A Third Way for the Third World


LAST year, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics, Amartya Sen returned to his native India for a visit. One December morning, just outside Calcutta, at Santiniketan, the school where Sen had studied as a child, he was made to climb a dais and sit on a makeshift throne. News reports say that he looked tired, but he found the energy to address the assembled crowd. He reminisced about his childhood, and spoke of the influence exerted on his work by the school's founder -- Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Asian Nobel laureate when he won the prize for literature, and who, as Sen's teacher, named him Amartya (Bengali for "immortal").

Tagore is the most famous in a distinguished school of Bengali thinkers who have left a lasting mark on the Indian social and intellectual landscape. Known as the Bengali bhadralok (or "gentlemen"), they include the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the freedom fighter Aurobindo Ghose, the author Nirad Chaudhuri, and now, as the standard-bearer in the dying days of that tradition, Sen himself. From the nineteenth century onward bhadralok have been India's version of public intellectuals -- engaged with social life, battling against such evils as untouchability and suttee (the practice of widow-burning). They have been adamantly outward-looking, eager to absorb the best of competing traditions and methods. Tagore was proud to be an Indian, and he was in many ways a traditionalist; but he was not, as Sen wrote in an article for The New York Review of Books, "a prisoner of the past." His method was akin to what the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "bricolage" -- the drawing together of diverse traditions and ideas into a new reality. Sen called attention to this method that day at Santiniketan. Paraphrasing his teacher, he reminded the assembled crowd that in Tagore's view, "all that is best in the world is also ours."

In Development as Freedom,Sen, who discusses the virtues of the Buddhist "middle path," applies this view to the topic of economic development. It is a needed, if daunting, endeavor. Since development's emergence as the great hope of the postwar era, the debate over Third World poverty has been polarized.

On one side of the divide are the forces of the development establishment -- Western policymakers, and economists at the World Bank and other aid institutions. For them, development is a form of tough love. "Rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments," proclaims a 1951 United Nations document that was recently cited by the anthropologist Arturo Escobar as an example of development's cold economic calculus.

Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of caste, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of people who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated.

Pitted against this view of development -- which Sen calls the "fierce" or "hard knocks" approach -- has been an equally uncompromising critique voiced by grassroots activists and nongovernmental organizations around the world. We see it in the Chipko movement, in the Himalayan foothills, where peasants symbolically hugged trees to stop the logging that was destroying their traditional forest-based economy; in the Zapatista movement, in the impoverished Chiapas region of Mexico, whose enigmatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, railed against globalization as a "hemorrhage that fattens the powerful"; and in the British-based Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which is calling for a cancellation of the stifling debt ($400 per person in the Third World) imposed in the name of development. In these movements there is a growing sense not only that the UN document has proved all too prescient but also that much of the "painful adjustment" has been exacted without the promised recompense: the income of the wealthiest quintile today is seventy-four times that of the poorest quintile; more than 850 million adults remain illiterate, and 840 million people are malnourished. Clearly, development's critics say, the orthodoxy needs a dose of the same harsh medicine it has so long prescribed; the single-minded focus on GNP and free markets must be replaced by a similarly unyielding concern for local cultures, ecology, and social issues such as health and education. Recent literature speaks of a "rejection of the entire paradigm" of growth; what's needed, according to one anthology, which brings together many leading critics of development, is a "post-development" era.


NTO this ideological minefield steps Sen, whose book exudes a refreshing reasonableness and a willingness to acknowledge rival points of view. Like development's critics, Sen, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, decries the narrowness of the standard model. With the inexplicable omission of ecology, Sen takes up all the familiar battle cries: democracy, culture, human rights, gender rights, education, health care -- these matter to people, he says, and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of what Gandhi called "the monster god of materialism." Though sometimes portrayed as such, Sen is not a leftist radical. He includes material wealth on his list of things that matter, and acknowledges that "it is hard to think that any process of substantial development can do without very extensive use of markets." Markets, in Sen's view, need to be supplemented with social safety nets; economic growth must co-exist with local cultures, which cannot be swept away like "old and discarded machinery." For Sen, the "overarching objective" of development is to maximize what he calls people's "capabilities" -- their freedom to "lead the kind of lives they value, and have reason to value." He is concerned with the entire gamut of human experience. In his own characterization, the book represents a return to the "integrated approach" of economics practiced by Adam Smith.

Presented by

Akash Kapur, the former Letter From India columnist for the International Herald Tribune, is the author of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India. He has also written for The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times, and others.

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