Amartya Sen, who is known as the ‘Mother Teresa of Economics', is an Indian economist, philosopher and expert on welfare who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 for his contribution to welfare economics.
Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, which was written by Sen in 1981, was credited with changing the way famine is understood and consequently tackled. Until this work, the common belief was that famine was due to a shortage of food. The book was based on his studies into catastrophes such as those seen in India, Bangladesh and Saharan countries from the 1940s onwards.
Sen was born in 1933 in Santiniketan, a small town north of Calcutta in India. He was the son of a chemistry teacher, Ashutosh Sen, who taught at Dhaka University. His maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, taught Sanskrit and ancient and medieval Indian culture at a college in Santiniketan. After a brief flirtation with Sanskrit, mathematics and physics, Sen's attention turned to economics, which became his principal area of interest.
His education at Rabindranath Tagore's school in Santiniketan helped form Sen's attitudes towards education and cultural identity. It was a progressive school that offered a window not only on the cultural heritage of India, but also gave Sen an understanding of world influences including East and South-East Asia, West Asia and Africa. It was this approach to cultural diversity (which was reflected in the curriculum) that captured his imagination.
In his teens, Sen witnessed violence that was linked to sectarian politics; a politics that directly contradicted his belief in the "idea of India" and its rich cultural diversity. In the mid-1940s the divisive political system led to communal killings, as Indians redefined their identities; no longer were they people of the nation of India, they formed sectarian identities as Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs. The murder of a Muslim laborer, whose economic circumstances left him no choice but to enter a hostile area during communal rioting, compelled Sen to learn more about what he termed "economic unfreedom."
In 1943, Sen witnessed further devastation in his homeland in the form of the Bengal famine, which claimed between two and three million lives. This experience led Sen to believe that the famine was, in fact, class related. He noted especially that neither his own family, his peers at school nor his friends had been affected by the famine. Sen felt it was an affliction of the lower classes that took its toll on the likes of landless rural laborers, with absolutely no impact on the middle classes.
These events were to influence Sen's academic interests and the career that was to follow. From 1951 to 1953, he studied economics at Presidency College in Calcutta. He went on to gain a BA in economics (major) and math (minor) at Calcutta University before travelling to Cambridge in 1953, where he studied pure economics at Trinity College. Sen taught at Calcutta, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Delhi Universities and the London School of Economics. He was also a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Berkeley and Cornell.
Questions that interest Sen include how inequality should be measured, how to compare the distribution of welfare in different societies and what are the key factors to trigger famines. His research has contributed greatly to central fields of economic science and has opened new fields of study for subsequent generations of researchers. Sen combines the fields of philosophy and economics in research. His work has been crucial in introducing an ethical dimension to the discussion of economic problems. Much of his research deals with developing economics, which underlines his devotion to the welfare of the poorest people in society.
Sen has also tackled the issue of majority rule and identifying problems with the system of majority voting as a way to make collective decisions. He asserted that it could allow a majority to suppress a minority. Another concern for the economist was the wider issues surrounding equality - particularly gender equity in India and Bangladesh, literacy and basic health care.
The works of Sen include:
- 1970: Collective Choice and Social Welfare;
- 1970: The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal (Journal of Political Economy);
- 1976: Poverty, an Ordinal Approach to Measurement (Econometrica 44);
- 1981: Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation;
- 1983: Poor, Relatively Speaking (Oxford Economic Papers);
- 1992: Inequality Re-examined;
- 1999: Development as Freedom.