Magazine article World Watch

Sen and Sensibility

Magazine article World Watch

Sen and Sensibility

Article excerpt

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into the Atlantic coast of Central America, leaving an estimated 18,000 people dead. Honduran President Carlos Flores called it the "disaster of the century." But with a vigor that rivaled the force of the storm, relief aid came pouring in. Almost immediately, long-term assistance began to take shape as well, in the form of debt forgiveness offered by several European governments.

Unfortunately, there are ongoing disasters even more destructive than the most horrific hurricanes. Chronic malnutrition, disease-ridden water, poverty, and illiteracy are victimizing not thousands, but hundreds of millions of people.

Just days before the disaster, Amartya Sen, a professor at Cambridge and Harvard Universities, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on welfare economics and inequity issues. Sen was a child in Bengal (now eastern India and Bangladesh) during the famine there in 1943. He remembers handing out tins of rice to the poor - and wondering why they could not afford to buy food in a year when supplies were not especially low. Eventually, he concluded that the prime ingredients of the Bengali famine had been unemployment, high food prices, and an unsympathetic colonial government.

An important milestone for Sen was the realization that healthy economies are not just based on the behavior of individuals making self-interested decisions (as mainstream economists seem to assume), but also on ethical or social values that market theory simply does not address or explain. …

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