Development as Freedom: a Not-So-Utopian Economic Model

Haitian workers move cooking oil supplied by USAID at a distribution center at Port-Au-Prince international airport
By Inder Comar

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, interest rates are high, stifling investment in new businesses.

What are the alternatives to our dysfunctional economic system?

Is it possible to identify new economic and social models that can act as rallying points for concrete social and political change?

People, rightly so, are scared of utopian visions of heaven on Earth. So let’s put utopianism aside.

No promises here of a communist or capitalist paradise.

Just some concrete thoughts on what people, good people who seek good change, can think about in creating effective strategies of progress.

My favorite model is based on the phrase coined by the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen: development as freedom.

For Sen, development is not just the reduction of poverty — it is the affirmative expansion of freedom.

Not simply political freedoms (which are important), but also social freedoms that bring about freedom from want or physical suffering.

As Sen puts it, development means “removing 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.”

I like the concept of development as freedom for several reasons:

  • Development as freedom highlights that development goes beyond “rich and poor” to other categories that make life worth living. This removes the focus from purely economic measures like gross domestic product and asks more varied questions. Do people have meaningful and affordable access to education? Is health care affordable? For example, using a health care metric the United States is a highly under-developed country, spending more money per capita on health care than any other nation in the world (close to $7,500 per person) while ranking 50th in life expectancy at birth.
  • Development as freedom mirrors human rights law, specifically the two major human rights treaties enacted after World War II. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects rights like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to a fair trial. Meanwhile, a sibling treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), requires countries to ensure their citizens can make a “decent living” (article 7) and have access to health care and education. Development as freedom asks people to respect both sets of rights. Freedom of speech means little if a person does not have the education to speak her mind; freedom to live without undue government interference means little if a person cannot stay healthy.
  • Development as freedom is adaptable. In these times of growing ecological stress, development as freedom means reducing carbon impacts and creating sustainable economic systems that can last more than just a few generations.
  • Development as freedom provides dignity to ancient cultures that today grapple with endemic poverty. The world will lose something if civilizations like India and China, thousands of years old, throw away the bulk of their collected social and cultural knowledge in order to carbon copy the development paths of the United States and Europe.
  • Development as freedom means there is work to do even in so-called rich countries. The consumer society in the United States has brought many luxuries, but it has destroyed communities, wrecked the environment, and isolated and atomized people to a degree never before seen in history. Development as freedom offers a way to look beyond physical luxury to those human needs that remain impoverished even in the midst of monetary wealth. No person lives on bread alone.


Inder Comar is an attorney who lives and works in San Francisco. He practices “change” law and helps individuals and companies make change nationally and internationally. His website is

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