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The Ethics of Development

Des Gasper


A self-contained introduction to the field of ethics and development

The Ethics of Development asks what is good 'development', of societies and for people. It looks at how equating development with economic growth has been challenged, examining whom that growth benefits or harms and which aspects of life it values or excludes and can favour or damage. It goes on to explore an alternative conception - that of 'human development', meaning achievement with respect to a wider range of values and the advancement of people's freedom to achieve well-reasoned values.

The book synthesises ideas from philosophy, economics and social theory, building in particular on the work of Len Doyal, Ian Gough, Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. Dealing carefully and sympathetically with a range of viewpoints, it elucidates complex issues with the help of historical and contemporary examples. It caters especially to students in development studies, anthropology, economics, philosophy, political science and social policy.

Key Features

  • Provides case studies on famine, health and drugs supply, colonialism, land alienation and land reform, international debt, structural adjustment and civil war
  • Places emphasis on probing and clarifying the meanings and uses of key concepts including 'development', 'efficiency', 'effectiveness', 'equity', 'violence', 'needs', 'freedom', 'choices', 'culture' and 'community'
  • Includes easy-to-grasp tables and figures, discussion questions and suggestions for further reading


1. What is the Ethics of Development?
1.1. Why Development Ethics? Cases and Questions
Extreme poverty amidst immense riches
Health and sickness, needs and profits
Towards a 'calculus of pain': recognising varieties of suffering and violence
The infliction of costs on the weak: the examples of dams, famines, debt, and structural adjustment
Global obligations and universal values?
What is development?
1.2. What? On Meanings and Agenda
The core agenda of development ethics
Emergence and contributors
1.3. How? On Methods and Roles
Possible roles of development ethics
Global or Southern?
2. The Meaning of 'Development'
2.1. Purposes and Themes
2.2. Ahistorical Definitions
Usages across the disciplines
Usages in development studies
2.3. Historically Specific Conceptions Of Development: On Change, Intervention and Progress
2.4. On Improvement: Issues in Normative Ahistorical Definition
Development as opportunity or as achievement?
Universalism and relativism
2.5. Conclusion
3. 'Efficiency & Effectiveness'
- Mainstream Development Evaluation in Theory & Practice
3.1. Introduction: Mainstream Value Positions, and Alternatives
3.2. Effectiveness Towards What and For Whom?
Effectiveness towards what?
Effectiveness for whom?
3.3. Efficiency in Terms of Which Values ?
What is efficient depends on what one's values are
Tacit variants of economic efficiency: Paretian and utilitarian
Concepts of efficiency and practices of victimization
3.4. Setting Economic Efficiency in Social and Environmental Context
Limitations of a separate concept of economic efficiency
Economic efficiency confined to a delimited role within a human and physical context
Means and ends
3.5. Understanding Value-Systems
Comparison of value positions in development evaluation
The structure of market-oriented arguments
'Consumer sovereignty'
3.6. Conclusion: Beyond Economism
4. 'Equity' - Who Bear Costs and Who Reap Benefits?
4.1. Sacrificing the Weak
4.2. Aspects of Equity
Criteria of distributive equity
An application to the regulation of grazing in Zimbabwe
An application to selection for resettlement in Zimbabwe
Positive discrimination
4.3. A Deeper Analysis of Concepts
Sen's framework for understanding different distributive criteria
Land, returns, and the fruits of effort
Whose are the international debts?
4.4. Assessing the Different Interpretations
Equality of what? Why equality?
Selecting from or interrelating the principles
Socio-political contexts
4.5. Conclusion
5. Violence and Human Security
5.1. The Reemergence of Violence and Security as Central Concerns
5.2. Development and Violence as Value-relative? On Concepts
'Development' and peace
5.3. Development as Value-Damaging?
Varieties of violence
Violence and the economy
5.4. Downgrading the Cost of Violence and Denying Alternatives
Market theory: only interests, no passions
The downgrading and defining away of costs and alternatives
5.5. Real Alternatives and Painful Choices
Notions of tragedy, evil, dilemma
Towards a calculus of pain with a respect for persons?
6. Needs and Basic Needs
6.1. First Things First
6.2. The Language of Need
Meanings and syntax of 'need'
A unifying framework for needs ethics and policy
Meanings of 'basic'
6.3. A Richer Picture of Persons
Do we need a picture of persons?
A better empirical base for prediction and evaluation
Reinterpretations of poverty, luxury, and limitless demand
6.4. Dangers in Needs Theories and Ethics
Passive and pacifying?
6.5. The Discursive and Practical Strategy of 'Basic Human Needs'
A required basis for other ethics
Steps in operationalization
A programmatic alternative to economism
6.6. Conclusions: Beggars can't be Choosers
7. 'Human Development': Capabilities and Positive Freedom
7.1. From Basic Needs to a Fuller Philosophy of Development
7.2. The UNDP Human Development School
The Human Development Reports
Human Development and Human Rights
7.3. Sen's Capability Approach and 'Development as Freedom'
Freedom and Reason
Development as Freedom
Components of the capability approach
Policy orientation
7.4. Doubts and Alternatives
Sen's picture of persons, capabilities and freedom
Nussbaum's capabilities ethic
For and against a universal list of priority capabilities
7.5. Conclusion
8. Cultures and the Ethics of Development
8.1. Can One Criticise Cultures and Yet Avoid Ethnocentrism?
Introductory cases
Is liberalism illiberal?
8.2. Culture: The Underlying Issues
Conceptions of 'culture'
Roles perceived for culture
Natural man, plasticine man, and nurtured natural man
The uneasy balance between individual rights and group rights
Women's right to employment?
8.3. Communitarian Ethics and Cultural Relativism
The texture of communitarian ethics
Walzer's worlds
Communitarianism is based on poor sociology
Cultural relativism is inconsistent
The centrality of internal criticism
8.4. Cases and Procedures
Criteria for just decisions
An overview of cases
8.5. Conclusion
9. Epilogue

About the Author

Des Gasper is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, a centre of development studies where he is currently Dean of teaching. He is co-author (with Raymond Apthorpe) of Arguing Development Policy (Frank Cass, 1996).


Des Gasper has written the best book available on the 'ethics of development' – its history, scope, and challenges.  Offering searching criticisms of mainstream development as conceptually blinded to human destitution and social justice, Gasper insightfully analyzes and evaluates alternative development visions.  Novice and specialist alike will benefit from his careful dissection of such concepts as economic growth, efficiency, equity, poverty, violence, basic human needs, culture, and human development.

- Professor David Crocker, University of Maryland

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