Just deserts

Development as Freedom

Amartya Sen <em>Oxford University Press, 366pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 03754061

In Britain, where he is master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the economist and political philosopher Amartya Sen is relatively unknown. In his native India, however, he is a hero. When he received the Nobel prize last year it was greeted as a national triumph. Dubbed "the Mother Teresa of economics", Air India and India Railways gave him free passes for life. There has even been a lentil dessert named after him, "the Nobel Amartya".

This contrast is hardly surprising. Most of Sen's work has been in the field of development economics, with a special focus on his native India; but his ideas, as this books reminds us, have a very general application: they are relevant to the developed world, too. Indeed, Sen works, quite self-consciously, in the tradition of Aristotle, Adam Smith and Marx. His subject is the entire condition of man and society. The self-imposed confines within which most academic economists work are not for him.

This book grew from a series of lectures Sen gave to the World Bank ("not my favourite organisation") and offers an outline of his ideas aimed at the general reader. He is a thinker of extraordinary flexibility and analytic rigour. Almost from the beginning, however, his thought has defined itself against a single tradition, long dominant in economics: the view that development can be measured in a narrowly economic fashion, in terms of income or gross domestic product, industrialisation or "aggregate utility". Two problems to this approach stand out. First, it is not sensitive to the way goods are distributed within nations, regions or families and so does not take justice seriously. Second, and more important, it measures only one relatively minor aspect of human development - monetary wealth - and overlooks the contribution that longevity, health, education, political and civil freedoms and other goods make to human well-being.

In contrast, Sen has pioneered a so-called "capabilities approach", which measures development by the extent to which a range of diverse human capabilities or freedoms are realised. These include the ability to read and write, express oneself freely and vote, to access healthcare and contraception, and to live free from the threat of domestic violence and religious persecution.

Sen understands that there is no way of attaching a specific weight to each capability - it is impossible to say that literacy is worth x, healthcare y, free speech z - and thus no simple formula for measuring development. For this reason a capabilities approach is less easily applied than those it is intended to replace. At the same time it is far from impractical and has much greater analytic power. The United Nations has partially incorporated it into its human development reports. Deploying it himself, Sen has been able to point to important but easily overlooked patterns of development.

A study of international patterns of healthcare and longevity led him to the discovery of the phenomenon of the "missing women": the millions of women who die prematurely every year, as a result of self-denial, government negligence or domestic neglect. In a similar way he here points out that in terms of unemployment, many European men are worse off than almost anybody else.

In addition to developing and defending this richer measure of well-being, Sen's argument has always had a second part, perhaps at a conceptual level less innovative but politically more contentious: that the capabilities are "instrumentally", as well as "intrinsically", important. Sen, in other words, argues that the best way of encouraging a country's development is to promote the full range of its people's capabilities by, among other measures, safeguarding political and civil rights and investing in education and healthcare. The view that these things are "luxuries" that poor countries cannot afford is, Sen believes, completely wrong. They contribute in important ways to economic prosperity.

Thus democracy is a vital safeguard against famine (no modern democracy has been subject to a major famine), while investment in education and healthcare was one of the factors that drove the Asian "economic miracle". Similarly, education and prosperity work not only to empower women, but to lower birth rates: in the long run, at least, investment in this area is a more effective route than the coercive "one-child policy" pursued in China.

I have scarcely done justice to the power of Sen's analysis, saying nothing of his qualified defence of the free market, his subtle account of the social formation of human wants or his defence of "universal human rights" against those who invoke "Asian values" to justify that continent's repressive regimes.

And yet, if Sen is a powerful thinker, he can be a careless writer. This book could be half the length without any serious loss. The analysis is far from lucid, let alone vivid; arguments are repeated, examples constantly recycled. Perhaps his publishers should take some of the blame. Sen is an extraordinarily busy man. I once secured an interview with him. On the day it was put off to the morrow: then in the course of that day, it was postponed two or three times; we finally met a little after 10pm, at which point Sen, I should say, was extremely helpful. OUP is lucky to have such a great figure in its list; at the very least it could edit his books.

Ben Rogers is the author of "A J Ayer" (Chatto & Windus)