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Feminist Economics 9(2 – 3), 2003, 301 – 317




Sakiko Fukuda-Parr


Amartya Sen’s ideas constitute the core principles of a development approach

that has evolved in the Human Development Reports. This approach is a ‘‘paradigm’’ based on the concept of well-being that can help define public policy, but does not embody a set of prescriptions. The current movement from an age of development planning to an age of globalization has meant an increasing attention to agency aspects of development. While earlier Human Development Reports emphasized measures such as the provision of public services, recent ones have focused more on people’s political empowerment. This paper reflects on Sen’s work in light of this shift in emphasis. Gender analysis has been central to the development of the new agency-driven paradigm, and gender equity is a core concern. A gender perspective has also helped highlight important aspects of this paradigm, such as the role of collective agency in promoting development.


Amartya Sen, human development, capabilities, human rights, gender, democratic governance


The recognition of equal rights for women along with men, and the determination to combat discrimination on the basis of gender are achievements equal in importance to the abolition of slavery, the elimination of colonialism and the establishment of equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities.

(United Nations Development Programme 1995) The Human Development Reports (HDRs), published annually for UNDP since 1990, have used Amartya Sen’s capability approach as a conceptual framework in their analyses of contemporary development challenges.

Over time these reports have developed a distinct development paradigm – the human development approach – that now informs policy Feminist Economics ISSN 1354-5701 print/ISSN 1466-4372 online # 2003 IAFFE http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/1354570022000077980


choices in many areas, such as poverty reduction, sustainable development, gender inequalities, governance, and globalization. What, then, are the policy implications of Sen’s work on capabilities, development, freedom, and human rights?

Sen’s ideas provide the core principles of a development approach whose flexible framework allows policy-makers to analyze diverse challenges that poor people and poor countries face, rather than imposing a rigid orthodoxy with a set of policyprescriptions. This paper identifies the key elements of Sen’s paradigm as they have been applied to diverse policy questions. It shows how the emphasis has evolved over the years from the provision of public services to political empowerment and how gender issues have been central to this paradigm shift. Not only is gender equity a core concern, but also gender analysis has shaped some important aspects of this paradigm, such as the role of collective agency in promoting development.

In the discussion below, I will first outline the central features of the human development approach and how it differs from other paradigms such as the basic needs and human rights approaches, including their attitude towards gender. Then I will highlight some of the gender dimensions more specifically.


The first Human Development Report launched by Mahbub ul Haq in 1990 had an explicit purpose: ‘‘to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies’’ (Mahbub ul Haq 1995). The report is not just any report that the UNDP might commission on a given development theme, nor is it a status report for monitoring development. It has a much broader ambition, namely setting out a comprehensive approach to development, including an agenda of policy priorities, tools of analysis and measurement, and a coherent conceptual

framework. As Richard Jolly (2003) notes:

[The] Human Development (HD) approach embodies a robust paradigm, which may be contrasted with the neoliberal (NL) paradigm of the Washington consensus. There are points of overlap, but also important points of difference in objectives, assumptions, constraints and in the main areas for policy and in the indicators for assessing results.

To launch the HDRs, Haq brought together a group of fellow development economists and friends, among them Paul Streeten and Frances Stewart, who had worked with him on the basic needs approach; Gus Ranis and Keith Griffin, his collaborators in Pakistan; and others, such as Sudhir Anand and Meghnad Desai, who had creative expertise in quantitative methods. Dozens more who shared his vision also contributed (Haq 1995). But it was Sen’s work on capabilities and functionings that provided the strong conceptual


foundation for the new paradigm. His approach defined human development as the process of enlarging a person’s ‘‘functionings and capabilities to function, the range of things that a person could do and be in her life,’’ expressed in the HDRs as expanding ‘‘choices’’ (Amartya Sen 1989).1 Sen would continue to influence the evolution of the human development approach, refining and broadening the basic concepts and measurement tools as new areas of policy challenges were tackled, from sustainable development (United Nations Development Programme 1994) to gender equality (United Nations Development Programme 1995), poverty (United Nations Development Programme 1997), consumption and sustainable development (United Nations Development Programme 1998), human rights (United Nations Development Programme 2000), and democracy (United Nations Development Programme 2002). In turn, the HDRs have paralleled Sen’s own work on freedom, participation, and agency, incorporating more explicit references to human rights and freedoms. With Anand, Sen also played a critical role in developing the measurement tools of human development, starting with the Human Development Index (HDI) and going on to cover issues such as gender equality – the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) were developed in 1995 – and the measurement of poverty in human lives rather than incomes through the Human Poverty Index (HPI), published in the 1997 HDR.

Thus, while Sen helped develop the initial conceptual framework and measurement tools used in the HDRs, the reports carried Sen’s work even further as they explored the policy implications of this development approach in areas that are of major contemporary significance.2



Sen’s theory of development as an expansion of capabilities is the starting point for the human development approach: the idea that the purpose of development is to improve human lives by expanding the range of things that a person can be and do, such as to be healthy and well nourished, to be knowledgeable, and to participate in community life. Seen from this viewpoint, development is about removing the obstacles to what a person can do in life, obstacles such as illiteracy, ill health, lack of access to resources, or lack of civil and political freedoms.

It is important to emphasize that the human development approach contains two central theses about people and development, and to distinguish between them. They are what Sen calls the ‘‘evaluative aspect’’ and the ‘‘agency aspect’’ (Amartya Sen 2002). The first is concerned with evaluating improvements in human lives as an explicit development objective and using human achievements as key indicators of progress.

This contrasts with paradigms that focus on economic performance. The


second is concerned with what human beings can do to achieve such improvements, particularly through policy and political changes. The human development approach is commonly associated with the evaluative aspect. The agency aspect is less widely appreciated.

To understand these key elements of the human development approach and their relevance for development policy and strategy, it helps to compare it with other approaches that have influenced public policy debates, such as the dominant neoliberal paradigm and a predecessor to the human development approach, the basic needs approach.3 Explicit philosophical foundations and conceptual roots As Martha Nussbaum (2000) points out, all public policy formulation unavoidably reflects normative positions and so should be subjected to critical philosophical reasoning. An important feature of the human development approach is that it has an explicit basis in philosophical reasoning. Sen has written extensively about the conceptual roots of capabilities in the longstanding intellectual traditions of philosophy, political economy, and economics, dating back to Aristotle and including the works of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, among others. Both Sen’s own work (e.g., Sen 1989) and the HDRs (United Nations Development Programme 1990, 1996) trace these connections.

Not only do the philosophical underpinnings of neoliberalism and the basic needs approach differ from those of the HDA, but they are also less explicit. Although all three approaches are ultimately concerned with human well-being, they give this concept different meanings. Neoliberalism defines well-being as utility maximization. Sen sets out the limitations of this approach (Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams 1982), among which the most significant is the neglect of rights, freedoms, and human agency. The basic needs approach places people at the center of development, but the emphasis on specifying ‘‘basic needs’’ in terms of supplying services and commodities points to a commodities basis rather than a capabilities basis in defining human well-being. Although many of the proponents of the basic needs approach, such as Streeten, emphasized people’s participation and political constraints, the absence of a strong and explicit philosophical foundation left the approach open to translation into policy that focused mainly on meeting people’s material needs, or ‘‘count, cost, and deliver,’’ rather than on the human rights, freedoms, and agency emphasized in the human development approach.

–  –  –

economic growth is only a means and not an end in itself. Furthermore, the concern with the well-being of all people emphasizes equity as a major policy objective, requiring monitoring not only through national averages, but also via measures of deprivation and distribution.

The establishment of measurement tools for evaluating human achievements was central to introducing human development as an alternative paradigm and to gaining the attention of policy-makers. Haq was convinced that a simple combined measure of human development was essential for convincing the public, academics, and policy-makers that they should evaluate development by advances in human well-being and not only by advances in the economy. Although Sen initially opposed this idea, he went on to help Haq develop the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite index of achievements in human development. Sen was concerned by the difficulties of capturing the full complexity of human capabilities in a single index. But he was persuaded by Haq’s insistence that only a single number could shift the attention of policy-makers from material output to human well-being as a real measure of progress (United Nations Development Programme 1999).

The HDI had a significant policy impact when first formulated and continues to command policy attention. HDI estimates of countries, as well as the ‘‘disaggregated HDIs’’ for different regions or ethnic groups within countries, had the intended effect of focusing greater attention on basic human capabilities, especially those included in the HDI (the capability to survive and be healthy, to be knowledgeable, and to enjoy a decent standard of living). The HDI ranking of countries provoked policy-makers to examine how each country fared in this regard and to ask why some countries and regions, such as Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, or the state of Kerala in India, managed to achieve much higher levels of ‘‘human development’’ in comparison to countries with similar income levels. The comparison of a country’s HDI rank with its GDP per capita rank became, in this regard, more critical than the HDI itself as a measure of a country’s human development.

Two decisions made in devising the HDI were particularly important: one concerned the choice of capabilities to be included, and the other had to do with the focus on national averages rather than disparities.

One of the most difficult tasks in applying the capabilities approach to development policy is deciding which capabilities are most important.4 The range of human capabilities is infinite and the value that individuals assign to each one can vary from person to person. Even if some capabilities deserve greater public attention than others, the relative importance of capabilities can vary with social context – from one community or country to another, and from one point of time to another. Thus ‘‘the task of specification must relate to the underlying motivation of the exercise as well as dealing with the social values involved’’ (Sen 1989).


HDRs have used two criteria in deciding which capabilities are most important: first, they must be universally valued by people across the world;

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