Development As Freedom

This week at our Meeker County Public Health staff meeting, we watched Episode 6 of a series called “Unnatural Causes…Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” ( This particular episode is called “ Collateral Damage”, which describes the past and present affects of the U.S. detonation of 67 nuclear devices in and around the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The impact of these tests on the Marshallese people was profound - in terms of social, political, geographical, economic determinants of their health and wellbeing. As a public health professional, research and interaction with our clients demonstrates how socio-economic status can play a very vital role in an individual’s capacity to “contribute” to society.

The opportunity to view and study this documentary tied nicely with the reading for this week, “Development as Freedom” (1999) by Amartya Sen. Upon doing some further research, I discovered that Sen is an economist/philosopher who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his “social choice theory”: poverty stemming from the lack of capabilities to function resulting from what he terms as “unfreedoms” in society. According to Sen, it is most important that people develop in a manner that allows them to “do and be” – to contribute and feel valued.

The freedoms that Sen describes in the reading are: 1) political (free speech, elections), 2) economic (opportunity for work, trade, production), 3) social opportunities (health and education), 4) transparency guarantees and 5) protective security. Sen suggests that development has more to do with enhancing quality of our lives and improving our freedoms, rather than economic development or prosperity. With this notion, I whole-heartedly agree. However, it is my feedback that Sen did a poor job of defining and describing “transparency and protective security” in this reading.

So, let’s consider some “unfreedoms”. Per the reading, Sen describes these as social determinants to health: reduced access to health care and poor sanitary conditions/unclean water. In the case study of the Marshallese, inhabitants were moved off their home islands because of the U.S. military influx, thus their lands, culture, and traditional ways of life were destroyed. Being displaced from their home island caused rapid urbanization, a crowded living environment and poor hygiene. This resulted in increased incidence of tuberculosis (population proximity, poor hygiene) and diabetes (change in eating habits, lack of access to healthy foods).

Sen also describes the lack of opportunity to contribute to “trade or production” (economic independence) as an “unfreedom”. In the case of the Marshallese, the lives and traditions of the Islanders were disrupted when the United States occupied their nation and used their outer islands for extensive nuclear testing after World War II. Many Marshallese crowded to the island of Ebeye hoping to get a job at the U.S. base on nearby Kwajalein. According to the U.S. State Department in 2006, there are 25,706 people of working age in the Marshall Islands, yet only 39% are employed and 61% are unemployed or inactive.

In summary, the Marshallese case study demonstrates how, without choice, each of their five "freedoms" were distrupted, thus determing their social, health and economic consequences.

My question to the readers of this blog is 1) In what current situation(s) have you observed globalization and/or urbanization impacting poverty, hope and health? 2) In the current financial crisis, do you think Sen’s theory that the quality of our lives and improving our freedoms are more important than economic development or prosperity? How does the recent $800 billion economic recovery bill help or hinder your argument?

Looking forward to a great discussion!


Thanks, Lisa, for a very vivid example of development, as Sen might points out, concerned with a very short-term informational focus on the utility of the moving the Marshallese to allow for the U.S. testing of nuclear devices. What the decision-making process lacked (in our retrospective analysis) was an evaluative process where the freedoms of the Marshallese society, and greater global long-term consequences were not considered.

As I read Sen’s article, I reflected again to Anita Roddrick’s comment (I mentioned last Tuesday night) regarding her concern that social responsibility had been “high-jacked” by an obsession with economic measurements for success (utility) that excludes the other freedoms (fr Sen): political, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security (p.10).

In regard to one of the questions you have posed, “In the current financial crisis, do you think Sen’s theory that the quality of our lives and improving our freedoms are more important than economic development or prosperity?” I would reply that economic development should not occur isolated from quality of life considerations. My desire is for political leadership that looks beyond the short-term fixes which may guarantee re-election, but rather to use a lens to view the future in terms of long-term stability and quality of life for more than just the economically privileged few. (As I write this, my cynical self says that political leadership in the context of long-term is an oxymoronic concept, i.e. there is no long-term consideration in politics.) I look to, and long for, leadership that is able, as Sen says, to see that “economic growth cannot sensibly be treated as an end in itself. Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy.” (p. 14). I agree with Sen that “greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world” (p.18).

I don’t believe that Sen is against a market system, although he does take issue with the interpretation of the results of the market system. The focus should be on the processes that end in a particular outcome (i.e. “comprehensive”) rather than the “culmination outcomes” (p.27). What today’s economic situation begs for is a process of development that by identifying and avoiding the short-term mistakes of the past (e.g. using utility as the sole metric) supports and empowers the individual, and the global society, to lay a firm foundation for an economy which ensures human and environmental health and well-being, global sustainability and security.

While reading Sen, I couldn't help but think of the effects of globalization, especially as it pertains to social responsibility. With concern for global warning, epidemic plagues, economic droughts, and conflict among nations globalization certainly meets its limit of positive impact and forces us to build inward structure, thinking of "protective security". Economists claim that these are actually "cyclical trends" that shouldn't be so alarming since we've witnessed how societies eventually come out of the dark. (1) Though this is comforting, and is a good tool for economic stimulus, I am concerned with the seemingly lack of regard for how we can stop the cycle? Sen acknowledges this and adds that ways of development change and, freedom comes only when we are willing to accept the change. (p32) Carrying around the baggage of past trends leads to unfreedoms and, continuous cyclical patterns.

Thank you, Lisa, for your lead on the "Unnatural Causes" video. It reminded me of a workshop I attended recently led by Mark Powell, a certified Counselor of Natural Health and alumni of the U of MN. Powell researches the effects of diet evolution on various cultures and highlights Indigenous tribes in parts of Asia, South America, and Africa who lived for thousands of years in perfect harmony until the Western world eeked in. The sudden physical and mental deterioration of these tribes exemplifies the tragic effects of leadership as it pertaings to globalization.

Lastly, it is also important to remember how fortunate we are as a culture that can easily experiment with leadership. As bad as economics and politics are at times, we have the freedom to "look at alternatives". Many other people do not have this luxury. (p24) If we can use this to positively enhance our culture and spread this example to the less fortunate without "having" to change them, we use leadership in a way that is sustainable.

1. In a recent panel discussion at the Humphrey Forum, Minnesota Commissioner of Finance, Jay Kiedrowski, asked various economists about the outlook of the local economy. A consistent agreement within the panel was that this recession will come around when the economy is ready for it. However, nothing was said in regards to how leaders can change the pattern. You can find more information by visiting their blog:

I thought this was an excellent article. I thought almost as important as the discussion of development overall was the inclusion of the thought: sometimes development might not be a good thing.

I agree with what Lorna mentioned - this too reminded me of situations where an ethic was "hijacked." I think that the "global" nature of this article can be so perfectly translated to the business world - what is good for one company might be disastrous for another.

Lindy - I totally agree - I couldn't help but think of globalization and social responsibility, especially how it translates to business in the nonprofit sector.

I read an excerpt recently from "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded" - which asks if the "corporatizing" of grassroots organization has diminished their ability to be effective. For many nonprofits, business "development" has fundamentally affected their mission.

"Foundations are ultimately interested in the packaging and production of success stories, measurable outcomes, and the use of infrastructure and capacity-building systems."

Does this affect passion for a mission? Does development shift the ethics of a community or an organization, and shape the values? I guess I wonder - can it not?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs