Amartya Sen

January 4, 2015

Amartya Kumar Sen was born in 1933 in a province of what is now Bangladesh. He won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics for a pretty diverse portfolio of work, most of which doesn’t concern us here. Let it just suffice that Sen was a major figure in shaking economists out of a dogmatic slumber—even if quite a few of them still need to wake up and smell the coffee. Sen would probably show up on anyone’s list of the 100 most influential living people, though somehow Time Magazine failed to include him in theirs. That says more about Time than Sen, who has (with considerable help from others, it should be noted) transformed the way that people understand development.

I should note that by “development”, I do not mean the activity that we are most likely to read about in our local newspapers. There development is done primarily by people who buy and sell real estate and who undertake a variety of projects to enhance the value of their investments. The kind of development Sen has transformed is sometimes called “international development” or more accurately “global development.” It’s akin to progress, but focused on the processes of industrialization, governance and socio-cultural change that lead to society-wide improvements in human well-being. This notion of development got its biggest boost after World War II when Dwight D. Eisenhower put some umph behind the idea that the Marshall Plan—which had helped Europeans make a rapid recovery from the devastation of World War II—could be applied on a global basis. We (meaning not just the United States but already-developed countries) could help countries emerging from colonial exploitation make rapid progress.

This didn’t pan out so much, though there have been big (and I mean BIG) changes since the 1950s. Sen’s work in the 1980s and 1990s began as a critique of then prevalent ideas about how one would measure those changes. Most of the measures being used focused on increases in national income. You’ve heard pundits talk about GDP? Yep, that’s it: a measure of growth in economic activity, whether this activity contributes to human well-being (tasty food, better video games) or simply reflects the way that society is failing to promote human well-being (employment of prison guards, rates of heart surgery). Along with Herman Daly, Sen noted that growth in any of these things translates into growth of income. Sen sarcastically wrote that we seem to equate progress with opulence.

But it was some of Sen’s earlier work that makes him worth noting as a food ethics icon. His work on famine was one of the things noted in his Nobel Prize. He found that famine is not always caused by a lack of food. Sometimes structural features of an economy can put food that is plentiful out of reach for people in poverty. Sen’s work is behind a nostrum I hear a lot: Global hunger is not a problem of food production, it’s a problem of distribution. I don’t actually like this nostrum too much, because it oversimplifies the actual significance of what Sen discovered about famine. Ironically, famine can strike farmers, too. Pestilence and drought have historically caused quite a few famines, and here it does look like the problem is not enough production. Sen’s point was that it is not global production that is at stake in these cases (and it was global production that was being plumped by everyone from Norman Borlaug to the Farm Bureau). The hunger that affected food producers in his book Poverty and Famine could have been averted by bringing food from other farmers not that far distant from the local famine site.

Sen’s point does strike a blow against my friends in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU who are constantly harping on the need to increase agricultural productivity. It’s not a fatal blow, mind you. As I’ve written before, we do need a constant effort to explore new avenues for improving all for forms of agriculture. But that, too, can become a rather simplistic picture. Sen pretty conclusively showed that simply contributing to total global food production does almost nothing to address the underlying causes of hunger. Better farming matters because a lot of poor people in the world are farmers, and they could be less poor with better farming methods. Simply having more food lying around doesn’t really solve anything.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University