Could Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum help us have a more grown-up conversation about aid?

This post got a lot of help from Severine Deneulin – thanks!

I get a bit frustrated with the conversation on aid – too often, we seem to be expected to pick one of two equally unappealing camps: ‘all aid is bad’ v ‘all aid is good’. People tend to land on a single issue – growth, accountability, safeguarding – and judge the whole enterprise from there.

Instead, how about going back to Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the ‘progressive expansions of the freedoms to be and to do’ – a ‘momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities’?

The trouble is that Sen’s writing is Delphic and elusive (probably part of its appeal – people can read lots of different meanings into it). When I went back to ‘Development as Freedom’, I could find no direct reference to aid in its 300 pages (do tell me if I missed it). His even more impenetrable ‘The Idea of Justice’ does have a brilliant use (p. 170) of the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan to reject the idea that we should only care about our ‘near neighbours’, and to urge us to exercise our global responsibilities towards helping others to live flourishing human lives, but that’s about it.’ Luckily, Martha Nussbaum gets a lot more specific. In Women and Human Development, she identifies 10 basic freedoms at the heart of development. When does aid support the expansion of freedoms? When does it undermine them? Here are some initial thoughts in tabular form – feel free to disagree/improve.

Impressions from this exercise? Firstly, the striking gaps in the aid agenda, when compared with Nussbaum’s list of what makes life worth living. Second, that the negative column is as much about the failure of aid to act as about it doing bad stuff – sins of omission, rather than commission.

Worth pursuing? Too helicopter-ish to be of much use in aid debates? Will people just squeeze their existing good/bad binaries into this new frame? Over to you.

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11 Responses to “Could Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum help us have a more grown-up conversation about aid?”
  1. Priyanthi Fernando

    Gosh this is so triggering at so many levels – and I am not sure I have the time to respond in detail But table is much, much too simplistic…. more if I have the time!

  2. Emily

    There are some efforts being made in the early childhood development space which relate to the freedom around recreation. For example I just saw an opportunity with MSF in Sierra Leone creating safe play spaces and teaching the importance of play for hospital-admitted children.

  3. I would say that support to and protection of LGBT communities is a form of aid that responds to human need to love, experience longing etc. The offering of psycho-emotional support to victims of torture, genocide, sexual violence etc. as well. So this is not entirely a gap. Same for those Faith Based Orgs who offer religious services in addition to material ones – of course that is often felt to be contentious in secular aid circles.

  4. Saskia Brechenmacher

    It strikes me that this table/overview doesn’t really engage with the actual critiques of the aid industry. My understanding is that most critiques of aid are not necessarily skeptical of the overall goals of such aid (though there are questions and critiques around that, too), but ask whether international aid is actually an effective way of advancing those goals, and what types of aid may be more effective than others. So citing “humanitarian aid” as an example of “good aid” strikes me as slightly beside the point – after all, the whole question is under what conditions and for what purposes humanitarian aid is helpful, and under what conditions it may exacerbate certain conflict dynamics and hierarchies. Similarly, support for democratic participation is not necessarily or inherently “good aid” – it depends on the approaches taken and how they interact with the local political context.

  5. Sophia Murphy

    I think it you go back to Jean Drèze’s work with Amartya Sen you might find something useful – not about ODA, per se, but about Public Action (from the title of the books), which they explicitly define as about people acting in concert – governments, but not only formal institutions – also communities. The analysis and case studies (Hunger and Public Action, in two volumes) make a powerful case for the obligation for the public to act, without being ideological about who should intervene. They absolutely reject the notion that markets will do it all with some “enabling”, or that markets are more than just one element in the whole. touch. As for Martha Nussbaum’s list, I think she is missing lot of what actually happens in public action, even if she is right that ODA frameworks are often rather limiting and limited. Think of how transformative and joyous–and often improbable–are so many of the relationships people in international development cooperation enjoy . Overcoming differences and distance to share problems and solve them – it’s such a powerful motivator for going above and beyond.

  6. David Grocott

    That table is problematic in a number of ways.
    For example, ‘support for dictators’. It’s not clear what is meant by ‘support for dictators’ but we know that plenty of aid programmes work in countries run by dictatorships. In some cases, aid spent in those countries is likely to be much more effective than aid spent in democracies. For example, providing support to the health sector in Rwanda (run by a dictatorship) is likely to be more effective (in terms of outcomes) than providing support to the health sector in Malawi (a democracy).
    The examples in the ‘bad aid’ column are mostly things that don’t happen. You could be a lot smarter in teasing out some of trade-offs associated with aid (and development). For example, on ‘Other species’ you could talk about the trade-offs between infrastructure/energy/housing and conservation and preservation of the natural world. On ‘Senses, imagination, and thought’ you could talk about the limits of free speech and freedom of expression, and the need to balance them (particularly in some contexts) with the need for societal cohesion.
    These aren’t just questions about aid, but about how we make complex choices in relation to the world we live in. Where there are easy answers, the easy answers will be chosen. Sadly, there often aren’t easy answers.

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