McKenzie Wark on Wed, 9 May 2001 13:46:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

[Good profile of one of the more nuanced thinkers on economic development
and globalisation.-- Ken Wark]

Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom
Jonathan Steele

Amartya Sen is an economist of ambition: to end world poverty, for
starters. On the eve of his Australian tour, the Nobel prize winner talks
to Jonathan Steele about freedom, globalisation and everything.

Amartya Sen went to a school in Bengal which promoted curiosity rather
than exam results, and he has never forgotten how one of his teachers
summed up a classmate: "She is quite a serious thinker even though her
grades are very good." In Sen's own case, the epigram needs rephrasing.
Even though he is high up in the world league of serious thinkers a Nobel
laureate in economics who might also have won the prize for philosophy if
the committee recognised the subject he has achieved something. Sen is a
rare example of an intellectual who has had a major effect on politics.

His work on the causes of famine changed public perceptions by showing why
thousands might starve even when a country's food production has not
diminished, and his analysis of poverty has been enormously influential.
Arguing that simple measures of GNP were not enough to assess the standard
of living, he helped to create the United Nations' Human Development
Index, which has become the most authoritative source of welfare
comparisons between countries.

As Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Sen is also deeply immersed in
the debate over globalisation, which he will be discussing at the upcoming
Federation Festival in Melbourne. He has given lectures to senior
executives of the World Bank but has also shown his commitment to reform
from below by becoming honorary president of Oxfam.

He has also courted controversy in Britain by criticising a recent report
on multi-ethnicity for saying that Britain should be seen as a loose
federation of cultures held together by common bonds of interest.

Though this was meant to be a modern liberal vision, Sen feels it devalues
individual identity, risks lumping people into "communities" they may not
want to be part of, and interferes with a person's freedom to make her own
choices. (Among his many contributions to development economics, Sen has
produced pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always writes
"her" rather than "his" when referring to an abstract person). He also
jumped into the debate over human rights and "Asian values", taking strong
issue with Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, for claiming
that liberalism was a Western export unsuited to Asia.

Sen's line was not the conventional view that individual liberty is a
Western invention which needs to have universal application. Rather, he
argued that "the championing of democracy and political freedom in the
modern sense cannot be found in the pre-Enlightenment tradition in any
part of the world, west or east".

However, separate components of this progressive idea from religious
tolerance to egalitarianism and support for a climate of debate have come
and gone in many different cultures at various historical times.

The strongest features of his work, joining his economics and philosophy
together, are ethics and a sense of common humanity. "He's very concerned
about justice, " says Sudhir Anand, professor of economics at Oxford.
"He's made major contributions not only in measuring poverty but
understanding it. To him, poverty is the lack of capability to function,
so reducing it is related to positive freedom. What's important to people
is to be able to do and be."

Sen's fellow economists love the way he has given the subject a friendlier
image, yet he was not awarded the Nobel prize for his more accessible work
in development economics, but for "social choice theory", the
philosophical foundation backed by mathematics which supports all his

The only surprise with his Nobel prize was that it came so late. "It was
only political reasons which prevented him getting it earlier," says his
old friend, the historian Eric Hobsbawm. "Ever since the mid-'70s the
Swedish committee has been strongly committed to free-market theory, until
it took a real punch in the midriff in '97-'98 with the Asian crisis."

Though he has strong political views, Sen has avoided public political
statements. He is primarily an academic who wants his ideas to cascade
through the institutions by virtue of their intellectual force, and then
flow into general circulation as the new wisdom. "He's peculiarly shy
about talking politics publicly. It's a kind of self-denial," says Meghnad
Desai, director of the centre for the study of global governance at the
London School of Economics. "It's also a generational thing. Good
economists, when he started out, didn't get into politics. So he prefers
to be subversive in a technical way."

In his native India, Sen is a star. When he won the Nobel prize in 1998 he
was dubbed the Mother Teresa of Economics as crowds followed him around
"wanting to touch his fountain pen", in Hobsbawm's words. Among academics
Sen's reputation is almost unrivalled. He has served as a full-time or
visiting professor at a dozen of the world's most prestigious
universities, and must hold the record for the highest number of honorary
degrees (53 according to his CV).

"Sen has made fundamental contributions to at least four fields: social
choice theory, welfare economics, economic measurement, and development
economics," says Sudhir Anand. "The pre-eminence that he has achieved in
each of these different fields is remarkable for any scholar: that he has
achieved pre-eminence in so many is utterly extraordinary. He is held in
enormously high respect by theoretical, empirical and policy economists
alike to say nothing of philosophers and political theorists."

Sen has spent almost his entire adult life on various university campuses,
and was even born on one. His father taught chemistry at Dhaka University
(now in Bangladesh) but Amartya came into the world in 1933 at
Santiniketan, just north of Calcutta, on the campus of a small,
progressive co-ed school and college founded by the writer, philosopher
and poet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, who was the only Nobel laureate (for
literature) from India before Sen, was a close friend of Sen's maternal
grandfather, who taught Sanskrit at Santiniketan. Tagore helped to choose
the baby's name, which means "immortal" in Sanskrit. Sen's mother was a
writer who performed in many of the dance-dramas which Tagore wrote. She
still edits a literary magazine in Bengal.

"Tagore founded Santiniketan with the idea of creating something different
from the English-language Raj kind of school," says Sen. "It also differed
from the Indian nationalist school. The teaching language was Bengali, and
the place was very self-consciously international, with a sense of global
culture. The existence of a Europe outside Britain was more easily
conceded in Santiniketan than happened in the rest of the Raj."

But the school was not for the poor, and when Sen was still only nine, he
underwent a profound experience. "One day a chap came wandering in, very
obviously deranged. Some of the nastier boys were being unpleasant to him
and some of us felt we had to do something to help. I got chatting to the
man and it became quite clear he hadn't eaten for about 40 days. But then,
one, 10, it seemed like about 100,000 people came walking through the
campus on the way to Calcutta to find some charities which might help

Until this shock Sen was blissfully unaware of suffering. No-one in his
family, which he calls lower middle-class, nor any of his friends'
families, were affected by the famine. "I was upset by what I saw. My
grandfather gave me a small cigarette tin and said I could fill it with
rice and give it to the starving, but only one tinful per family."

The famine was clearly class-dependent. Only people on the lowest rung of
the economic ladder, such as landless rural labourers, were hungry and the
memory stayed with Sen, prompting him several decades later to do his
study of that famine and several others in the Sahel, Ethiopia and China.

The opening lines of his study are typical of his lapidary style:
"Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to
eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat."

After examining the records, he found that overall food output in Bengal
in 1943 was not lower than in 1941, when there was no famine. The real
problem was that the wages paid to farm labourers in 1942 had not kept up
with the rising price of food caused by inflation in Calcutta, which was
going through a boom as the Raj put money into war production. This
resulted in what Sen called a shift in "entitlements" labourers had
suffered a reduction in their ability to command power over food.

As he was entering his teens, Sen had what he calls another "devastating"
political experience. The "idea of India", with its rich cultural
heterogeneity, which he had learned at Santiniketan, collapsed into a
welter of sectarian identities when people started to define themselves as
Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, and went on killing sprees.

One afternoon at the family home in Dhaka a man rushed through the gate,
screaming and bleeding. Sen's father took him to hospital. The man was a
Muslim labourer who had been set upon by Hindu thugs after looking for
work in a Hindu area because his family was short of food. The episode
turned him against the idea of prioritising communal identity, and gave
him another graphic lesson in the way economic unfreedom can make people
prey to serious violations of their rights.

By then Sen was already bent on an academic career, though his interests
wavered. "I seriously flirted in turn with Sanskrit, mathematics and
physics, before settling on the eccentric charms of economics."

He went to the Presidency College in Calcutta and was soon thrown into the
hotbed of political coffee-house debate. His family belonged to the
Bengali intellectual elite, and Bengal itself was the most vibrant and
politically active city in India. Most of its luminaries were well to the
left of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru.

Although Sen eagerly joined in the arguments, he says: "I could not
develop enough enthusiasm to join any political party." It was an early
sign of his detachment from collective action as well as the pragmatic
caution which have stayed with him, in spite of his moral engagement and
intellectual boldness.

In the early '60s, when he was at Trinity as director of studies, his then
wife, Nabaneeta Dev, went on the ban-the-bomb marches led by Bertrand
Russell. Sen did not. It was partly pressure of work, he says, but "I had
also developed more scepticism of what could be achieved by activism
without necessarily weakening on the importance of the cause".

Sen still calls himself a person of the Left, but he says he felt
something disturbing about the standard left-wing politics of his student
days. Most of his friends were Stalinists. He liked their egalitarian
commitment but felt they were not open to political pluralism and that
they even saw political tolerance as a "weakness of will". "I thought it
was a major defect of the Stalinist Left not to recognise that
establishing democracy in India had been an enormous step forward. There
was a temptation to call this sham or bourgeois democracy. The Left didn't
take seriously enough the disastrous lack of democracy in communist

This point was to stay with him in his famine studies, when he enunciated
the view that no famine has ever occurred in a country with a free press
and regular elections. He compared China and India. Although by most
indicators, from life expectancy to literacy, Mao's China was ahead of
Nehru's India, China had had a catastrophic famine between 1958 and 1961
in which some 30 million people starved to death. There was no free press
or alternative political parties to give early warning. In democratic
India, free of the Raj, that could not have happened.

But Sen did not go overboard in his praise of democracy. He pointed out in
his 1984 book, Resources, Values, and Democracy, that while there was no
famine in India, a third of the population went to bed hungry every night.
"The quiet presence of non-acute, endemic hunger leads to no newspaper
turmoil, no political agitation, no riots in the Indian parliament. The
system takes it in his stride."

When Sen arrived in Cambridge at the age of 19 to study economics, he
found the college "a bit of an oasis". The big debates in political
economy in the university were raging between neo-classicists and
followers of Keynes. Sen found that this suited his style. He has always
rejected any simplistic labelling of people, and his work is constantly
peppered with references to earlier economists whom he respects for their
views, regardless of the ideological camps which form around them. He
takes examples from Adam Smith, as well as Marx, without being a Smithian
or a Marxist.

In 1970, his book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, attempted to
rescue welfare economics from the pessimism of free-marketeers, who argued
that there was no point in government intervention, and that individuals
should be left to choose whatever the market made available in response to
their choices, and statists, who concluded that authoritarian choices had
to be made by governments on other people's behalf. Sen argued that
perfection in social decision-making is unnecessary. Partial comparisons
between people can help and majority decisions do carry weight, as long as
the interests of the less assertive citizens are not ignored.

His own life, meanwhile, had its periods of turmoil and tragedy. While an
undergraduate, he developed cancer of the mouth. Radiation therapy
whittled away his palate and could have proved fatal: he was unable to eat
solid food for three months and doctors said he had only a 15 per cent
chance of survival. In 1971 there were fears that the cancer had recurred
but, after a while, the diagnosis proved wrong.

That same year, Sen left his wife, Dev, with whom he has two daughters.

He later married Eva Colorni, an Italian economist, who died of cancer in
1985, leaving Sen with a 10-year-old daughter, Indrani, and eight-year-old
son, Kabir. Moving with the two children to Harvard, he renewed contact
with an old student friend, the brilliant Pakistani economist Mahbub ul
Haq, who persuaded him to join in elaborating the Human Development Index
as a rival to the World Bank's system of ranking countries by classical
macro-economic criteria such as savings rates and GNP.

Sen's empirical work has occasionally been criticised on points of detail,
or for not going far enough. Alex de Waal, the author of Famine Crimes, a
book which looked at how democracy prevents famine, says the mere fact of
democracy is not enough. He also says the main cause of famine is epidemic
disease rather than starvation. But he describes Sen's work as "seminal".

An article Sen wrote in the British Medical Journal, which then appeared
in The New York Review of Books with the headline, "More than a Hundred
Million Women are Missing", was picked apart by some demographers. Sen had
examined the disturbing fact that while female mortality is generally
lower than male mortality at all age groups in most cultures, this is not
the case in India. Because of massive gender inequality, girls have less
food and are taken to doctors less often than boys. Sen accepts that the
criticism of his "ballpark figure" was legitimate, but says his main point
about inequality cannot be challenged.

More substantial criticisms revolve round his role in the current
globalisation debate. Meghnad Desai sees a double problem. One is the
issue of accessibility. Desai cites Sen's latest book, Development as
Freedom, which is based on a set of lectures he gave the World Bank in
1996. It views the enhancement of human freedom as both the principal end
and the most effective means of achieving development. Desai, however,
describes it as written for the converted, as well as being too dense.

He also feels Sen has failed to come clean on a major change of mind. "He
used to be anti-market and very sympathetic to the Nehru line. Then he
found a clever way round it. During the past 20 years he's finally made
his peace with the market, though on his own terms and without going
all-out for a free market. It's a higher form of reconciliation."

Sen gets quite heated by the suggestion that he has changed his line on
the market. "Nothing I've ever written was anti-market. Being against the
market is like being against conversation. It's a form of exchange. But I
was just as hostile in the past to giving any privileges to the market as
I am now. Besides, those who are great advocates of the market don't
always make it easier for people to have access to the market through
basic education, credit or whatever."

He is also stung by the charge that he is middle of the road. "That
depends on how you define the road. There is a road which you can define
in which I am in the middle, but part of my problem is to argue that
people should be on a different road. I'm really trying to change the
road. My frustration is that I have not been very successful in changing
the focus of the debate."

Even in trying to change the road, Sen's line on globalisation is
relatively soft. "Opponents may see globalisation as a new folly, but it
is neither particularly new nor a folly," he says. He supports the
"themes" raised by anti-capitalist and environmental protesters at Quebec,
Seattle, Prague and Melbourne, but not their "theses", which he finds too
simple. The problem is not free trade, but the inequality of global power.

He welcomes the rise of the NGO movement, which combines with media
coverage to produce the beginning of some "countervailing power" to the
larger corporations and the traditional policies of First World
governments. But he also blames many Third World governments for not
undertaking domestic reform.

He believes the UN has to be saved from insolvency and given a greater
leadership role which escapes from the asymmetry caused by the veto power
of the five richest and/or largest countries. "There needs to be a
watchdog institution which is concerned with inequality and fair trade,
asks why the US and Europe are so restrictive to products from the Third
World, and raises questions about the pricing policy of the drug

For the past 10 years, Sen has been married to the economic historian,
Emma Rothschild. Asked how he relaxes, he replies: "I read a lot and like
arguing with people."

Dr Amartya Sen is giving an Alfred Deakin Lecture titled "Global doubts as
global certainties" in Melbourne on May 15. It will be broadcast on ABC
Radio National at 8.30pm on May 16.

Jonathan Steele is a journalist with The Guardian.

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