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Sen shows the Way to a Dignified World

In his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) Amartya Sen, recipient of this year’s Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, illustrates the connection between starvation and lack of democracy. Only when political power is dependent upon the entire population and not exclusively on the affluent elites – when a democratic government is established – does deprivation come up on the political agenda and become the target of systematic political reforms to reduce it.

Amartya Sen thus sheds light on the critical importance of democracy and the human cost of inequality. For when a famine occurs, it always hits the poorest people hardest. Amartya Sen is awarded the Johan Skytte Prize for his multifaceted achievement that “combines insights into human vulnerability with knowledge about the potential of democratic political power to redress and relieve this deprivation.”

So, why a prize in political science too?

In Sen’s works, democracy and its potential to make a difference – through regular elections that reward and punish and through the public arena of constant discussion and opinion-shaping – is fundamental.

The Johan Skytte Prize is being awarded this year for the 23rd consecutive year. The prize is given by the Johan Skytte Foundation, whose roots go back to Johan Skytte (1577-1645), High Councilor of the Swedish Realm. The Johan Skytte Prize has become known as the “Nobel Prize of Political Science.” Amartya Sen, who is an economist and philosopher, has already received the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (1998). So, why a prize in political science too? In Sen’s works, democracy and its potential to make a difference – through regular elections that reward and punish and through the public arena of constant discussion and opinion-shaping – is fundamental.

Amartya Sen is awarded the Johan Skytte Prize for his multifaceted achievement that “combines insights into human vulnerability with knowledge about the potential of democratic political power to redress and relieve this deprivation.”

In his analyses, Sen has indefatigably revisited the critical importance of political freedom to human development. To Sen, the core elements of democracy – the right to vote, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press – are the definition of human development, along with other freedoms and capabilities.

Sen is a deeply humanist scholar and thinker. Where other economists have often chosen to focus on the material, Sen embraces all of human existence in his research. The fundamental human need to have control over one’s own life – to be able to choose – is the premise for his own definition of development, an understanding that has gradually come to influence both UN development programs and the World Bank. Only when the freedom to choose and the capabilities for being able to choose increase for most people can we truly talk about development. This freedom includes political freedoms, not only as a means of achieving development and prosperity, but as part and parcel of the very definition of development. As long as we do not see political freedoms in China, what is happening is not development, even if material progress is being made. In India, on the other hand, where democracy has been the ruling form of government since independence in 1947 (other than during a few years in the 1970s), development has come further and will, over the long term, reinforce itself. Political freedom begets other freedom which in turn leads to more freedom.

Sen can bring to mind the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in his famous lecture Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) carved out the distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the actual scope of action that the individual is allotted by others, where the individual is left alone to make their own decisions. Positive liberty, which is considerably more debated among Berlin interpreters, aims instead at the resources, the capabilities, that the individual possesses in order to be able to use this allotted scope. Can I act if I so wish?

In politics, the classical liberal tradition is associated with negative liberty, social liberalism with both positive and negative liberty and social democracy (and democratic socialism) with positive liberty. Sen is preoccupied with positive liberty and the capabilities it creates, and his optimistic judgment is that what is unique about democracy is that it equips people with ever-increasing capabilities to use their allotted scope of action (which also thus expands). These ideas are collected in Development as Freedom (1999), one of Sen’s most influential books.

Class is a matter of life and death. Class affiliation is correlated with critical life circumstances, both in Sweden – with a history of more than 70 years of welfare politics – and globally. To a great extent, class determines level of education, future income and fundamental attitudes. When natural disasters occur, the poor are hit the hardest; their homes are less well equipped, they have less money to stockpile goods to survive periods of hardship, their immune systems are more vulnerable to epidemics. Class is one of the most important factors affecting prospects to live a long and healthy life – something that most of us, regardless of gender, culture or age, want above all. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a project that has followed two groups of men, 268 male graduates of Harvard and 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston, from their teenage years in the 1940s to the present day, found that those who live long and well have had good relationships with others. Class plays into this as well. Close, intimate relationships are harder to maintain if one is poor, lives in fear, cannot realize one’s inherent potential, is ill and in pain.

Poverty restricts the freedom to choose and Sen thus finds that political reforms intended to reduce inequality promote development. He has found conversational partners in legal philosophers Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, who also wrote about social justice and equality and had strong influence on political science. Sen dedicated The Idea of Justice (2009) to the memory of John Rawls.

Class is not the only thing to create flagrant inequality. The same applies to gender. In large parts of the world, being born female is a punishment. Compared to men, women’s rights are limited, if they have any at all, while opportunities to get an education, support oneself and make one’s own life choices are often conspicuous by their absence. For many millions of women the world over – the western world is an exception here – the individual scope of action is thus minimal. Women may be the object of the sometimes benevolent deeds of others, but have little personal influence. In Sen’s terms, they are unfree and lack the capabilities to act. They have no agency. It may therefore seem obvious that the issue of women’s status and opportunities should have been high on the research agenda in development studies long ago. But such has not been the case.

When Amartya Sen published the working paper Gender and Cooperative Conflicts in 1987 he was therefore, as he was in the emphasis on class, a pioneer among developmenteconomists. He argues here that development studies need gender as a separate focus – alongside class, occupation and family structure – in order to better understand inequality and prosperity. A fundamental conflict between the sexes exists and is manifest in all societies, but to varying degrees. In one striking sentence, he captures the unique aspect of the conflict between the sexes: “A worker and a capitalist do not typically live together under the same roof – sharing concerns and experiences and acting jointly. This aspect of ‘togetherness’ gives the gender conflict some very special characteristics.”

In current political science and sociology, a great deal is written about intersectionality; that is, how different identities combined can jointly strengthen oppression. If you are a woman, have little education and are black, your capabilities in Swedish society are worse than if you are a white, middle-class man. Sen suggests the contours of such an analysis in Gender and Cooperative Conflicts when he brings people’s many identities to the fore. On the personal level, he has said that his experiences as a single parent (his Italian-born wife Eva Colorni died of cancer at age 43, leaving Sen with two young children) helped him see the hardships that are often the lot of women. Since then, he has consistently emphasized the importance of gender analysis in his research and of unpacking the increase in women’s capabilities, and thus freedom, as critical to global development. The Pratichi Trust in India and Bangladesh, founded by Sen, is particularly committed to promoting women’s rights to education and healthcare.

As a little boy growing up in a privileged and intellectual family, Amartya Sen witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, which took the lives of more than three million people. The insight that would much later mature into his view on development as freedom took hold in him from that early stage: that famine did not devastate indiscriminately – those at the bottom of the social ladder fared worst. As a child, he could also see how violence between Hindus and Muslims was fomented as a consequence of political agitation and how a Muslim day laborer was stabbed to death when he felt forced, in his material desperation, to look for work in the Hindu neighborhood where the Sen family lived. Poverty forced the man, Kader Mia, to expose himself to risks far too great. It made him unfree to choose what he knew would have been better.

The Johan Skytte Prize is awarded to Amartya Sen for a scholarly achievement that has never lost focus on the human endeavor to live a life of dignity. The contents of people’s lives can and should vary, but to Sen, there is an inalienable human dignity in being able to control oneself and one’s path in life. Democracy contributes to realizing this endeavor through elections and political reforms; reforms that create the right to education, wide access to healthcare and decent housing, and reforms that abolish privileges based on gender alone. Sen shows that we have the tools to build equality and dignity in our hands. It is our responsibility to use them.

On behalf of the Prize Committe,

Li Bennich-Björkman

The original version of this prize motivation letter was published in Svenska Dagbladet on 19 April, 2017.

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