Re:thinking development with UCT: The choice is yours

I wrote in one of my earlier posts about the non-profit GiveDirectly, and particularly its Uncondititional Cash Transfer (UCT) programs in Kenya and Uganda. I praised these efforts because of the way they enable individuals to make their own choices. Recipients receive access to funds through mobile phones, and are then free to choose where to spend their money, no strings attached. I would like dwell on UCTs a bit, and especially the notion of choice, a concept that isn’t always prioritized in development work, but which lies at the heart of GiveDirectly’s initiatives, and, more importantly, UCTs in general.

Dorothea Kleine offers an interesting take on development as choice by drawing on Amartya Sen’s capability approach. In an essay published with the Journal of International Development, Kleine develops the so-called Choice Framework, which, just like Sen, considers choice to be both “the aim and principal means of development”. Her argument was later elaborated in the book Technologies of Choice, published in 2013.

Kleine positions her model in Sen’s thinking, and provides an alternative to much of mainstream development:

[T]he Choice Framework offers a way to operationalise Sen’s capability approach in the context of ICTs and development. Sen’s approach is currently the most well-known heterodox alternative to orthodox, growth-focused and often economistic conceptualisations of development. Given the enormous potential of ICTs to give individuals choices, and indeed a greater sense of choice, Sen’s approach is of particular interest to those working on ICT and development.

Kleine rejects projects and interventions that define development objectives prior to consultation with the individual in question. She believes in participatory processes, suggesting that we need to conceptualize the development process as open-ended. And this is really the gist of it: by not presupposing development outcomes, Kleine (and Sen) suggest that we recognize development as individual freedom – which will ultimately result in “a complex mix of outcomes an individual may aspire to (in Sen’s terms, their capabilities)”.

Interestingly, Kleine’s multifaceted model also pulls together ideas from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. For instance, she writes that, “work on cultural capital (in Bourdieu’s sense) is hardly ever linked to development discourses in the South”. This engagement with cultural capital makes for a refreshing read. What Kleine has ultimately done here is to provide an analytic approach that integrates perspectives on both agency and structure. She writes: “Structural constraints need to be recognised as being at least as important an element as individual agency”. In Sen’s tradition, she interprets ‘resources’ as “individual agency-based capability inputs, which, together with structure-based capability inputs, can be converted into capabilities”. The resource portfolio, placed under agency, includes, among other things, material resources, geographical resources, information, and cultural resources. She then sets out to show how structures (could be discourses, norms on time, informal laws, regulations, institutions, etc.) aid or constrain agency.

It’s worth noting that Kleine, heavily influenced by Alsop and Heinsohn’s earlier work, looks at different forms of choice: existence of choice, sense of choice, use of choice, and achievement of choice. Since I won’t go into more detail here, I’d highly recommend anyone interested in alternative development models to read Kleine’s essay and/or check out the book she published in 2013.

Now, let me return to where I began: the inherent value of UCTs. What really struck me about Kleine’s argument concerning choice was how pertinent it was to my analysis of GiveDirectly and UCTs. The Choice Framework, and of course Amartya Sen’s original groundwork, enables us to identify the real value of UCTs. And the key here isn’t so much whether we see economic growth as a result of individuals’ investment, but rather that these individuals gain the power of choice in the first place – or as Sen says, the freedom to choose to ‘lead the lives they have reason to value’. The point being also, of course, that the various dimensions of choice and the ‘degree of empowerment’ will be reflected in other development outcomes as well. So while the primary goal is indeed Choice, the secondary objective may relate to things like increased knowledge, improved mobility, greener environment, and so on. For example, in the case of GiveDirectly, studies have shown that UCTs reduce the number of days children go without food, as well as increase the value of household assets. From the perspective of The Choice Framework, these would be interpreted as secondary outcomes. The primary outcome is still choice. Hopefully international donors will come to understand that both matter.

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