What’s the goal of development? A standard answer is higher gross domestic product. A few specialists prefer to talk about building capabilities. I have another idea: development should be about suzhi, a Chinese word usually translated as quality.
China has been worrying about development for a long time. Reformers in the 19th century wrestled with how to overcome the people’s backwardness without losing what was truly great and distinctive about the Middle Kingdom. They saw that development, as it’s now called, involved a major reworking of culture and society. It encompassed the economy, education, law, politics, the military, the arts and medicine.
Today’s international community has adopted a much narrower understanding. Leaders of poor countries and experts in the field pay often think of development as being centred on economic growth. Social and cultural changes are treated as little more than tools to help increase GDP.
A more sophisticated alternative is the “capabilities approach”. Amartya Sen, a philosophically minded economist, argues that the poor countries should develop whatever capabilities are needed for their residents to be free. His idea of freedom is multifaceted: it includes freedom from starvation, premature mortality, illiteracy, political disenfranchisement and censorship.
But the capabilities approach has some flaws. First, it assumes that the final goal of development is an individualistic, secular and democratic welfare state, as found in Europe and the United States.