In Box

Epiphanies: Amartya Sen

The Nobel Prize-winning economist reflects on misguided policies, social disasters -- and whether he had it too easy.

My family was from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, but I studied mostly in Santiniketan, in a school in India. My earliest memories, between the ages of 3 and 6, are all of Mandalay in Burma, where my father was a visiting professor in the 1930s. I felt much at home in all these places, and the idea that you can be at home only in one place has never taken root in my mind.

That people could die as a result of stupidity or worse in public policy is quite important in my understanding about the world. The Bengal famine of 1943, which I witnessed as a child of 9, was largely the result of stupid public policy, in a year of relatively good food supply.

[I also remember] the riots that occurred in the 1940s, which were not connected with the famine, but resulted from political cultivation of divisive identities. Suddenly, people who had seen themselves as just Indians, or just Bengalis, or just human beings, redefined themselves as sharply separated Hindus and Muslims. The wave of violence passed soon enough, but left a lot of dead bodies behind.

Functioning democratic societies do not tend to have famines. With free elections and multiple parties and a free press, it is very easy to bring a government down by criticizing it for not preventing a famine. Countries with recent cases of famine — North Korea, Sudan, Somalia — do not have functioning democracies.

Undernourishment is different. You can use democracy to fight it, but it requires a lot more imagination. For famine, all you have to do is print on the newspaper front page a picture of an emaciated mother with a skin-and-bones child on her lap, and you’ve made an editorial [against bad policies]. You need to work harder for an editorial about undernourishment, [which] is not very clearly visible, not killing people immediately.

I wish I could claim some heroism in persevering with my work against adversity, but I fear I cannot, since I have got nothing but encouragement from others — my teachers, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and most importantly my students. There isn’t a story of courage there.

Amartya Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard University. He received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.

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