Economy & Politics

Amartya Sen: thought leader of global justice

Amartya Sen at the presentation of his book
Amartya Sen at the presentation of his book “A Quantum Leap in the Wrong Direction” in February 2019 in New Delhi. A number of older works are currently being published in German translation. imago images / Hindustan Times

Without him the fight against poverty would be much poorer. The Indian intellectual Amartya Sen paved the way to measure deprivation economically, while placing human development at the center. Thanks to his findings, the United Nations has the Human Development Index as its benchmark – and meanwhile 17 global sustainability goals (SDG) that must be achieved. Amartya Sen is thus an essential pioneer for holistically fixing the causes of poverty and hunger in many circumstances and political decisions.

Because the 86-year-old economist and philosopher is also a citizen of the world, the Börsenverein awarded him the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade this year as a “thought leader in questions of global justice”. In his laudation, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, citing Sen, called for “rules for globalization”. If these turned out to be unfair, “don’t we have to change the rules?” He asked.

In the justification for the award of the prize, the jury particularly emphasizes his work to combat social inequality. They “are more relevant today than ever before”, Sen does not measure social prosperity solely in terms of economic growth or overall economic benefit, but also in terms of the individual development opportunities of the weakest. When it comes to the question of whether growth ensures justice or not, Sen is one of the most important advocates of the opinion that without a healthy, well-educated population, continuous economic growth is impossible.

Influence on economic schools of thought

The Peace Prize jury sees his work as a call to promote a culture of political decision-making that is based on responsibility for others and does not deny anyone the right to have a say and self-determination. These moral and ethical claims – a fundamental alternative to the prevailing liberal market theory – have had a lasting impact on many economists. In the tradition of Amartya Sen, modern schools of thought that think economic and social, but also ecological challenges together are increasingly gaining in importance, emphasizes the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), which is located at the Oxford Martin School of the famous Oxford in the UK is. The institution has set itself the goal of shaking the “market fundamentalist consensus” in economics.

Not only INET or the International Inequalities Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) are researching theories of inequality. Lecture series will be held in honor of Amartya Sen and a chair for Inequalities Studies was recently established. If you ask its first owner, Francisco Ferreira, who he considers to be the leading economic thinkers who are following in the footsteps of the pioneer Sen, he spontaneously thinks of a few names. Before his appointment, Ferreira was Director of Research at the World Bank, where he headed the Poverty and Social Inequality Unit.

Famines and their causes

The “student” closest to Amartya Sen is undoubtedly his companion Jean Dreze. The Indian who grew up in Belgium asked Sen in a letter to write about the prevention of famine beyond the causes. This was followed by almost 30 years of collaboration, with the common book Hunger and Public Action (Oxford University Press, 1989) began: a standard work for many academics who are interested in various barriers to human development opportunities beyond conventional poverty indicators.

Even the UN index of human development – the Human Development Index – which was ennobled with the Nobel Prize for Economics, would be inconceivable without the work. Much noticed, in 2014 the joint critical examination of India. A country and its contradictions (C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2014), a critical analysis of the interaction between the democratic system, the economy and the social fabric as well as the neglect of social problems. Unlike Sen, who never gave direct advice to governments, Dreze is considered a “barefoot economist” who constantly interferes as an activist.

Poverty has many measurable faces

The American James Foster is one of the leading economists who continue to write Sens’s theories about the ability or ability for human development. The economist and professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University was instrumental in developing the “Alkire-Foster method” in welfare economics and measuring poverty: the basis for a multidimensional poverty index (MPI). According to Foster, he has led some governments to question and improve their methods of fighting poverty.

The MPI broadens the perspective of individual income thresholds (which define extreme poverty below $ 1.90 per day, for example) and instead breaks the concept of poverty down for households to the basic needs of people that they cannot meet. It thus measures deprivations that hinder development, such as educational poverty, miserable housing conditions or a lack of health care. According to Sens’s school of thought, all factors that restrict people’s freedom of choice for social self-determination. More recently, Foster has been researching the necessary qualities and dimensions of inclusive economic growth.


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