Filter +

Amartya Sen: A More Human Theory of Development



NEW YORK, Dec 6, 2004 - Amartya Sen was born in 1933 in Santiniketan, India. His early education was deeply influenced by his school's founder, Rabindranath Tagore. In 1998, Professor Sen became the first Indian and the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Economics; he was praised by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences "for his contributions to welfare economics" and for restoring "an ethical dimension" to the discussion of vital economic problems.

Professor Sen has taught at a number of universities worldwide and is presently Lamont University Professor at Harvard. His publications include Development as Freedom (Oxford UP, 1999); On Ethics and Economics (Basil Blackwell, 1987); and Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Clarendon Press, 1982). Among his forthcoming books are Identity and the Violence of Illusion and The Argumentative Indian.

Interview conducted by's Nermeen Shaikh.


Some critics have suggested that development as it has been pursued in the last fifty years was poorly conceived and narrowly defined. What biases in the development agenda were you trying to address and why?

The idea of development is a complex one: it is not surprising that people think that the way development is defined could be improved. When the subject began in the 1940s it was primarily driven by the progress in economic growth theory that had occurred through the preceding period in the 1930s as well the 1940s. It was dominated by the basic vision that poor countries are just low-income countries, and the focus was simply on transcending the problems of underdevelopment through economic growth, increasing GNP and so on. That proved to be a not very good way of thinking about development, which has to be concerned with advancing human well-being and human freedom. Income is one of the factors that contributes to welfare and freedom, but not the only factor. The process of economic growth is a rather poor basis for judging the progress of a country; it is not, of course, irrelevant but it is only one factor among many.

It is interesting to remember that if we go back a long time, the development agenda, right from the beginning, had a concern with human life, going well back to Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and others. But all this had to be reasserted in the contemporary development literature. This is an issue in which I have felt quite involved. I should explain that I am not primarily a development economist. I should not pretend to be one! (Even though I feel flattered when I read that I got the Nobel for contributions to development economics, it was in fact awarded for work on "welfare economics" and "social choice theory".) But insofar as I have been involved in development, I have been concerned quite a bit with the nature of development and the causal mechanisms that contribute to it.

The Human Development Report, published annually by the UNDP since 1990, draws substantially on your work on capabilities. Could you explain the importance of this approach and its policy implications?

Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it. That is, I think, the basic focus of the human development approach. It was pioneered by Mahbub ul-Haq and the first report came out in 1990. Mahbub started working on this in the summer of 1989. I remember his ringing me in Finland where I was living at the time. Mahbub, of course, was an extremely close friend: we were students together, we maintained close contact until his untimely death, and I always enjoyed talking and arguing with him, which we did throughout our friendship.

Regarding your question, I would say it is not quite correct to say that the Human Development Report draws on my ideas in particular; it draws on the ideas of a lot of us and Mahbub himself was a great pioneer of this. We could see the expressions of frustration Mahbub had in his early work. For example, in his 1963 book on Pakistan, The Strategy of Economic Planning, he mentions that if India and Pakistan were to grow at what were then thought to be the most rapid rates experienced in the world, then in about 25 years or so, India or Pakistan would be where Egypt was at that time. Mahbub was, obviously, not anti-Egyptian in any sense! But he was arguing that it is just not good enough for India and Pakistan, after 25 years of maximum growth, only to get where Egypt already was. This basic concern can be seen as the beginning of human development thought, and it had much to do with the way Mahbub's mind was working already in 1963.

He was arguing that we should be able to make human life much richer by going directly at the determining factors that influence the quality of our lives. However, in his professional life in Pakistan, Mahbub got involved, first, with administration, and then for a while, with politics, as Pakistan's finance minister, and in between he was advising and working with the World Bank. So he was not master of his own time in the way I was, being an academic. So I had more opportunity to work freely to pursue the ideas that he and I shared. Mahbub was very interested indeed when I delivered my first Tanner Lecture in 1979 called "Equality of what?" at Stanford (I gave two other Tanner Lectures on a related theme at Cambridge University in 1985). The 1979 essay was really my first serious writing on what is now called "the capabilities approach." I remember seeing Mahbub not long after that in Geneva and we had a long conversation about it. Then my book, Commodities and Capabilities, came out in 1985, and a further study, called The Standard of Living, came out in 1987, based on my 1985 Cambridge lectures. I was getting more and more involved in all this, and Mahbub was cheering me on.

When he called me in 1989, he told me that I was too much into pure theory and I should drop all that now ("enough is enough"), and that he and I should work together on something with actual measurement, actual numbers, and try to make an impact on the world. He was very "driven" (as always!). He displayed the same kind of vigor I recollected he had in our undergraduate days together, a vigor which had been somewhat restrained by his official positions in the Bank and in the Government of Pakistan. I remember asking his wife - Khadija (or Bani to us, her friends) - whether I was right in thinking that Mahbub was back to his old high spirits, and she confirmed that he was. Absolutely.

Next: "Institutions, like all of us individually, also go through a learning process."