A Third Way for the Third World
by Akash Kapur

(See also interview with Sen)

LAST year, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics, Amartya Sen returned to his native India for a visit. One December morning, just outside Calcutta, at Santiniketan, the school where Sen had studied as a child, he was made to climb a dais and sit on a makeshift throne. News reports say that he looked tired, but he found the energy to address the assembled crowd. He reminisced about his childhood, and spoke of the influence exerted on his work by the school's founder -- Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Asian Nobel laureate when he won the prize for literature, and who, as Sen's teacher, named him Amartya (Bengali for "immortal").

Tagore is the most famous in a distinguished school of Bengali thinkers who have left a lasting mark on the Indian social and intellectual landscape. Known as the Bengali bhadralok (or "gentlemen"), they include the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the freedom fighter Aurobindo Ghose, the author Nirad Chaudhuri, and now, as the standard-bearer in the dying days of that tradition, Sen himself. From the nineteenth century onward bhadralok have been India's version of public intellectuals -- engaged with social life, battling against such evils as untouchability and suttee (the practice of widow-burning). They have been adamantly outward-looking, eager to absorb the best of competing traditions and methods. Tagore was proud to be an Indian, and he was in many ways a traditionalist; but he was not, as Sen wrote in an article for The New York Review of Books, "a prisoner of the past." His method was akin to what the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "bricolage" -- the drawing together of diverse traditions and ideas into a new reality. Sen called attention to this method that day at Santiniketan. Paraphrasing his teacher, he reminded the assembled crowd that in Tagore's view, "all that is best in the world is also ours."

In Development as Freedom, Sen, who discusses the virtues of the Buddhist "middle path," applies this view to the topic of economic development. It is a needed, if daunting, endeavor. Since development's emergence as the great hope of the postwar era, the debate over Third World poverty has been polarized. On one side of the divide are the forces of the development establishment -- Western policymakers, and economists at the World Bank and other aid institutions. For them, development is a form of tough love. "Rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments," proclaims a 1951 United Nations document that was recently cited by the anthropologist Arturo Escobar as an example of development's cold economic calculus.

               Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of caste, creed and race
              have to burst; and large numbers of people who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations
              of a comfortable life frustrated.

Pitted against this view of development -- which Sen calls the "fierce" or "hard knocks" approach -- has been an equally uncompromising critique voiced by grassroots activists and nongovernmental organizations around the world. We see it in the Chipko movement, in the Himalayan foothills, where peasants symbolically hugged trees to stop the logging that was destroying their traditional forest-based economy; in the Zapatista movement, in the impoverished Chiapas region of Mexico, whose enigmatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, railed against globalization as a "hemorrhage that fattens the powerful"; and in the British-based Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which is calling for a cancellation of the stifling debt ($400 per person in the Third World) imposed in the name of development. In these movements there is a growing sense not only that the UN document has proved all too prescient but also that much of the "painful adjustment" has been exacted without the promised recompense: the income of the wealthiest quintile today is seventy-four times that of the poorest quintile; more than 850 million adults remain illiterate, and 840 million people are malnourished. Clearly, development's critics say, the orthodoxy needs a dose of the same harsh medicine it has so long prescribed; the single-minded focus on GNP and free markets must be replaced by a similarly unyielding concern for local cultures, ecology, and social issues such as health and education. Recent literature speaks of a "rejection of the entire paradigm" of growth; what's needed, according to one anthology, which brings together many leading critics of development, is a "post-development" era.

INTO this ideological minefield steps Sen, whose book exudes a refreshing reasonableness and a willingness to acknowledge rival points of view. Like development's critics, Sen, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, decries the narrowness of the standard model. With the inexplicable omission of ecology, Sen takes up all the familiar battle cries: democracy, culture, human rights, gender rights, education, health care -- these matter to people, he says, and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of what Gandhi called "the monster god of materialism." Though sometimes portrayed as such, Sen is not a leftist radical. He includes material wealth on his list of things that matter, and acknowledges that "it is hard to think that any process of substantial development can do without very extensive use of markets." Markets, in Sen's view, need to be supplemented with social safety nets; economic growth must co-exist with local cultures, which cannot be swept away like "old and discarded machinery." For Sen, the "overarching objective" of development is to maximize what he calls people's "capabilities" -- their freedom to "lead the kind of lives they value, and have reason to value." He is concerned with the entire gamut of human experience. In his own characterization, the book represents a return to the "integrated approach" of economics practiced by Adam Smith.

In other words, Development as Freedom, which is billed as "a new general theory of development economics," is not so much a repudiation of the standard theory as an attempt to synthesize it with a competing one. More than any other of Sen's books, this one is steeped in the ethos of bricolage. It's not just a matter of integrating competing approaches to development. At a time when intellectual labor is increasingly specialized, Sen -- who contemplated a career as a Sanskrit scholar before settling on economics -- is a polymath, discussing mortality rates among African-Americans one moment, Confucius' views on liberty the next. Straddling the cultural gap that so often pits Western "development experts" against Third World "development subjects," Sen quotes as readily from John Stuart Mill as from the ancient Indian Upanishads.

This approach, more than the specific conclusions it supports, is the most significant aspect of Development as Freedom. Indeed, many of Sen's conclusions have a certain repetitiveness to them. Sen says that "Western discussion of non-Western societies is often too respectful of authority," and suggests that "development cannot really be so centered only on those in power." That has long been the demand of development's critics, who have called for more grassroots participation. Sen says that the best way to lower fertility is not with coercive birth-control programs (such as the one-child policy that the Chinese for a time rigidly enforced) but by empowering women through education and employment to make their own choices. Much the same point was made three decades ago by Ivan Illich, whose characterization of development as "planned poverty" was one of the earliest and most influential attacks on the establishment. More generally, Sen's exhortation to look beyond just material wealth expresses a fairly conventional discontent with modernity.

Sen's critics have often charged him with simply repeating the obvious -- an accusation that was made most forcefully against his Poverty and Famines (1981), one of the two titles cited by the Nobel committee. In that book -- whose main points are summarized in Development as Freedom -- Sen concluded that famines occur not necessarily because of declines in food production but when some social or political upheaval (mass unemployment, say, or government mismanagement) leaves parts of the population too poor to feed themselves. (It was in that book, too, that Sen made his famous assertion that no famine has ever occurred in a democracy -- a remarkable fact, which he takes as testimony to the importance of political freedoms in development.)

The book is credited with changing the way governments handle food distribution -- for example, by making them focus on public-works programs to boost incomes rather than on direct food replacement. Yet for all the book's importance, Sen's point was quite simple: people's social and economic circumstances dictate what goes onto their plates. It was so simple, in fact, that it led Indian critics to ridicule Sen for arguing something that any "street urchin" or "grandmother" knows. (They were echoed by The Wall Street Journal in a blistering attack on Sen soon after he won the Nobel. "Where Mr. Sen's insights have been accurate," opined the newspaper, citing his work on famines, "they have been unremarkable.")

The charge is not so much wrong as misdirected. Poverty and Famines was important precisely because Sen was not a street urchin or a grandmother but a highly respected economist, one who had established his credentials with mathematically sophisticated work on poverty measurement and (in Collective Choice and Social Welfare, the other title cited by the Nobel committee) social-choice theory. Sen may have been repeating a homily, but the book's effect was akin to that of a clinical drug trial that proves the efficacy of a home remedy. Sen backed up his argument with mathematical models and detailed micro-economic data on regional and occupation-specific income patterns. (He showed, for instance, that during the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, which coincided with a peak year of food availability, those most likely to starve were rural laborers who had lost their jobs -- and thus their wages.) In other words, what mattered was not so much what Sen said as how he said it -- a point Sen himself seemed to make when, in response to his critics, he denied "claiming any original insight" and told an interviewer that "the purpose of the book was to analyze in a systematic way how that deprivation of purchasing power comes about."

THE significance of this latest book -- in many ways a grand summation of Sen's work over the past decade -- is much the same. Sen repeatedly takes issues that are dear to development's critics and articulates them in terms that will be reassuringly familiar to the establishment. He defends women's rights (in part) on the grounds that they can contribute to economic growth; he argues for political liberties not only for their "intrinsic" value but also for their "instrumental" role in promoting economic stability. (The recent Asian financial crisis, Sen points out, was largely the result of a lack of political openness and accountability.) Ultimately, this is the significance of Sen's synthesis: in pairing the orthodoxy with its critique, in using the language of the establishment to challenge the establishment, Sen has stretched the boundaries of development far wider than development's critics have themselves managed to do. Like Tagore, Sen is a reformer of the most effective kind -- one from within. His method recalls a piece of advice about conventional economics that he received early in his career, which he recently described this way: "We must learn it, but not use it much."

The wisdom of this advice is today evident. Sen -- along with others, notably the late Pakistani economist Mahbub Ul-Haq -- has been at the forefront of what can only be described as a paradigm shift. Today the vogue is something called "human" or "social" development -- an approach that takes account, precisely, of the social and cultural dimensions to development. The cynosure of this new approach is the United Nations' annual Human Development Report (pioneered by Haq, with input from Sen), which assesses countries not just by their GNP but also by their achievements in areas such as health, education, gender equality, and political liberty. (The report includes an index, which is today a widely cited alternative to the World Bank's more narrowly conceived ranking of economic development; the United States, first in terms of GNP, falls to third place on this index.) The World Bank, long the embodiment of insensitive economic policy, is a changed organization, producing a paper titled "Beyond the Washington Consensus," among others, and (in the resolutely technocratic language of its president, James Wolfensohn) "mainstreaming social issues -- including support for the important role of indigenous culture."

Much of this change, it is true, has yet to trickle down to the ground -- to the dams and roads and power projects around the world, where the hard-knocks paradigm often persists. In addition, as much as Development as Freedom is likely to be seen as something of a manual for this new development, there remain important differences between Sen's philosophical breadth and the narrow -- some would say practical -- approach of organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank. Sen, who praises the new attitude as "momentous" and "enriching," nonetheless recently characterized the Human Development Index as "crude"; the Bank, despite its embrace of social concerns, often values them less for their intrinsic than for their instrumental importance. (Take the Bank's recent statement, published after the Asian economic crisis, that "without attention to the social underpinnings of development, it is difficult for economic growth and development to succeed." In Sen's view, the statement would be not so much wrong as incomplete.)

Yet for all the differences, and for all that remains incomplete, development is today a changed game. The battle that continues to be waged against what Majid Rahnema, an Iranian development expert, calls "the HIV type of invasion" perpetuated on cultures and societies is somewhat anachronistic. Change has come from unexpected quarters, and in an unexpected fashion. And Development as Freedom, which showcases the change, is also a tactical manual for how it was achieved.

[Editor's Note: This is a book review of Amaryta Sen's book, Development as Freedom, published by Knopf. This review appeared in The Atlantic in 1999.]


© 2001