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Humane Development

An interview with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and author of Development as Freedom

December 15, 1999

FirebirdEyebrows were raised when Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. Sen had frequently been mentioned as a candidate, but it had been predicted that in an era when laissez-faire market economics were all the rage Sen's insistence on looking beyond GNP figures -- his penchant for emphasizing the social in the social science of economics -- meant that he would never win the prize. Indeed, the previous year's winners -- Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, co-founders of the high-powered Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) hedge fund -- epitomized the ideas of free-market capitalism.

Less than a year after Merton and Scholes won the prize, however, Thailand's Baht plummeted, markets from Bombay to New York were in turmoil, the talk was of worldwide depression, and LTCM itself was on the verge of insolvency. Suddenly, Sen's distrust of unadulterated market economics no longer seemed so heretical. In the wake of a crisis sparked in large part by a lack of openness in Southeast Asia, his argument that growth should be accompanied by democratic decision making seemed only too correct; amidst the human suffering caused by mass unemployment and exacerbated -- as many felt -- by the stringent economic policies of the International Monetary Fund, Sen's call for social support in development appeared humane and wise. A new brand of softer, gentler economics seemed in order. In 1998, when Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize, he was credited by the Royal Swedish Academy with "having restored an ethical dimension to economics."

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From The Atlantic's archives:

"A Third Way for the Third World," by Akash Kapur (December 1999)
A review of Amartya Sen's book Development As Freedom.


"Poor but Prosperous," by Akash Kapur (September 1998)
Development and quality of life can't always be measured purely in economic terms. The Indian state of Kerala is a case in point


"Changing the World on a Shoestring," by David Bornstein (January 1998)
An ambitious foundation promotes social change by finding "social entrepeneurs" -- people who have new ideas and the knack for implementing them.


"Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity," by Gregg Easterbrook (January 1997)
Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose discoveries sparked the Green Revolution, has saved literally millions of lives, yet he is hardly a household name.


"The Barefoot Bank With Cheek," by David Bornstein (December 1995)
The Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, which makes small loans to some of the poorest people on earth, has become a model for economic developers all over the world.


Sen's new book, Development as Freedom (reviewed in the December issue of The Atlantic), is a broad-ranging, often ruminative work, and a good introduction to the multitude of interests that have defined his career. Although Sen is probably best known for his research on famines, his work on women -- the attention he has drawn to their unequal status in the developing world, and his calls for gender-specific aid programs -- is just as important. A former professor of both philosophy and economics at Harvard, he is also a gifted mathematician -- a skill that has earned him legitimacy among mainstream economists and allowed him to propagate his unorthodox views. Sen has written on such diverse topics as objectivity, liberalism, and agency. In 1998 he was appointed the first non-British master of Trinity College, Cambridge -- considered by many the most prestigious academic post in the United Kingdom.

Akash Kapur recently interviewed Sen for Atlantic Unbound. The conversation took place at Sen's Cambridge residence.



Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen   

The accompanying review mentions your role in tempering the face of development over the past decade. But do you think development has in fact changed? Is it more sensitive, softer, than it used to be?

I don't think development is softer -- that implies it's not sufficiently exacting -- but certainly there was a sense for a while that development was a very hard process, and that people had to sacrifice. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears involved.

That hadn't always been the case. If you look at the early, classical writings in development you find that it was always assumed that economic development was a benign process, in the interest of the people. The view that you have to ignore any kind of social sympathies for the underdog, and that you can't have a democracy, didn't become the dominant thought until the beginning of modern development economics, which is really in the 1940s. That lasted until quite recently. I think it's fair to say that development these days is not quite as harsh as it used to be.

Why did that change come about?

Well, I think maybe because the previous view was mostly mistaken. There was a tension in it. The market economy succeeds not because some people's interests are suppressed and other people are kept out of the market, but because people gain individual advantage from it. So, I don't really see that the proponents of the harsh model got the general idea at all right. They had some dreadful slogans like, "You have to break some eggs to make an omelet." It's a totally misleading analogy -- a pretty costly one aesthetically, and also it's quite mistaken in terms of understanding the nature of man. So, I think the change came about because it was overdue.

But did something happen in a more practical sense? Why did the establishment suddenly wake up to the error of its views?

First of all, it was becoming increasingly clear that economies like those in East Asia -- beginning with Japan but also South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and China -- were benefiting from a participatory economic climate in which people's entry into the market was made much easier because they had been provided social opportunities through such things as schooling, basic health care, basic land reform, and microcredit. These economies were riding on the success of the individual entering the market.

Now, at the same time, many of these economies were not democratic. But as many of them -- South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand -- became more democratic, it became very clear that the friendlier economic climate and the friendlier social opportunities were doing the trick, not the harsh political climate and the suppression of individual liberties.

Furthermore, these economies didn't have the social securities that you find in the European welfare-capitalism model. Asia's leaders kept on saying that such securities are not needed in Asia because of "Asian Values" -- that community values are such that people will automatically take care of each other in a crisis. Well, the fact is they didn't. There is a need for a social mechanism, and that social mechanism wasn't in place. And on top of that, since there was no democracy either, you couldn't demand that social mechanism. That is why democracy has become a major issue throughout the region. It is a major issue being fought in Indonesia, and I think it is an issue that will come up in China and other countries, too.

While on the subject of democracy, I would like to ask you about the coup in Pakistan. Many people and governments seem to think that a suspension of democracy might actually be in the best interests of the country. What do you think?

It is very difficult to talk about Pakistan at the moment, because I don't think we have fully analyzed it. Democracy is not just majority rule. It's also toleration -- tolerance of minority views and tolerance of criticism. The previous government, even though it had a majority, was deeply intolerant. My friend Najam Sethi, who edits The Friday Times, was enormously harassed while in jail, and harassment continued even after he was released. The suppression of opposition made Pakistan a less democratic regime.

So at the moment there are three things to consider. One is that the previous regime was elected by a majority but was not a democratic regime. Secondly, some of the jubilation is really not about military rule at all, but about the end of the role of Nawaz Sharif and his hangers-on. And the third issue is whether this will pave the way for fresh elections and perhaps a democratic government that tolerates opposition, or whether it is going to lead to a solidification of the military dictatorship. To some extent Pakistan is benefiting from the disestablishment of the past tyranny. Very often, though, this leads to a new tyranny. I don't think we can predict what will happen at this time.

Could you talk about how you became attuned to the role of women in development? I've always wondered about this -- after all, you were writing about the subject quite a while before it became fashionable to do so.

That's right. In fact, when I first started writing about women, the opposition came from all quarters.

When was this?

I think women became an issue in my writings in the early 1960s. It seemed to me that the inequalities were manifest in every respect. When I was looking at the pattern of hunger or of schooling and at such matters as the allocation of resources within a family, the inequalities seemed so apparent that I was surprised that people didn't talk about it. But of course people did talk about it. A number of others had talked about the subject beforehand -- mainly fiction writers. But in the social sciences, among economists, and in political circles, I was surprised at the resistance I got.

There was resistance from the left, which thought that any dilution of the class issue would be a mistake, would have the effect of weakening the class war. I think that was a very shallow analysis -- class is a big divider, but it's not the only one. And on top of that, when you have several dividers, when there is an accumulation of the disadvantages -- women in lower-class families, possibly from lower castes and possibly from a backward region -- you get a dreadful situation. Quite often the left opposition did not do justice to the left-wing position, which is to understand all the root causes of deprivation, rather than just concentrate on one.

There was also opposition from people who held a very anti-Western view, and who thought that I was trying to sell a kind of pro-Western position. When I was pointing out how dreadfully deprived the Indian women were, one of my colleagues told me in response that many anthropological studies have indicated that when asked whether they feel deprived, rural Indian women said no, they didn't. But the women didn't understand the question. They were talking about family welfare rather than their own individual welfare. The idea of the self-sacrificing woman has been so praised, idealized, and idolized, that out of deprivation has been created a heroism that doesn't serve the interests of the women very much. I felt that that self-sacrifice survived only by what Marx would have called "false consciousness" on the part of the women -- that is, a belief that their interests are already looked after by the family, which is not the case. This is one of those contexts in which being more self-interested may do the world a lot more good. I would call this kind of opposition nativist -- it takes the view that the traditional cultures are basically all right, and one shouldn't criticize them.

It's taken some time to overcome all this opposition, and it's fair to say that the expansion of feminist movements across the world has helped a great deal. Even the Western feminist activism has played a very important part in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan; and in a lot of other countries in the world it has played or is beginning to play a big part.

You've told me that you don't check your e-mail and that you have six thousand unanswered messages. But since this interview is destined for the Internet, do you have any thoughts on how the Internet can help development?

It can help development if the basic access can be made a bit cheaper. People have the talent to use the Internet very easily, even though I shun it like poison. There was a day when I answered seventy letters in e-mail; it took half a day or more, and since I still had several thousand to deal with, I decided that this was a loser's game, and I simply went off it, leaving a mechanical message saying I don't read e-mail.

The fact is that e-mail could extend communications into very remote areas. But if you're dealing with the poor sub-Saharan African villager or the poor Indian villager, this could be a very expensive thing. So there is a need for some kind of public-private cooperation to extend e-mail access.

I've noticed that a number of non-government organizations (NGOs) are moving away from what we might call more basic jobs like rural sanitation, health, and education and setting up sophisticated Internet centers -- partly because of the surplus of donor money in this area. Do you think there's a danger of misplaced priorities?

There is danger of that, because at the moment access to the Internet is very class-based, and to the extent that public resources get diverted from those things that benefit the underdog to those things that benefit the top dog, this is a retrograde movement. I'm afraid there's a certain amount of that happening. One has to look at it very carefully, so that it doesn't end up doing more harm than good. If properly thought through, the Internet can do a lot of good. I think it's ultimately in the interest of the world that people communicate with each other much more.

One notable event over the past decade has been the proliferation of small, grassroots NGOs. Some people might say this is a good thing, because they are more sensitive to local concerns. Others might say that these NGOs lack the expert knowledge of larger organizations. What is your view?

I think we need bulk -- big NGOs like Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International, or the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. These organizations have enormous experience in different countries, and they have a well-developed philosophy that they can apply cogently and with great effectiveness. But cut off as they are, it is very difficult for them to deal with particular variations. And this is where local NGOs could play quite a big part. As long as one type of organization doesn't try to shut out the other, there can be a very complementary relationship between them.

Your career has been pretty broad-ranging. Some people would mean that as a criticism -- saying that it makes you less effective, less practical. How do you respond?

I don't know that that criticism is so often voiced. I guess I've seen it sometimes.

It has often been voiced to me. Maybe people are scared to say it directly to you.

I guess I am not very "effective." But I'm not sure I would have been more effective if I'd become a technical economist instead. I did spend half my life in physics, mathematics, and economics, and more than half my work is in social-choice theory. In fact, the main thing that the Nobel citation lists is my achievements in social-choice theory. I'm proud of those works because they're good -- at least I think so -- and I worked hard on them.

But I am interested in poverty, I am interested in women's deprivation; I am interested in child welfare and child mortality. I'm interested in the battering of the lives of young women who are constantly bearing and rearing children. I don't see why I should not go into these questions on the grounds that I am broadening myself too much and should therefore stick to social-choice theory. I don't even understand the argument fully. Human beings have the ability to work in different fields. Why can't one work in several different areas without each ending up being an enemy of the other? Sometimes I actually benefit from the insights of one field into the other. The kind of mathematical theory that social-choice theory provides is very important for development studies. Alternatively, the kind of broadening of interests that development studies provide is very important for social-choice theory and welfare economics. I don't really agree with the view that I could have been more effective. That's not to say I've been effective at all, but I don't think I would have reached more than the present level of low effectiveness if I had concentrated myself in one particular area.

The way I've heard the criticism, it's more directed at your forays into cultural analysis or philosophy. I think it might be a social-sciences prejudice against anything that appears woolly headed or softer.

Well, I don't see that. First of all, as far as philosophy is concerned, it's always been one of my abiding interests. Indeed, at Harvard I was a professor of philosophy and of economics, and a reasonable proportion of my work has been published in journals of philosophy. The question of woolly headedness doesn't really come in here very much, because it's quite exacting philosophy. Philosophy of science, of logic, or objectivity. I don't see how that work could be accused of being woolly headed. You have to be referring more to things like the work on culture.

But culture is very important in our lives. It's very important in my life, and hopefully it's very important in yours. Given that fact, and given the fact that we don't lead lives that are compartmentalized, our culture must have influence on everything else we do. Some of the deprivations we look at in development could be cultural deprivations. Major battles have been fought in the world on cultural grounds -- the Crusades, for example. If one takes the view that just because one cannot measure cultural output in the same way that one would measure the production of tomatoes or the value of the GNP per head, that therefore cultures are uninteresting, I think that is a big mistake. The fact that novels or poetry are not precisely measurable like kilograms of milk or flour does not mean that they are not amenable to analytical investigation. Quite often, when people say that something is not precise enough, they are just underestimating the reach of mathematics. Mathematics is one of the greatest glories of humanity, and its reach is not confined to the things that we did in college -- the differential equations and applied differentiable functions and so forth. I think that's a slander not just on culture but also on mathematics.

Tell me a little about the foundation you set up with your Nobel Prize money.

There are two parts, really. One is called Pratichi India Trust. The other is called Pratichi Bangladesh Trust. Both are aimed at the specific deprivations of illiteracy, lack of basic health care, and gender inequality -- especially at the level of children. The present plan is that the Pratichi India Trust will tend to concentrate more on the illiteracy issue, whereas the Pratichi Bangladesh Trust will concentrate more on the gender inequality issue. The money for this is coming from my Nobel Prize, which is quite a nice sum of money for the individual, but is not a lot for trusts. At some point it may become possible for the trusts to accept other funds.

What sorts of projects will the trusts fund?

Well, that depends. The Bangladesh project is in a very preliminary stage, and when I go there in December I intend to discuss this much more extensively. As far as the India project is concerned, the thinking is that there are many different problems that affect Indian education. Perhaps the most important one, on which I have been writing for over forty years now, is the official neglect of primary education. For every university-educated person in China, India has six; but as far as the level of literacy is concerned, China is quite close to complete literacy, especially among the young, while India is still 30 percent illiterate. More funding is certainly very important for primary education, but the problem is a little bit more complicated. Teacher absenteeism is quite common in many schools. There is a need for greater parental interest in the governing of schools. There is also a great deal that the various Indian states can learn from each other. Why is it, for example, that in Kerala schoolteachers are very rarely absent, whereas in Bihar standards are poor? All these things require more institutional thinking. At the moment I am thinking about setting up an institute, a small one, to do research on this subject. A think-tank type of thing, dealing particularly with comparative experiences within India (and also some from abroad). I think that is the direction we are likely to go in with the India Trust.


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More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Akash Kapur is a Rhodes Scholar at Nuffield College, Oxford, and a contributing editor of Transition,an international review of politics, culture, and ethnicity.

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