also Book Review on Development as Freedom)
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."
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.
Amarthya Sen, Noble Prize
winning economist and social activist. On the left is his book.
Kapur: 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?
Sen: 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
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
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
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
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
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.
[Editor's Note: Interview
conducted in December 1999 and published in The Atlantic.
Akash Kapur is a research student at Oxford University's Centre
for Socio-Legal Studies and a contributing editor of Transition,
an international review of politics, culture, and ethnicity.]