Amartya Sen: Not Mother Teresa

Amartya Kumar Sen, Development Economist

Born 1933 in West Bengal. Currently teaching at Harvard

‘You need an educated, healthy workforce to sustain economic development’

‘The Mother Teresa of Economics’ – a title which he still says makes him feel uncomfortable –Amartya Sen has unquestionably been the greatest of all India’s economic thinkers. The recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences has been influential in shaping international development programmes that have built upon his often shockingly innovative perceptions about human and political rights in the developing world.

What Sort of Rights?

The right to vote, for a start. And, underlying that, the right to have one’s existence recognised at all. Sen’s 1990 report, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing” was an examination of the role that male dominance played in Indian and Chinese societies: on the one hand, he noted, boys got an education which girls lacked, while on the other, hidden rates of gender-specific abortion were making it impossible to measure the population, let alone secure human and civil rights.

What’s That Got To Do With Economics?

Well, to answer that you’d have to go back to his influential monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), which declared that the mechanisms for measuring and recognising poverty would amount to nothing unless the underlying social information was accurate. Sen devised methods of measuring that information that still form the basis of the techniques used by development researchers throughout the world.

They were also instrumental in establishing the UN Development Programme’s annual Human Development Report, which ranks the countries of the world on various economic and social indicators and enables comparisons to be made.

Famine and Politics

Sen’s Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) broke new ground in development circles by arguing that famine can occur not just because of a shortage of food, but because sections of the population are barred by social inequalities from being involved in the process. Sen’s study of the devastating 1947 Bengal famine showed that there had been plenty of food that year, but that hoarding, price gouging and manipulation of the supply system had effectively disenfranchised millions of workers who had no political influence and no way of raising their wages in line with higher prices. They had starved.

Is Sen a Socialist?

Does that sound like the sort of socialist politics that would later turn India into a creaking, inflexible, near-communist state? Sen didn’t think of it that way. Unlike Marx, who saw the economy in mainly revolutionary terms, he said that even a constitutional right to vote would mean little unless the people had the “functionings” that would give them the right to use that vote.

These “functionings”, he said, could include the universal availability of education, or simply a transport system that would get people to the polls in the first place. Only when such barriers had been removed, he said, could people be properly said to be acting out of personal choice.

It’s also no good having Western-style supermarkets in the remoter areas if bad roads mean that the trucks can’t get through to supply them with goods. As India’s new government sets out its plans for developing and liberating the nation’s infrastructure, these issues are coming very much to the fore.


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