms) rather than on the means (wealth).[5] Sen focuses on humans as the ends in themselves, rather than just cogs in a machine of economic growth.[6] Economic growth, while enabling some freedoms and benefits for the individuals living in a society, should not be the goal of development. This is because income may not be able to solve some issues, such as social exclusion, tyranny, or a lack of the institutions needed to work towards economic opportunities.[7]

Enhancing human capabilities entails the removal of ‘unfreedoms’.[8] This involves the removal of issues that damage opportunities and restrict the fulfilment of individuals. An example of some of these would be tyrannical government, unemployment and a lack of education. While many traditional views of development focus on only economic issues, such as a general lack of income, Sen highlights authoritarianism and bad governance as a major source of unfreedom.[9] Sen argues that while freedoms are the ends of development, they are also the principal means.[10] In this way, an authoritarian regime would restrict real development, as they prevent instrumental freedoms and restrict human flourishing and free agency.[11] Detmar Doering (2003) said it well:

“Any government that curtails the freedom of the individual also diminishes the ability of the individual to make use of his resources.”[12]

Sen’s theory has major implications for our understanding of poverty and inequality, expanding it from merely an economic categorisation to a social phenomenon. Sen argued that poverty must be seen as the deprivation of our capabilities, rather than just a lowness of wealth.[13] This essay has already explained how this is due to the fact that wealth is a mere means, and not the ends. Other criteria are needed to escape poverty, and other factors can push people into poverty in spite of wealth. An example of this would be social exclusion or a lack of institutions to use that wealth to enhance capabilities.[14] In addition to this, income allows different capabilities in different contexts.[15] What may be a fortune to one individual may mean pittance to a disabled individual, as their costs of living are higher. Income is also affected by the general range of institutions where it can be spent and how powerful that income is in that relevant country.[16] Sen’s theory tells us that, despite the power of wealth to enhance our capabilities, it is not an instant path to success.[17] Rather, we need to view poverty in terms of the capabilities that people enjoy and use to live a fulfilling life. A high income means nothing if individuals cannot spend it freely, or enjoy civil liberties. Thus, it is dangerous to examine income poverty but not other forms, as it risks forgetting that many negative aspects of poverty are social, rather than economic.[18]

Sen departs from older theories of development that focused on purely economic growth and industrialisation. In imperial Africa, outlined by Cooper and Packard, the colonial powers used development as a framework to attempt to strengthen empire.[19] This development framework was based on a universalist idea of the modern industrial economy. This idea was imposed on the colonies and, even after decolonisation, still infected the mindset of local leaders who attempted to emulate European development.[20] Fundamentally, both development discourses focused on economic growth, merely to pad some arbitrary statistics. While the idea of modern life and development opened up the idea that the inhabitants of poor nations could succeed, development became more about an inhumane industrialisation.[21] Authoritarian regimes in Asia sacrificed human rights and freedoms to push forward rapid economic growth but, as Mario Vargas Llosa (2003) argues:

“Progress does not run roughshod over the rights of citizens.”[22]

Sen’s outlook puts human freedom and success above arbitrary statistics, departing from this old view of economic growth just for the sake of it.

Sen has presented a human view of development. The niceties of his theories could unfortunately not be dealt with in this essay. There are flaws in his theory, such as the limits of what constitutes freedom or unfreedom, but this allows his theory to be adapted to other development discourses. Essentially, Sen has presented a theory that focuses on developing human freedom and capability above mindless economic growth. This essay has shown how this affects our understanding of poverty, as well as how it departs from earlier views of development.


  • Clark, David A. The Capability Approach: Its Development, Critiques and Recent Advances,, Oxford: University of Oxford, 2005.
  • Cooper, Frederick and Randall Packard “Introduction.” In International Development and the Social Sciences, edited by Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, 1-44. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Doering, Detmar “Why socialism failed.” In The Liberal Tide, edited by Jim Peron, 149-158. Auckland: Institute for Liberal Values, 2003.
  • Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario “Liberalism in the new millennium.” In The Liberal Tide, edited by Jim Peron, 159-172. Auckland: Institute for Liberal Values, 2003.


[1] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999), 3.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] David A. Clark, The Capability Approach: Its Development, Critiques and Recent Advances,  (Oxford: University of Oxford, 2005), 3.

[4] Sen, Development as Freedom, 3.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] David. A. Clark, The Capability Approach: Its Development, Critiques and Recent Advances, 5.

[7] Sen, Development as Freedom, 89.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Instrumental freedoms refer to rights and opportunities that allow us to increase our lots in life. These can include political and civil rights and economic opportunities.

[12] Detmar Doering, “Why socialism failed,” in The Liberal Tide, ed. Jim Peron. (Auckland: Institute for Liberal Values, 2003), 151. Resources in this sense are synonymous with capabilities.

[13] Sen, development as Freedom, 87.

[14] Ibid., 89.

[15] Ibid., 88.

[16] Ibid., 89. Purchasing Power Parity makes an effort to measure the purchasing power of particular incomes in different countries.

[17] Ibid., 109.

[18] Ibid., 92.

[19] Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, “Introduction,” in International Development and the Social Sciences, ed. Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 7.

[20] Ibid., 9.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Liberalism in the new millennium,” in The Liberal Tide, ed. Jim Peron. (Auckland: Institute for Liberal Values, 2003), 168.