Poverty and Human Flourishing

Our life is empty and we are empty handed.
We are above the dead and below the living.
—Poor women and men in Ethiopia
(Narayan-Parker 2000, 33)

At first glance, poverty makes human flourishing difficult, if not impossible. Few would argue against the thesis that extreme material poverty places sharp limits on the ability of any human being to flourish. Children without enough of the right food to eat, without schools to go to, with dirty drinking water that makes them sick, with few job opportunities to hope for, are children whose potential for human well-being is surely problematic.

Yet to know poor people as persons and friends is to know that there is also joy, caring, sharing, and happiness in the midst of poverty. “Of course, Port-au-Prince has fallen down and, of course, people are hurt, hungry, and dying, but do not speak of we Haitians as broken and beaten down. We are the most resilient people on earth. We do not give up and we can always find joy,” a Haitian Fuller student reminded us as we agonized over the aftermath of January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti.

The purpose of this short essay is to explore the idea that there is more to the story of poverty and human flourishing than meets the eye. With the intention of provoking new thinking rather than providing answers, I will consider the subject from a number of angles: first, I will trace the history of thinking about development as a response to poverty; second, I will look at what the poor have to say about their lives as expressed in the Voices of the Poor study funded by the World Bank; and finally, I will make some observations intended to further the conversation on human well-being.

Evolution of an Idea

Development, as a word to describe efforts to improve the well-being of the poor, was used for the first time in the early 1950s during a time when the gap between a rich and developing West and the rest of the world was increasingly hard to ignore. It was the aftermath of the devastation of World War II; Europe had been rebuilt and was taking off economically; and the pressure to award independence to former colonies was undeniable. At the same time, soldiers had been all over the world as had the war correspondents. Radio and then television began to beam the words and images of very poor, yet far off places into the homes of those living in the West. With the emergence of the Cold War, the East and the West began competing for the allegiance of the so-called Non-Aligned Nations in the South. Sometimes this meant guns and proxy wars; sometimes this came in the form of development aid. It’s instructive to remember that development in the 1960s was not altogether altruistic.

But what is development? The West was not sure. The West understood itself as “developed” but was not entirely clear how this happened—and was still shaken by the fact that its development had included two world wars, a global economic depression, and a holocaust. Regardless, the underlying assumption was taken as a given: The “underdeveloped” world will “develop” by emulating the path of the West. Walt Rostow provided his interpretation of how the West had developed and his five stages of economic growth, “non-Communist manifesto,” which became the blueprint for Western development (Rostow 1960). The goal of development became “modernization” and its measure was the size of one’s economy. Causing economies to grow was the means of development.

While Modernization Theory held sway for awhile, it eventually lost its luster for the culturally and economically myopic creation that it was. Other theories emerged. Dependency Theory, with Marxist roots, argued that the West was the source of the underdevelopment of the Third World and that Modernization was just a fig leaf to cover up this unchanging colonial, capitalist reality. The goal of development was still economic growth, but the means of development was a choice: Marxist or capitalist economics.

In the 1980s, development practitioners, weary of global wars over economic theory, began articulating an approach to “people-centered” development, derived from what they had been learning on the frontlines. As increasingly the idea of development as economics alone was called into question, alternative, small theories—limited by time and place—began to emerge.

A Shift in Measures of Development

Robert Chambers, a research associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, with long field experience in rural India and Africa, argued for an understanding of poverty as entangling systems and a system response that focused on what he called responsible well-being (Chambers 1984, 37; 1997, 10). John Friedmann, a professor of urban planning with extensive Latin American experience, insisted that, while the kind of programming that Chambers argued for was needed, it was not enough. For Friedmann, poor households lacked the social and political power to develop themselves (Friedmann 1992). What was needed was to organize the poor into associations and networks that would make them increasingly hard to ignore as important players in civil society; only then could the poor push back against the political and economic systems that limited their initiative. Issues of access, vulnerability, and social power became more central to the development conversation, yet the central measure remained the size of the national economy.

Finally in the 1990s, there was a shift in measures of development. A development economist from India, Amartya Sen, began working with Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist in the United Nations Development Program, to create a new index for assessing levels of development with the declared purpose of moving development economics from its focus on Gross Domestic Product to more people-centered policies. The resulting Human Development Index added life expectancy, as an indicator for health, and literacy, as an indicator for knowledge and education, to Gross Domestic Product as a measure of standard of living. In time, this shift in the measurement of development began to result in a shift in the way development projects were designed.

Sen had also studied the relationship between famines and democracy—there has never been a major famine in a functioning democracy (Sen 1999, 16). In his seminal book, Development as Freedom, Sen announced his conclusion that poverty is the result of deprivation of human freedom. Things like low income, lack of education, ill health, lack of access make people less free. But so does lack of freedom in the form of restrictions on political and civil liberties and participation (Sen 1999, 4).

What people can positively achieve is influenced by eco-nomic opportunities, political liberties, social powers and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives (Sen 1999, 5).

Sen went on to argue that not only is freedom, or empowered human agency, a goal of development, freedom must also be the means of development. For Sen, the ultimate goal is for human beings to have the capability (freedom) to seek functions in their world that the people themselves deem valuable. The goal of development is to create the environment and conditions in which every person has the freedom to seek the better human future they desire. For this work, Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

With the broad acceptance of Sen’s approach, the size of an economy is correctly made a means, not an end. The purpose of wealth is not to have wealth, but to enable the person or household to pursue the kinds of things they have reason to value (Sen 1999, 14). No longer is the development ideal that of Western modernization. The understanding and pursuit of well-being is to come from the poor themselves.

How Do the Poor Define Flourishing?

Voices-of-the-Poor-drawing-by-D.KlitsieThe World-Bank-funded research initiative called Voices of the Poor, surveyed 60,000 poor women and men from 60 countries, in an unprecedented effort to understand poverty for the new millenium. Believing that poor people are the true poverty experts,” researchers asked questions such as: What is a good life and a bad life? What are poor people’s priorities? What is the nature and quality of poor people’s interactions with state, market and civil society institutions? How have gender and social relations changed over time? They learned that poverty is multidimensional and complex, and includes elements beyond basic lack of food, shelter, and education. Poverty, the results show, includes voicelessness, powerlessness, insecurity, and humiliation.

The general acceptance of Sen’s argument has transformed the development conversation. Economics has found its proper, more incidental place as a new multidimensional understanding of development that now includes empowered human agency and what Sen calls the instrumental freedoms: Civil liberties and political freedom, economic opportunities and entitlements, social opportunities afforded by education and provision of health care, transparency guarantees that guarantee openness, trust and the exposure of corruption, and protective security in the form of a social safety net and a sense of personal safety (Sen 1999, 38–40).

From a model of development based on emulating the West measured by the size of one’s economy, the development community is in a very different place in 2010. For the last decade, the language of human well-being has become normative. The struggle now is to figure out what human well-being actually is. The development conversation may now be ready to join the other conversations on human flourishing.

Voices of the Poor

Well-being is a full stomach, time for prayer,
and a bamboo platform to sleep on.
—a poor woman in Bangladesh
(Narayan-Parker 2000, 234)

After a decade of hectoring by NGOs and development academics, the World Bank began to wonder if the bank, full of economists and funded by the world’s wealthiest countries, might be a little too far-removed from the real world of the poor. A team of researchers were sent out to listen to over 60,000 of the world’s poorest people. In early 2000s, the Voices of the Poor project published three books with their findings (Narayan-Parker 2000).

In addition to listening to the poor speak about how poverty, oppression, and injustice were negatively affecting their lives, questions were also included about what the poor believed human well-being might be. As one might expect, more food, better health, and access to education quickly made the list. Human well-being without the basics of survival is impossible to imagine. More surprising was the finding that having enough materially for a good life does not mean asking for very much. The material desires of the poor are modest: “But at least for each child to have a bed, a pair of shoes, a canopy over their heads, two sheets—not to sleep like we do on the ground” (2000, 25).

But the conversation quickly moved beyond these more obvious material desires. Many of the expressions of well-being were relational; social well-being seems central to human well-being for the poor (2000, 26). The desire to take care of one’s family, harmony within the family and community, having friends, and helping others showed up with regularity in the interviews.

Less expected by the researchers, many of the manifestations of well-being were psychological in nature (2000, 26–27). A desire to feel better about oneself and a wish for a sense of dignity and respect were heard. Peace of mind, lack of anxiety, being God-fearing, happiness or satisfaction with life were named as elements of human well-being. Somewhat to the surprise of the Western researchers, “a spiritual life and religious observance are woven into other aspects of well being” (2000, 38), although these religious findings were quickly recomposed into the more normative secular category of “psychology.”

This essay began relating the evolution and reframing of the idea of development. This conversation was primarily among academics from the North, eventually joined with practitioners and academics from the South. It was not until the late 1990s that some began to wonder if listening to the poor articulate their own descriptions of poverty and human well-being might be a useful counterpoint. A tip of the hat must go to Robert Chambers for provoking the World Bank and to the bank’s mercurial and paradoxical president, James Wolfensohn, for having the courage to incur the wrath and puzzlement of his own economists and funding the study anyway.


First, there is a need to state the obvious. The development conversation and its contemporary explorations of human well-being are products of modernity more than anything else. The myth of human progress seems untarnished by the continuing presence of violence and poverty around the world. There is no need for the transcendent, it would seem. We clever human folk just need to apply our reason and our scientific observations to the problem of poverty and its solution is within our grasp. With the exception of what the poor say about their vision of human well-being, God is not part of the Western vision. Yet, as both evangelicals and Catholics alike have warned, human well-being disconnected from God simply does not lead to well-being. We need to inject this view into the larger development conversation.

Second, it seems pretty clear that the development conversation is not over. The distance traveled in sixty years, and the nature of the reinvention of ideas and approaches, suggests there is more to learn about both the purpose and means of development. The development conversation has not generally involved the domains of psychology and religion/spirituality. Until the last seven years or so, religion was considered part of the problem and thus surely not a part of the solution. This is changing1 and the door is opening to allow people to speak from religious perspectives.

Third, the topic of human well-being is the focus of conversations in a variety of heretofore disconnected domains. Human flourishing, positive psychology, and community psychology have been gaining momentum and recognition of their importance within the domain of psychology. Happiness, in the sense of having a positive view of one’s life, is now a topic of growing interest in economics. The continuing extension of Amartya Sen’s work with Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum and Sen 1993) is focusing on a holistic or comprehensive view of human well-being. Development researchers are creating tools to measure well-being in development practice (White 2009).

Even theologians are getting into the act. InterVarsity held a conference on human flourishing in 2008. Miroslav Volf, David Kelsey, and John Hare are overseeing a research project at Yale on “God and human flourishing.” Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs makes useful distinctions between the contemporary utilitarian idea of an “experientially satisfying life,” the “life well lived” of Aristotle and others of ancient Greece, and what Wolterstorff calls “the life that is both well-lived and that goes well” (Wolterstorff 2008). This formulation of human well-being unites the human capabilities and agency dimension—humans should be able to enjoy a life worth living and to pursue the ends of that life that they desire and to be the recipient of the conditions that allow such a life—right kinds of relationships.

There is an urgent need for multidisciplinary conversations among these traditional academic silos. The poor require it of us.

Finally, I want to return to Sen’s idea of human freedom being at the heart of the development conversation. Sen is talking about the idea of human agency, about the freedom each human being inherently has to work toward a better human future. While Sen is not working from a Christian frame, this is nonetheless a theologically sound position. It is at the heart of the idea of the imago Dei and of the gospel. But the freedom that God grants to us, a freedom to tell God we don’t believe in him if that is our choice, is not the unlimited freedom of the autonomous Western self. It is a freedom to give up some of our freedom because we can better love God and our neighbor when we do. This is a second major front in the development conversation to which the Christian development community has something to offer.

1. It is encouraging to note that a few secular development thinkers have begun to reexamine the modern orthodoxy that relegates religion to the private and personal realm. There have been a number of good studies on religion and development in the field. A brave new book argues that religion cannot be separated from development, that Christianity and Islam are inherently developmental, and it calls for a rewriting of the secular development script (Deneulin & Bano 2009).
Chambers, Robert. 1984. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London: Longman.
———. 1997. Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last. London: Intermediate Technology.
Deneulin, Séverine & Masooda Bano. 2009. Religion in Development: Rewriting the Secular Script. London: Zed.
Friedmann, John. 1992. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Narayan-Parker, Deepa. 2000. Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. New York: Oxford University Press for the World Bank.
Nussbaum, Martha Craven & Amartya Kumar Sen. 1993. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rostow, W. W. 1960. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.
White, Sarah. 2009. “Bringing Well Being into Development Practice.” WeD Working Paper 09/05. Bath, UK: University of Bath.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2008. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2010, “Human Flourishing: Reflecting the Abundance of Creation.”