The New YorkTimes - October 15, 1998
Economist Wins Nobel Prize for Work on Famines and Poverty
By SYLVIA NASAR
Amartya Sen won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science on Wednesday for work on human rights, poverty and inequality that has changed the way governments deal with famines and for what the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said had "restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economics problems."
Sen, 64, whose given name means "one who deserves immortality" in Bengali, is master of Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and professor emeritus at Harvard University. He was president of the American Economics Association in 1994, still teaches part-time at Harvard and is finishing a book on democracy and capitalism that will be published by Knopf next year.
Just a decade ago, a member of the economics prize committee of the Swedish academy confidently predicted that "Sen will never get the prize." His unfashionable concerns with values and his equally unfashionable style (highly influential, but wide-ranging, diffuse, lacking a single killer theorem) seemed out of step with the value-free, specialized approach that the economics profession places emphasis on.
But times have changed, including inside the secretive Swedish academy that administers the economics prize. The economics prize was created in 1969 and has grown increasingly controversial within the academy, which is dominated by hard scientists.
In a seismic yet unannounced shift three years ago, the Academy, reacting to internal criticism over the quality of past and prospective recipients, essentially broadened the economics prize into a social science prize encompassing contributions to political science, psychology and sociology. At the same time, in a sweeping rule change, the academy also purged the prize committee of the generation that had controlled the prize since its inception and demanded that non-economists be included in the seven-member committee.
A wide-ranging scholar who has sometimes been criticized for spreading himself too thin, Sen has always responded by decrying the narrowness of modern economics and by asserting that juggling many balls badly is better than displaying virtuosity with one ball.
Sen's contributions to welfare economics, the basic theory of how societies make choices that are both fair and efficient, have become part of every graduate student's training in economic theory. And his critiques of economic concepts that were once taken for granted are among the most quoted in economics, including his essay "Rational Fools" in which he takes on the classical presumption that people are motivated primarily by self-interest.
But Sen is best known for his work on the causes of famine, on inequality and on the measurement of poverty, work that many believe has saved many lives.
His 1981 book "Poverty and Famine" (Oxford University Press) influenced the way international organizations and governments deal with food crises. He showed that famine was not just a consequence of nature, but also an avoidable economic and political catastrophe. Drought and flood often precede starvation, but declines in food production rarely account for it. Typically, even if many thousands die, there is enough food in the country to go around or enough money to import it.
Disaster strikes, Sen found, when the poorest people can no longer afford to buy food because they lose their jobs or because food prices soar. In the great Bengal famine, in which three million perished, India's food supplies were not unusually low. Colonial rulers, immune to democratic pressures, simply stood by.
Partly because of Sen's finding, governments now focus less on direct distribution of food and more on replacing the lost income of the poor, through, for example, public works projects.
Sen's theoretical work on inequality shows that all commonly accepted measures of inequality involve hidden, sometimes surprising value judgments. One of the most dramatic insights to grow out of his research was the devastating consequence of inequality between men and women.
Demographers have long been aware that there were fewer women than men in some poor countries, instead of more as in most of the developed world. And economists, including Sen, have documented that girls and women got less food and medical care than men and boys.
But nobody had calculated how many more women would have been alive if the ratio of men and women more closely resembled that of other countries. Sen came up with the startling figure of 100 million "missing" women, most of them in India and China, killed as it were by discrimination.
The questions that Sen has asked in the course of his career, listed by the academy in its press announcement and often posed in dense, mathematically demanding treatises, convey the flavor of his work. How can societies make majority decisions without infringing the rights of dissenting minorities? What measures of inequality are meaningful? How can we decide whether poverty is declining or increasing? What causes famines?
The questions go back a long way. As a child, during the Bengal famine of 1943, Sen handed out cigarette tins of rice to starving refugees as they passed his grandfather's house. The grandfather, a scholar and author of a book on Hinduism, engaged the boy in hours of serious discussion on his beliefs about life. As a teen-ager, Sen considered becoming a Buddhist but turned to economics, mathematics and philosophy instead.
A student at Cambridge in the 1950s of the economist Joan Robinson, who urged him to forget all that "ethics rubbish," he did the opposite.
"Amartya has thought more deeply than anyone about the nature of the judgments we make about economic welfare," said the Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, a lifelong friend. "What do we mean when we say that some group is better off."
A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Sen has long communicated with an audience beyond his fellow economists and often about his native India -- he keeps his citizenship there despite many years in the United States and Britain.
Sen was in New York to attend a memorial service for a friend on Wednesday and was frightened when he was awakened at his hotel by a 5:30 a.m. phone call (from Stockholm, not home, as it turned out). After being told the good news about the prize, he confessed, he was "very touched." He said that he was especially pleased that the academy had highlighted the issues of welfare, inequality and poverty in its press release. "I'm very keen to emphasize the importance of these issues," he said.
For all his moral and intellectual concerns, Sen is remarkably down to earth. His wife, Emma Rothschild, an Oxford economic historian who has just completed a book on 19th century economic thought, talks about his "great big laugh," his fondness for good wine and conversation, and his devotion to his friends and family, including his four children.
Sen will receive his prize, which includes a check of about $964,000 in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 15, 1998
Poverty Scholar Wins Nobel in Economics
Award: His research changed how governments deal with famine, welfare.
By STUART SILVERSTEIN, MARJORIE MILLER, Times Staff Writers
Amartya K. Sen, who as a boy witnessed famine in his native India and went on to research poverty in a way that stretched the limits of economics, on Wednesday was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Sen, 64, is a well-liked academic who left Harvard University
()this year to take the helm of Trinity College at Cambridge University in England. He is regarded in his field as something of a renaissance man with expertise in human welfare, poverty and economic development.
Although Sen long was considered a leading candidate for the Nobel in economics, his selection marks a departure from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' general pattern of opting for economists specializing in theoretical topics with far less impact on social conditions.
The choice of Sen "recognizes that economic problems cannot always be solved with only econometric models and scientific approaches," said Dimitri Papadimitriou, executive director of the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Sen was awarded an honorary doctorate last year.
Papadimitriou said Sen "has brought in the ethical and philosophic dimensions to economics" to deal "with questions of hunger, famine and the general welfare of individuals."
Sen received the news of his prize in a 5:15 a.m. telephone call from Stockholm to his hotel room in New York, where he is visiting the United Nations.
At an afternoon U.N. news conference, he said, "My initial thought [at that hour] was that something terrible must have happened, some accident, having four children in different parts of the world and an aged mother, but happily it turned out to be good news."
Sen added that he was "particularly happy" that the award, worth about $960,000 at current exchange rates, cited his work in explaining the causes of famine and poverty.
"The fact that economics is also concerned with the poor, the downtrodden, the underdogs of society is something that's very close to my heart. And, indeed, I've spent most of my life working on the downside of economics, and it's pleasing that they focused on that."
Sen, who handed out rice to starving refugees during the Bengal famine of 1943, which led to the death of 3 million people, went on to become a leading authority on famines. In his 1981 work "Poverty and Famine"--one of his more than 15 books--he argued that famine was not just a consequence of nature but also a man-made disaster resulting from inadequate political and economic responses.
His research found that India's food supplies during the Bengal famine were not unusually low. Rather, the famine resulted from a run-up in food prices spurred by, among other things, wartime panic and manipulative speculation.
'Famines Are Easy to Prevent'
Partly as a result of Sen's findings, governments have put less emphasis on directly distributing food to the poor and instead have focused more attention on restoring personal incomes through such programs as public works projects.
Although no one in Sen's circle of family or friends was hit by the famine, he said during Wednesday's news conference that "it touched me personally in that as a 9 1/2-year-old boy, you suddenly find emaciated people arriving from nowhere and dying in the thousands. It is a very shaking experience. . . . It made me think specifically about what causes famine, and when I took on the famine work in a formal way 30 years later, I was still quite haunted by the memories of that period.
"Famines are easy to prevent, but very often governments don't have any interest in preventing them," Sen said. "That's because while famines may kill millions, typically it doesn't affect the rulers. . . . What democracy does is make the rulers pay a cost, because once a famine comes, then you'll be criticized in the press if there's a free press, you'll be attacked by other political parties if other political parties are tolerated, you will be chastised in parliament if there is a parliament, and you will lose the next election if there are elections. So a democratic government immediately has an incentive not to have a famine."
Sen has been a pioneer as well in developing new measures of poverty and inequality. He once determined that the lesser amounts of food and medical care that women in poor countries receive than men led to 100 million "missing" women--women who died as a result of being disadvantaged.
In recent years, Sen also has focused on economic development. He came to believe that "improvements in development were not simply to have more things, but more choice in how to live your life," said Frances Stewart, head of Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University's development studies center.
Stewart, who worked with Sen on a U.N. human development report in 1990, said his thinking challenged "the World Bank view, which concentrated on debts. He emphasized the human side of development."
To the extent there is criticism of the amiable Sen, it's largely that he may have spread himself too thin to make a deep, continuing impact in any one area.
Still, Sen's admirers welcomed the news of his award, formally known as the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Howard Glennester, who teaches social policy at the London School of Economics and heads its Suntory Toyota Research Center, said he was encouraged that "an area of economics that has to do with justice, equality and social issues is being taken seriously.
"It is a major shift and shows recognition of equity as something we can discuss," Glennester said. "For so long, economists have been told that equity is not for us . . . [that] you can't talk about it. Amartya Sen said, 'Yes, we can.' This bridges a gap between economics and social policy."
Sen is in New York to participate in a memorial service today for Mahbub ul-Haq, a Pakistani economist and anti-poverty activist. Mahbub and Sen developed an alternative way to measure national prosperity for the U.N. Development Program, the world body's leading provider of economic assistance to poor countries.
The index developed by the two includes such factors as access to health care and education, infant mortality and social equality, rather than just per-capita income.
"Professor Sen's work . . . goes beyond looking at economic growth as the sole indicator of a nation's progress and looks also at the expansion of people's choices and their capacity to live long, healthy, knowledgeable and satisfying lives," said James Gustav Speth, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program.
Sen, who was born in 1933 in Santiniketan, India, graduated from Presidency College at Calcutta University and earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Trinity College. Before returning to Trinity in January, he spent a decade teaching economics and philosophy at Harvard.
He also has taught at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, the Delhi School of Economics, the London School of Economics and Trinity.
Robert Nozick, a Harvard philosophy professor who co-taught classes with Sen, said his former colleague "has broadened the scope of economics. He's made technical contributions in economics that also are of general intellectual interest and philosophic interest."
Nozick also described Sen as "convivial, social and [he] has a great sense of humor."
Sen is married to Emma Rothschild, director of the Center for History and Economics at King's College at Cambridge.
Silverstein reported from Los Angeles and Miller reported from London. Times staff writer Craig Turner in New York contributed to this report.
Wall Street Journal
October 15, 1999
Student of World's 'Miserable'By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS and TRISTAN MABRY
Wins Nobel Prize in Economics
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Amartya K. Sen, who survived the 1943 famine in Bengal and went on to do pioneering research about poverty and the developing world, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics.
The Indian-born Prof. Sen found academically rigorous ways to examine the justice of economic policies, such as the way taxes can have widely different effects on rich and poor. But he is perhaps best known for bringing economic tools to bear on the study of famines, such as the one that scarred his own childhood."By combining tools from economics and philosophy, he has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its award announcement Wednesday. In fact, the 64-year-old Prof. Sen held chairs in both the economics and philosophy departments at Harvard University before leaving for Cambridge University's Trinity College earlier this year.
Intentionally or not, the academy's choice stood in sharp contrast to last year's prize winners, Myron S. Scholes and Robert C. Merton. Brilliant finance specialists, Messrs. Merton and Scholes were selected for their contributions to the theory of options pricing. Their prize has been somewhat tarnished by the recent near-collapse of Long-Term Capital Management LP, the highflying Wall Street hedge fund in which they were partners.
"Economics isn't simply about finance and financial markets," said Gary S. Becker, a University of Chicago economist and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize. "Understanding poverty surely has to rank among the most important issues that economists study."
Indeed, Prof. Sen said he was especially pleased that the economics award this year would focus more attention on the economics of poverty. "When I say I'm an economist, people ask, 'What should I invest in?' " But economics also deals with "the downtrodden," he said at a news conference Wednesday.
For the past few years, Prof. Sen's name has echoed through ivory towers as a possible winner. Indeed, an international Nobel Prize betting pool of academics run by Daniel Altman, an economics graduate student at Harvard University, put the odds on Prof. Sen to win this year.
"He's brought a human face to economics," said Selim Jahan, a former colleague in India and at the United Nations, where they worked to compile the U.N. Human Development Index. The index, drawing heavily on Prof. Sen's work, quantifies the quality of life in different countries, going beyond per capita income to look at other indicators such as longevity and school enrollment -- or "opportunities, rather than just the accumulation of goods," Mr. Jahan said in an interview.
Prof. Sen was in New York this week to attend a memorial tribute Thursday to Dr. Mahbud ul Haq, a Pakistani economist and former U.N. colleague.
"I have always been concerned with the downside of economics, the miserable guys who end up hungry, unemployed, starving," Prof. Sen said in an interview with CNBC Wednesday.
Born in 1933, Amartya Sen was nine years old when famine struck his home region of Bengal, killing three million people at a time when overall Indian food production wasn't particularly low.
Later, long after he earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Prof. Sen revisited his childhood trauma by examining how starvation and plenty could coexist to such disastrous effect. His 1981 book "Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation" is his best-known work on the subject.
Prof. Sen concluded that the Bengali famine was inflation-induced. World War II brought a boom to the region, as the British military presence drove up wages and food prices in the cities. But in the countryside, Bengal's poor saw no increase in their income. Instead, they faced higher food prices without adequate income to feed their families.
"Small changes in the distribution of income can bring about radical hunger," Prof. Sen said in a 1996 interview.
While many economists shy away from policy advocacy and political science, Prof. Sen argues that to eradicate famines, governments should concentrate on boosting rural incomes, while leaving food distribution to the market. "Any famine is easy to prevent if a government has an incentive to prevent it," Prof. Sen said. "If the government generates the income, then the market can deal with the supply problem very well by moving food."
Famines never strike democracies, Prof. Sen has often contended. He attributes that to the fact that elected governments feel an obligation to intercede on behalf of constituents. Autocrats, he said, feel no such compunction. "Democracy gives a political incentive for the government to intervene," he said.
Prof. Sen's work on famines fits into the larger area of social-choice theory, a field of economics that explores how the choices made by society can bring together the wide variety of opinions of the individuals that make up that society. Most commonly, those choices are expressed through voting and majority rule. But economists long ago discovered that simple majority rule can suppress minority views or even distort the majority's will if the voting choices are limited.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Prof. Sen wrote extensively on methods by which collective decisions could gather together the interests of disparate individuals in the most satisfactory way. His work reflected his concern that group actions not trample individual rights, in both the developed and developing worlds. In essence, Prof. Sen added the notion of personal liberties to some economic debates that had previously ignored such concerns.
His research spawned a library of academic literature on social choice, which was one key element in the Nobel Prize selection criteria. In addition, Prof. Sen developed mathematical tools to assess the impact of a particular policy -- progressive taxation, for instance -- that might have dramatically different effects on the rich and poor.
The Nobel Prize in economics -- known officially as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite -- carries a medal and a cash prize of more than $960,000. The 1998 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday in Oslo.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Website: www.kva.se) has decided to award the
1998 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to
Professor Amartya Sen, Trinity College, Cambridge, U.K. (citizen of India)
for his contributions to welfare economics.
Social Choice, Welfare Distributions, and Poverty
Amartya Sen has made several key contributions to the research on fundamental problems in welfare economics. His contributions range from axiomatic theory of social choice, over definitions of welfare and poverty indexes, to empirical studies of famine. They are tied closely together by a general interest in distributional issues and a particular interest in the most impoverished members of society. Sen has clarified the conditions which permit aggregation of individual values into collective decisions, and the conditions which permit rules for collective decision making that are consistent with a sphere of rights for the individual. By analyzing the available information about different individuals' welfare when collective decisions are made, he has improved the theoretical foundation for comparing different distributions of society's welfare and defined new, and more satisfactory, indexes of poverty. In empirical studies, Sen's applications of his theoretical approach have enhanced our understanding of the economic mechanisms underlying famines.
Can the values which individual members of society attach to different alternatives be aggregated into values for society as a whole, in a way that is both fair and theoretically sound? Is the majority principle a workable decision rule? How should income inequality be measured? When and how can we compare the distribution of welfare in different societies? How should we best determine whether poverty is on the decline? What are the factors that trigger famines? By answering questions such as these, Amartya Sen has made a number of noteworthy contributions to central fields of economic science and opened up new fields of study for subsequent generations of researchers. By combining tools from economics and philosophy, he has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.
Individual Values and Collective Decisions
When there is general agreement, the choices made by society are uncontroversial. When opinions differ, the problem is to find methods for bringing together different opinions in decisions which concern everyone. The theory of social choice is preoccupied precisely with this link between individual values and collective choice. Fundamental questions are whether - and, if so, in what way - preferences for society as a whole can be consistently derived from the preferences of its members. The answers are crucial for the feasibility of ranking, or otherwise evaluating, different social states and thereby constructing meaningful measures of social welfare.
Majority voting is perhaps the most common rule for making collective decisions. A long time ago, this rule was found to have serious deficiencies, in addition to the fact that it may allow a majority to suppress a minority. In some situations it may pay off to vote strategically (i.e. by not voting for the preferred alternative), or to manipulate the order in which different alternatives are voted upon. Voting between pairs of alternatives sometimes fails to produce a clear result in a group. A majority may thus prefer alternative a to alternative b whereas a (second) majority prefers b to c ; meanwhile, a (third) majority prefers c to a. In the wake of this kind of "intransitivity", the decision rule cannot select an alternative that is unambiguously best for any majority. In collaboration with Prasanta Pattanaik, Amartya Sen has specified the general conditions that eliminate intransitivities of majority rule.
In the early 1950s, such problems associated with rules for collective choice motivated economics laureate Kenneth Arrow (1972) to examine possible rules for aggregating individual preferences (values, votes), where majority rule was only one of many alternatives. His surprising but fundamental result was that no aggregation (decision) rule exists that fulfills five conditions (axioms), each of which appears very reasonable on its own.
This so-called impossibility theorem seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle to progress in the normative branch of economics for a long time. How could individual preferences be aggregated and different social states evaluated in a theoretically satisfactory way? Sen's contributions from the mid-1960s onwards were instrumental in alleviating this pessimism. His work not only enriched the principles of social choice theory; they also opened up new and important fields of study. Sen's monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare from 1970 was particularly influential and inspired many researchers to renew their interest in basic welfare issues. Its style, interspersing formally and philosophically oriented chapters, gave the economic analysis of normative problems a new dimension. In the book as well as many separate articles, Sen treated problems such as: majority rule, individual rights, and the availability of information about individual welfare.
A self-evident prerequisite for a collective decision-making rule is that it should be "non-dictatorial"; that is, it should not reflect the values of any single individual. A minimal requirement for protecting individual rights is that the rule should respect the individual preferences of at least some people in at least some dimension, for instance regarding their personal sphere. Sen pointed to a fundamental dilemma by showing that no collective decision rule can fulfill such a minimal requirement on individual rights and the other axioms in Arrow's impossibility theorem. This finding initiated an extensive scientific discussion about the extent to which a collective decision rule can be made consistent with a sphere of individual rights.
Information about the welfare of individuals
Traditionally, the theory of social choice had only assumed that every individual can rank different alternatives, without assuming anything about interpersonal comparability. This assumption certainly avoided the difficult question of whether the utility individuals attach to different alternatives can really be compared. Unfortunately, it also precluded saying anything worthwhile about inequality. Sen initiated an entirely new field in the theory of social choice, by showing how different assumptions regarding interpersonal comparability affect the possibility of finding a consistent, non-dictatorial rule for collective decisions. He also demonstrated the implicit assumptions made when applying principles proposed by moral philosophy to evaluate different alternatives for society. The utilitarian principle, for instance, appeals to the sum of all individuals' utility when evaluating a specific social state; this assumes that differences in the utility of alternative social states can be compared across individuals. The principle formulated by the American philosopher John Rawls - that the social state should be evaluated only with reference to the individual who is worst off - assumes that the utility level of each individual can be compared to the utility of every other individual. Later developments in social choice rely, to a large extent, on Sen's analysis of the information about, and interpersonal comparability of, individual utilities.
Indexes of Welfare and Poverty
In order to compare distributions of welfare in different countries, or to study changes in the distribution within a given country, some kind of index is required that measures differences in welfare or income. The construction of such indexes is an important application of the theory of social choice, in the sense that inequality indexes are closely linked to welfare functions representing the values of society. Serge Kolm, Anthony Atkinson and - somewhat later - Amartya Sen were the first to derive substantial results in this area. Around 1970, they clarified the relation between the so-called Lorentz curve (that describes the income distribution), the so-called Gini coefficient (that measures the degree of income inequality), and society's ordering of different income distributions. Sen has later made valuable contributions by defining poverty indexes and other welfare indicators.
A common measure of poverty in a society is the share of the population, H , with incomes below a certain, predetermined, poverty line. But the theoretical foundation for this kind of measure was unclear. It also ignored the degree of poverty among the poor; even a significant boost in the income of the poorest groups in society does not affect H as long as their incomes do not cross the poverty line. To remedy these deficiencies, Sen postulated five reasonable axioms from which he derived a poverty index:
P = H · [I + (1 - I) · G].Here, G is the Gini coefficient, and I is a measure (between 0 and 1) of the distribution of income, both computed only for the individuals below the poverty line. Relying on his earlier analysis of information about the welfare of single individuals, Sen clarified when the index can and should be applied; comparisons can, for example, be made even when data are problematic, which is often the case in poor countries where poverty indexes have their most intrinsic application. Sen's poverty index has subsequently been applied extensively by others. Three of the axioms he postulated have been used by those researchers, who have proposed alternative indexes.
A problem when comparing the welfare of different societies is that many commonly used indicators, such as income per capita, only take average conditions into account. Sen has developed alternatives, which also encompass the income distribution. A specific alternative - which, like the poverty index, he derived from a number of axioms - is to use the measure
y · (1 - G), where y is income per capita and G is the Gini coefficient.
Sen has emphasized that what creates welfare is not goods as such, but the activity for which they are acquired. According to this view, income is significant because of the opportunities it creates. But the actual opportunities - or capabilities, as Sen calls them - also depend on a number of other factors, such as health; these factors should also be considered when measuring welfare. Alternative welfare indicators, such as the UN's Human Development Index, are constructed precisely in this spirit.
Amartya Sen has pointed out that all well-founded ethical principles presuppose equality among individuals in some respect. But as the ability to exploit equal opportunity varies across individuals, the distribution problem can never be fully solved; equality in some dimension necessarily implies inequality in others. In which dimension we advocate equality and in which dimensions we have to accept inequality obviously depends on how we evaluate the different dimensions of welfare. In analogy with his approach to welfare measurement, Sen maintains that capabilities of individuals constitute the principal dimension in which we should strive for equality. At the same time, he observes a problem with this ethical principle, namely that individuals make decisions which determine their capabilities at a later stage.
Welfare of the Poorest
In his very first articles Sen analyzed the choice of production technology in developing countries. Indeed, almost all of Sen's works deal with development economics, as they are often devoted to the welfare of the poorest people in society. He has also studied actual famines, in a way quite in line with his theoretical approach to welfare measurement.
Analysis of famine
Sen's best-known work in this area is his book from 1981: Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Here, he challenges the common view that a shortage of food is the most important (sometimes the only) explanation for famine. On the basis of a careful study of a number of such catastrophes in India, Bangladesh, and Saharan countries, from the 1940s onwards, he found other explanatory factors. He argues that several observed phenomena cannot in fact be explained by a shortage of food alone, e.g. that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during previous years (without famines), or that faminestricken areas have sometimes exported food.
Sen shows that a profound understanding of famine requires a thorough analysis of how various social and economic factors influence different groups in society and determine their actual opportunities. For example, part of his explanation for the Bangladesh famine of 1974 is that flooding throughout the country that year significantly raised food prices, while work opportunities for agricultural workers declined drastically as one of the crops could not be harvested. Due to these factors, the real incomes of agricultural workers declined so much that this group was disproportionately stricken by starvation.
Later works by Sen (summarized in a book from 1989 with Jean Drèze) discuss - in a similar spirit - how to prevent famine, or how to limit the effects of famine once it has occurred. Even though a few critics have questioned the validity of some empirical results in Poverty and Famines, the book is undoubtedly a key contribution to development economics. With its emphasis on distributional issues and poverty, the book rhymes well with the common theme in Amartya Sen's research.
Additional background material can be found below and in
Sen, A.K., 1970, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, San Fransisco: Holden Day , also London: Oliver and Boyd (reprinted Amsterdam: North-Holland).
Sen, A.K, 1973, On Economic Inequality, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sen, A.K, 1981, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Amartya Sen was born in Bengal in 1933 (citizen of India). He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge, U.K. in 1959 and has been professor in India, the U.K. and the U.S. In 1998 he left his professorships in economics and philosophy at Harvard University to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge U.K.
Professor Amartya Sen
Cambridge, CB2 1TQ, U.K.