Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview

Preface

Much about poverty is obvious enough. One does not need elaborate criteria, cunning measurement, or probing analysis, to recognize raw poverty and to understand its antecedents. It would be natural to be impatient with long-winded academic studies on 'poor naked wretches' with 'houseless heads and unfed sides' and 'loop'd and windowed raggedness', to use King Lear's graphic description. And furthermore it may also be the case, as Lear told the blind Gloucester, that 'a man may see how this world goes with no eyes'. There is indeed much that is transparent about poverty and misery.

But not everything about poverty is quite so simple. Even the identification of the poor and the diagnosis of poverty may be far from obvious when we move away from extreme and raw poverty. Different approaches can be used (e.g. biological inadequacy, relative deprivation), and there are technical issues to be resolved within each approach. Furthermore, to construct an overall picture of poverty, it is necessary to go well beyond identifying the poor. To provide an aggregate profile based on the characteristics of those who are identified as poor, problems of aggregation have to be squarely faced. Finally -- and most importantly -- the causation of poverty raises questions that are not easily answered. While the 'immediate' antecedents of poverty may be too obvious to need much analysis, and the 'ultimate' causation too vague and open-ended a question to be settled fully, there are various intermediate levels of useful answers that are worth exploring. The problem is of particular relevance in the context of recent discussions on the causation of hunger and starvation.

This monograph is concerned with these questions. The main focus of this work is on the causation of starvation in general and of famines in particular. The basic approach, which involves analysing 'entitlement systems', is introduced in general terms in Chapter 1. This is done even before the concepts of poverty are examined in any detail, because that is where the thrust of this monograph lies. In Chapters 2 and 3 problems of conceptualization and measurement of poverty are examined. The specific

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