What is Development? – I

Draft of Part 1 of an essay that was due this week.

Part 1 – Product

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several discussions around me – in classrooms, among friends, and on the internet – about the polarization of politics and the ideological divides that have grown to inhibit communication among different groups of people. Most of the conversations I’ve been a part of have discussed this phenomenon with respect to the recent US election. The more I listen, the more I find that I am able to draw parallels between this and the political discourse underway in India. The conversation about nationalism has grown increasingly polarized in India. The supporters of the political party in power seem to be growing more and more supportive of measures to curb anything that is perceived as “anti-national”. On the other hand, the more left-leaning groups seem to have become extremely wary of nationalism and patriotism. More recently, the measure to demonetize 500- and 1000-rupee notes to curb ‘black money’ has received excessive praise and support from some, and attracted extreme criticism from others. The discourse on caste and affirmative action has also become increasingly polarized, with some groups admonishing the very acknowledgment of caste-based distinctions, and others criticizing the lack of acknowledgement of inequalities and progressive measures to combat them. As I grow increasingly aware of this polarization, I struggle to find commonalities between these groups. To bring about positive change, it is important that we work together; it is important for these groups to reach out to each other and reaffirm their commitment to certain shared ideals.

Fundamentally, I believe that there are certain things – certain standards of human decency – that most reasonable people can agree need to be met, for all human beings. . We can each define development in our own ways, based on our own, unique experiences. However, development is a shared experience and to me, it would be meaningless to speak of it without reference to this set of ideals – the standards of decency – that most of us share. We must be able to agree, loosely, on some definition of what constitutes as positive progress to be able to work towards it. We might disagree on the route that needs to be taken to achieve it, but a vision that is common, to some extent, is important.

It is, as expected, extremely challenging to come to a consensus on what this vision must be. One way of approaching this problem is to lay down some concrete goals. This has, in the past, taken the form of establishing certain standards of living that we believe all human beings must have access to. The Millennium Development Goals and, more recently, the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the UN are examples of this. These goals, however, seem to imply that if we put certain milestones in place and mobilize the resources needed to achieve them, we should be able to achieve them. Yet, time and again, despite having access to the resources we need, we fail to achieve these goals. A complex social, political, and economic fabric – one that we don’t fully understand – seems to determine whether or not people have, or can have access to a decent quality of life. It is important that we account for this, while setting goals for development.

Further, the question of whether or not a set of indicators can measure an individual’s quality of life is debatable. While goals and milestones for indicators of welfare are necessary and important, these cannot be the ultimate goal of development. This ultimate goal must be broader, and must account for the fact that improvement is subjective, and cannot be measured straightforwardly.

The recognition that each community has its own way of understanding the world and hence, its own idea of what constitutes positive change, also necessitates the adoption of broader goals. It has often been claimed that communities know what improvements they desire. We, as practitioners, must facilitate development as envisioned by the community and not dictate what it entails. This recognition, however, does not diminish the need for an overarching goal. It is important to define what we want to achieve, in order to proceed in the right direction.

Around this time last year, I wrote in my statement of purpose for graduate school that development wasn’t something that could be reduced to numbers. I spoke of Amartya Sen’s conception of poverty as a lack of basic freedoms, rather than a condition characterized by low income or consumption. Today, I am able to understand that statement and its importance more clearly. The idea of development as freedom may seem far too abstract and perhaps even needlessly philosophical. However, the idea is powerful because it transcends the endless debate about goals and milestones. In characterizing development as freedom, Sen makes the goal of development empowerment. This changes the goal from, say, “All individuals must receive an education” to, “All individuals should have the capacity to obtain an education, if they choose to do so.”

In her book, ‘Creating Capabilities’, Martha Nussbaum defines development as capability-building. Development, according to Nussbaum, entails building capabilities among people, to ensure that  can then set goals for themselves and take steps towards achieving them. This approach to defining the goals of development likens development to a struggle for social justice. The goal of development, I believe, is give all human beings equal opportunities, information & access. It is to empower individuals and hence, give them the opportunity to seek and achieve a better quality of life.

I have often wondered whether we need a philosophical definition of development, or if we should just act instead, and do what we can to help create positive change. I believe, personally, that the latter approach cannot be successful in isolation. Positive change is not brought about by individuals, alone. Development, I believe, requires us to work together. To be able to work together effectively, we must first agree on what we are working towards. Agreeing upon an abstract set of ideals, which we can refer to while setting up concrete goals and milestones is, therefore, important.

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