Development as Flourishing

Can development economics move beyond its obsession with income to become truly human-centered?

Ernesta Orlovaitė

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Development, at its heart, is an endeavour to better the lives of humans. The pursuit of a good life has fascinated thinkers for millennia, and yet what a good life looks like is as heatedly debated today as it was in the time of Aristotle.

Most philosophers would agree on one thing: you can’t simply buy happiness.

This is not how Aristotle would define happiness. Source: The Awkward Yeti.

Most economists would retort that everything is for sale. Why try and measure happiness when you can count money instead?

Economists dominate mainstream debates on development, both in policy circles and in academia. Although the discipline has broadened its interests considerably since Robert Lucas equated economic development with “the observed pattern, across countries and across time, in levels and rates of growth of per capita income”, the ultimate objective of economics is hitherto often defined in monetary terms. And yet Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of Gross Domestic Product, wrote nearly a century ago that the “welfare of a nation can … scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”.

The challenge of finding an alternative to economic growth has been accepted by numerous thinkers within and outside economics, most notably Amartya Sen who has argued that the goal of development should be not opulence, but rather the freedom to choose a life one has reason to value. Sen’s capability approach has been adopted widely in academia and has influenced development policy debates.

A stylised representation of an individual’s capability set formation. Based on Robeyns (2005).

Nevertheless, the primacy of income and growth in development research and practice is notable.

There are three broad explanations for the reluctance of mainstream economists to embrace Sen’s ideas. First, the capability approach is immensely complex. Sen’s writings span decades, are deeply rooted in philosophy, and, in the words of Ingrid Robeyns, describe a framework that is “radically underspecified”. If you can’t formalize the notion of a good life, does it even exist?

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Ernesta Orlovaitė

Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams