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

March 2, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

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.

March 2, 2020
Duncan Green