The concept of choice has informed the development literature in a number of areas. It has been important in informing theoretical frameworks that underpin much development policy (through rational choice, public choice and social choice theory). From these theoretical foundations, the notion of choice has been central to defining key concepts such as human development and empowerment. The notion of choice has also been a prominent concept in a number of more practical policy debates, particularly in relation to public service delivery and cash transfers. This report highlights five main areas of literature that touch on the concept of choice:
1. The capability approach to development: Based on the work of Amartya Sen and social choice theory, the capability approach to development has informed the UN’s understanding of human development, which is widely defined as a ‘process of widening people’s choices’. Key debates in this area of literature relate to the possibility of democratic systems to generate optimal decisions in relation to social welfare, the issue of prioritising choices (whether or not to go beyond the three essential choices – to ‘lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living’), and the potential tension between choice and participation.
2. Empowerment: This literature qualifies understandings of choice in a number of areas – including providing discussion of the conditions, consequences and transformational significance of choice. It also provides analysis of three components of choice: resources, agency and achievements. A key debate raised in this literature relates to the problem of internalisation or ‘false consciousness’ where people come to accept marginalisation and therefore reject the choice to transform their position.
3. Rational Choice and Public Choice Theory: These approaches have been highly influential in development policy, but have been criticised largely on the grounds that they are reductionist and underplay the potential for collective action. There have been some efforts to identify certain conditions under which rational choice theory may have greater relevance.
4. Public Service Delivery: Providing choice to service users has been claimed to increase effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of public service delivery, as well as empowering citizens. In developing countries, ‘choice’ reforms have been particularly prominent in the area of education. The efficacy of these approaches has been widely questioned, with some studies suggesting that introducing choice and competition in settings where there is high inequality can widen disparities.
5. Cash Transfers: Cash transfers have been seen by some as preferable to in-kind transfers on the basis that they provide beneficiaries with choice. Choice here is seen as both enhancing the efficiency of transfers and protecting the dignity of beneficiaries. This literature raises issues relating to the potential for aid agencies to influence beneficiaries’ choices and the potential for choice reforms to undermine collective action.