Why Should the World Listen to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen?

The 1998 Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen

The 1998 Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen

Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen is an Indian economist cum philosopher. His ideas of “what is real development” are being vigorously debated for over a decade, particularly since 1998 when he received the Nobel Prize. His Capability Approach (CA) evolved and took shape in the eighties and nineties and has now emerged as an alternative model of “development” which has a “real human face”. It includes the current concept of “development” which is narrowly restricted to economic growth and sees people as mere tools to achieve it, but goes beyond it covering all aspects of human life.

Is “Development” merely Economic Growth?

New face of Modern India

New face of Modern India

Today, if you talk about progress and development people start expecting a lecture on economic growth and gross domestic products. Thinkers worldwide have realized that “economic growth as development” model is simply too inadequate to provide meaningful and sustainable development. It is also exploitative; it uses people as “tools” to achieve economic growth. In other words, economic expansion, technologies, and creation of multitude of goods and facilities are primary; people are secondary. Their well-being is supposed to depends on how much goods and facilities they can enjoy. The more money and other resources you have the more “developed” you are. The model is silent on what people want and how they want to lead their lives, beyond amassing wealth. In fact, all other aspects of human life – mental, spiritual, social and political – have no relevance in the current model of development which measures human well-being only in money terms.

A lot of people across the world are asking the question: Is Development merely the economic growth or industrialization or technological progress? Perhaps the biggest drawback of this economy focused model is that it reduces people to the status of mere tools of production and consumption to achieve the economic growth – measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). It has promoted “consumerism” – and consumption as the distorted barometer of “development.” People of the so-called developed nations are now the biggest consumers on the planet; the rest of the world is doing its best to catch up with them. It has led to another clearly visible distortion in the world economy: the economically developed nations take the rest of the poorer humanity and the resources of the planet for granted – as if they exist just to be exploited to keep the world GDP expanding and thus, the economic engine running.

This brand of “development” has also created a peculiar and highly unjust world-order – few “most developed” nations can invade any small country, particularly if it has oil reserves (the current raw material to keep the economic engine running) or if it helps to sustain or promote their hegemony. Their material opulence makes them think they are beyond any accountability – towards the nature or humanity.

What is called “global warming” and “climate change” is the proof of what blind industrialization carried out in the name of “development” can do to the well-being of the planet which sustains life in numerous forms on this planet. It is the best proof that the current algebra of equating economic and industrial growth with “development” is dangerous, unsustainable and wrong-sided. Digging coal and crude petroleum from the ground and burning it to produce electricity is not “development.” Using people to produce more and more goods and fancy technological products is not “development” – it is at best a thrilling race with no finishing line! Of course, it automatically finishes when the world finishes!!

Amartya Sen’s Capability Development Approach

In contrast, Amartya Sen’s “development” model is simple and revolves around the people: it puts people and their capabilities under the spotlight and its only aim to expand people’s capabilities. Sen does not see people as tools (means) of development; they are the “target” of development. It accepts the important role of economic growth and technology along with many other factors such as social, political and environmental but only as means towards expansion of people’s capabilities – the real development. Therefore, Sen’s development model is all inclusive, not limited to economic growth alone.

The core of Sen’s thesis is simple: expansion of freedom leads to expansion of people’s capabilities which is development, and vice versa. Therefore, anything that restricts people’s freedom goes against development. For example, absence of economic infrastructure; social discriminations in any form – gender, racial, religious or regional; inability to access public services of say, healthcare, educational or banking, for whatever reason; hunger and poverty; inability to participate in economic, social and political activities and processes for whatever reasons; and all such factors will restrict the development (of people).

Impact of Sen’s Theory

undp_hdrSen’s approach is relevant not just for the poor or “less developed” countries but also for the rich nations which are still afflicted by numerous maladies – unsustainable economic development, racial and religious discriminations, violence, drug or alcohol abuse, high level of stress among people, and so on. In fact, the capability approach helps to explor the root of the problem.

It is encouraging that even governments and policymakers of the economically developed nations are trying to take guidance from Sen’s capability approach. Globally, the capabilities model is seriously debated and people are looking for ways to apply it to a range of social problems – inequality, poverty, social justice, human rights, and so on.

Professor Sen’s influence is clearly seen in the UNDP’s programs and reports. Its Human Development Index (HDI) started in 1990 was the first major step towards measuring human well-being with parameters other than purely economic. In the mid nineties, it came up with the Human Poverty Index (HPI). It supplemented the HDI until 2010 when it was replaced by the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) which assesses poverty through 10 indicators, probing lack of well-being, health and education. The HDI and HPI met encouraging response worldwide; now the MPI is also enjoying widespread acceptance.

Sen’s model has been widely applauded as the right way forward to a more humane world by economists and political experts across the globe. The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences praised Sen “for his contributions to welfare economics” and for restoring “an ethical dimension” to the discussion of vital issues of economics. The former UN Chief, Kofi Annan has remarked, “the world’s poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate or insightful a champion.” With his lifelong interest in people of poor economies and ethical form of development centering on the well being of people, he sure deserves such remarks.

Real development is all about human well-being and allowing people to realize their true potentials to lead happy, satisfied and stress-free life – anything else is a mere game of progress.

You may also like to read:
Why “development” should Focus on People, Not Economy
Amartya Sen’s Concepts of Development and Poverty
Is the World Really Becoming Safer and Better?

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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