The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

What’s new in development?

Ever since Adam Smith, economists have been fascinated by differences in standards of living between nations. Why are people in some countries able to produce an abundance of goods, while people in others live in abject poverty? What can we do to improve the lot of the poorest people in the world?

Ideas about how to address these issues have changed in the last decade, leading, I believe, to a more holistic view of development. But first a little background.

Until the 1980s, most economists believed that countries could plan for development. Governments in consultation with experts at the World Bank, it was thought, could plot a path from rags to riches by developing a national development plan. Countries were encouraged to borrow money internationally to turn their dreams into reality.

Unfortunately, investments made with borrowed money proved to be less profitable than first thought. High interest rates in the 1980s made it hard for poor countries to pay back what they had borrowed.

By the early 1990s, the United Nations began to see development as more than economic growth. They saw that having a higher standard of living isn't much good if you don't live long enough to enjoy it; nor is living without the ability to partake in social and cultural activities. As a result, the UN's Development Program began compiling the Human Development Index–a figure obtained by comparing a country's life expectancy rates, education levels, and income per person. By measuring this way, some poor countries, such as Cuba and Sri Lanka, fare quite well: despite low levels of national income, they are able to produce long-lived, educated citizens.

Attention, therefore, has shifted from a focus on income to a broader concern about what people are actually able to do. In economic circles, this has come to be called the “capabilities approach.” It is associated with Amarya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, and Martha Nussbaum, a Chicago feminist philosopher. Rather than concentrating solely on raising the incomes of the poor, the capabilities approach focuses on the opportunities people have. Increasing opportunities raises the chance of being able to live a fulfilled life. Political freedoms, social opportunities, security (both personal and of one’s property), and guarantees of fair and transparent procedures are just as important as economic facilities. As Sen points out, these freedoms tend to reinforce one another. For example, a democratic country is less likely to abuse its own citizens (by stealing their property or even murdering them) than is a totalitarian state.

Nussbaum goes one step further. She has compiled a list of what she believes are basic human capabilities. Her list was derived from studying the problems faced by women in developing countries, who often find themselves denied the basic human capabilities necessary to live a meaningful life. Her list includes such items as the ability to live a life of normal length, to have bodily health and integrity, and to be able to enjoy the natural environment. Nussbaum’s book, Women and Human Development, argues that such norms are universally valid, and that their denial by governments or religions, is illegitimate.

I have argued in papers at conferences in Cambridge, England, and in Atlanta, Georgia, that Christians should welcome this broadened perspective. The Bible presents us with a holistic view of humankind; creatures are made in the image of God, they are not mechanical maximizers of material welfare. By drawing attention to the significance of choice and the value of choosing how to live one's life, the capabilities approach gives a more balanced account of what is important. In addition, the values that it articulates are, in general, compatible with God’s law. Sen’s approach has great value for Christians working in development.

We can, of course, argue over some of the items on Nussbaum’s list. In the tradition of classical liberalism, it assumes that one should have the right to do anything one wants, providing it doesn’t interfere with anyone else. Christians have been uncomfortable with this position, believing that support for the freedom to be immoral tacitly lends support for immorality, and in so doing breaks down society’s shared understanding of what is right and wrong.

So, as Christians, we need to go further. The capabilities approach is incomplete. The Bible gives us a vision of what human life on earth should be like at its best: a world characterized by an all-encompassing vision of peace and justice, summarized by the concept of shalom. For each person, this vision implies the ability to flourish—to have access to resources so that needs are met (hence the importance of an adequate level of income). But shalom is far more: for each person, flourishing implies the ability to live a fulfilled life, to be part of a caring and nurturing family and community, to participate in society and in the culture of the community. The capabilities approach begins to address these aspects of shalom, but doesn’t go far enough. We must be concerned not only with people as individuals, but also with the relationships between people and broader communities around the world.

It is tempting to isolate ourselves from the problems of distant communities and try to build the kingdom of God in a self-sufficient, isolated enclave. Countless groups have fallen into this temptation as they strived to build Utopian communities in some secluded, but pleasant, spot. But the vision of shalom calls us to a higher standard—it is a universal norm, valid for all people, everywhere.

In my current research, I am trying to work out what the vision of shalom might mean in contemporary society and what implications it might have for the theory and practice of development economics. In the Old Testament, God gave his chosen people a set of laws by which to live—including laws such as the Jubilee and the obligation to care for the poor to prevent gross inequalities emerging in society. The challenge for us, as Christians in the twenty-first century, is to grasp God’s vision for our world today and to work towards its implementation.