Waylaid Dialectic

December 3, 2011

Amartya Sen on the Weather Coast

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 5:32 am
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So far my PhD field research has taken me to two constituencies outside of Honiara. The partially urban Auki/Langalanga and the much more remote South Guadalcanal. As you may have noticed I don’t actually write about my PhD here – actually I blog to hide from the damn thing. So nothing about voting and clientelism today. Rather three quick reflections on life in two low GDP parts of the Pacific.

1. Once you leave Honiara you really do leave most of the government of this country behind you. And yet its absence doesn’t mean entering the world of ungoverned spaces. Take away the state and you don’t get anarchy – you get small groups of people governing themselves with whatever tools of governance they have at hand. And end result, while not wholly undemocratic, isn’t utopia. It’s true that inequalities of power are less but abuses of power still exist. Similarly, it’s true that all manner of problems can be tackled at the community level, and all sorts of things achieved. But there were also all manner of problems within communities that couldn’t be addressed and all sorts of things that looked like they needed fixing through government on a larger scale.

People in the villages weren’t hiding from the state either (in a James Scott type of way). In general if you asked they wanted more government in their lives, not less. Although it was a particular type of government – the government that delivers services. People usually weren’t hankering for the arrival of state coercion.

2. The lottery of life. Go anywhere on earth and of course you will meet a few plonkers, but our travels also brought us into contact with lots of intelligent, hardworking people. I’m stating the obvious, but it was really rammed home to me out there how little justice there is in the outcomes we see in this world: who gets to grow up in affluence and who does not. Who gets to ask the research questions and who gets to answer them. Who gets to be a post-graduate student and who gets to be intelligent but uneducated. I found it humbling and sad to time and time again meet people who were smart and hardworking and yet who will have in their lives only a tiny portion of the opportunities afforded to me.

3. On the subject of opportunity… I’ve always kind of liked Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to poverty and yet, at the same time, not really been convinced by it. His conceptualisation of freedom is clearly superior to that clung to by libertarians but I don’t think is idea of development as freedom offers an improvement on the traditional utilitarian idea of development as happiness (or welfare). In his book ‘Development as Freedom’ Sen offers most the textbook critiques of utilitarianism but it’s not clear to me that his own approach is in any way inherently better at providing answers to the dilemmas present in the sorts of thought experiments that make utilitarians squirm (such as “kill one person to save six”). And at the end of the day I don’t think Sen has any convincing answers for the central utilitarian retort of “would you still support enhancing substantive freedoms if it could be shown that doing this would make people less happy rather than more?”

Having said all that, in Langalanga and on the Weather Coast (South Guadalcanal) particularly when speaking to young people it was hard to escape the fact that, often, more than anything else, what they lacked, and yearned for, in their lives, was opportunities. And how the most meaningful improvements that could be made to their worlds would be those that enhanced their capability set (in the Sen sense of the term) and which grew their substantive freedoms.

As a practical yardstick for development Sen’s approach makes more and more sense to me.

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1 Comment

  1. Well, I for one would be interested to hear more about your PhD, particularly the field research and its challenges.

    Your observations are similar to mine in Peru. “The State is completely absent here” is often cited as an explanation for all manner of ills, from vigilantism to narcotrafficking. At the same time, most political and bureaucratic institutions are mistrusted and assumed to be corrupt and self-serving (often with good reason).

    I quite like Sen’s hierarchy of freedoms. But I’m not as much of a utilitarian as you.

    Comment by Simon — December 3, 2011 @ 6:54 pm


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