Amartya Sen, GHF Board Member

Amartya Sen
1998 Nobel Economics Laureate; Professor of Economics and philosophy, Harvard University

A man of ideas, Amartya Sen has taught economics at an astonishing number of prestigious universities in Asia, Europe, and North America. In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize for economics “for his contribution to welfare economics” and for his work on famine, human development theory, and the underlying mechanisms of poverty.

He is most famous for linking development and freedom. In his major work, “Development As Freedom” (1999) Sen demonstrated how, through economic development, people can better choose how to live their lives in freedom.

Sen was born in Santiniketan in West Bengal, the university town created by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, another Indian Nobel Prize winner. Tagore is said to have given Sen his name “Amartya” which means “immortal”.

In his acceptance speech in Stockholm Sen quoted a poem by Tagore in praise of freedom of the mind: “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.”

After undergraduate studies at Visva-Bharati and Presidency College in Calcutta, he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a First Class B.A. and then a PhD. Since he was elected a Prize Fellow of Trinity College, he had freedom for four years to do what he liked, and this is when he immersed himself in studying philosophy, which has been a lasting engagement.

Sen started his academic career at Jadavpur University in Calcutta at the age of 23. He subsequently held professorships at the University of Delhi, London School of Economics, Oxford University and Harvard University, and he has also been visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Cornell University, and the University of California at Berkeley. He headed his old college in Cambridge as Master of Trinity during 1998-2004.

“I have never had any serious non-academic job,” comments Sen. Notwithstanding, Amartya Sen is anything but an ivory tower intellectual.

His book, “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation,” wherein he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food, and his work on the causes of famine and more generally in the field of development economics had resonances far beyond academe. He had a strong influence on formulation of the Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This eagerly awaited annual publication by UNDP that ranks countries on a variety of economic and social indicators owes much to the contributions by Sen and other social theorists in the area of economic measurement of poverty and inequality.

Sen’s views on famine go back a long way. When he was a nine year-old boy he witnessed firsthand the Bengali Famine of 1943 in which three million people perished. The famine was entirely avoidable as Sen showed later, and identified the economic causes of starvation in Bengal in 1943 linked with an uneven economic boom and blundered public policy.

Other examples of Sen’s reaching far beyond college campuses are reflected in life-time Achievement Awards from the Indian Chamber of Commerce and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Eisenhower Medal for Leadership and Service, the Bharat Rama, India’s highest civilian award, the Edinburgh Medal, the Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize in Ethics, and the Brazilian Ordem Do Merito Cientifico: Gra-Cruz.

Sen has served as President of the American Economic Association, the Indian Economic Association, the International Economic Association, and the Econometric Society, reflecting his keen interest in his work as a professional economist. He has also been Honorary President of Oxfam.

Skipping back over his Who’s Who of leading universities, Sen recalls his formative years at Tagore’s school in Santiniketan. “This was a co-educational school with many progressive features. The emphasis was on fostering curiosity rather than competitive excellence, and any kind of interest in examination performances and grades was severely discouraged. I can remember one of my teachers telling me about a fellow student, ‘even though her grades are very good, she is quite a serious thinker.’ Since I was, I have to confess, a reasonably good student, I had to do my best to efface that stigma.”

Asked one day how he relaxed, Sen replied: “I go on long bicycle rides when in India, I read a lot and I like arguing with people.” (P.Ress)


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