Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

Amartya Kumar Sen (born 3 November 1933), is an Indian economist, philosopher, and a winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (Nobel Prize for Economics) in 1998, for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, and political liberalism.

From 1998 to 2004 he was Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, becoming the first Asian academic to head an Oxbridge college. Amartya Sen is interested in the debate over globalization. He has given lectures to senior executives of the World Bank and he is honorary president of Oxfam.

Among his many contributions to development economics, Sen has produced work on gender inequality. He is currently the Lamont University Professor at Harvard University. Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is a trustee of the Economists for Peace and Security.

Sen was born in Santiniketan, West Bengal, the University town established by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, another Indian Nobel Prize winner. His ancestral home was in Wari, Dhaka in modern-day Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore is said to have given Amartya Sen his name (“Amartya” meaning “immortal”).

Sen began his high-school education at St Gregory’s School in Dhaka in 1941, in modern-day Bangladesh. His family migrated to India following partition in 1947. Sen studied in India at the school system of Visva-Bharati University and Presidency College, Kolkata before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a First Class BA in 1956 and then a Ph.D. in 1959. He was also allowed four years to immerse himself in philosophical issues during his stay at Trinity College.

He has taught economics at University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, Delhi, Oxford (where he was first a Professor of Economics at Nuffield College and then the Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of All Souls College), London School of Economics, Harvard and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1998 and 2004. In January 2004 Sen returned to Harvard. He is also a contributor to the Eva Colorni Trust at the former London Guildhall University.

In May 2007, he has been appointed as chairman of Nalanda Mentor Group to steer the execution of Nalanda University Project, which seeks to revive the ancient seat of learning at Nalanda, Bihar, India into an international university.

Sen’s seminal papers in the late sixties and early seventies helped develop the theory of social choice, which first came to prominence in the work by the American economist Kenneth Arrow, who, while working in the fifties at the RAND Corporation, famously proved that all voting rules, be they majority voting or two thirds-majority or status quo, must inevitably conflict with some basic democratic norm. Sen’s contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem would indeed come to pass as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice, informed by his interests in history of economic thought and philosophy.

In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He believed that there was an adequate food supply in India at the time, but that its distribution was hindered because particular groups of people—in this case rural labourers—lost their jobs and therefore their ability to purchase the food. In his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person’s actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural laborers’ negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have the functioning of nourishment, nor the capability to escape morbidity.

In addition to his important work on the causes of famines, Sen’s work in the field of development economics has had considerable influence in the formulation of the Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme. This annual publication that ranks countries on a variety of economic and social indicators owes much to the contributions by Sen among other social choice theorists in the area of economic measurement of poverty and inequality.

Sen’s revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of ‘capability’ developed in his article “Equality of What.” He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. This is because top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a ‘right’ something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?). For instance, in the United States citizens have a hypothetical “right” to vote. To Sen, this concept is fairly empty. In order for citizens to have a capacity to vote, they first must have “functionings.” These “functionings” can range from the very broad, such as the availability of education, to the very specific, such as transportation to the polls. Only when such barriers are removed can the citizen truly be said to act out of personal choice. It is up to the individual society to make the list of minimum capabilities guaranteed by that society. For an example of the “capabilities approach” in practice, see Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development.