Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Amartya Sen: A More Human Theory of Development



It is not, by and large, the case that as a result of globalization the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, which is the rhetoric that is often used, and which I believe is mistaken. It may have happened in a few countries, but by and large, this is not the case. The relative success or failure of globalization should not be measured by whether the poor are getting a little richer; the question is: could they have become a lot richer by the same process if the governing circumstances were different? And the answer is yes. This requires both national, local policies like advancing educational arrangements, particularly school education, advancing basic health care, advancing gender equity, undertaking land reforms. It can also be helped by a more favourable global trade situation and more equitable economic arrangements, for example better access to the markets in the richer countries, which would help the poorer countries to benefit more from global economic contact. For that, patent laws have to be re-examined, arrangements have to be made whereby the richer countries are welcoming to commodities coming from poorer countries, and so on. Globalization can become more equitable and effective through these changes. So the issue is not whether economic globalization is ruining people. It may not be doing that, and yet it can actually benefit people much more—and this is the central issue—than it is doing now.

The third point is that the market economy is just one institution among many. Even though there is no such thing today as global democracy, one can still have an impact on these questions by speaking out and having your voice heard: the practice of any kind of democracy is primarily about public reasoning. If, for example, the Bank and the Fund have changed, they have in part been responding to plentiful criticisms that have come from different parts of the world. So one should not think of global democracy just as institutional global government. It is also the fostering of public reasoning—critical public reasoning. Happily, under Kofi Annan's leadership, the UN has often been able to be a vehicle for the expression of certain types of critiques which otherwise might not have received that attention. Newspapers, the media in general, play that part. The expansion of information technology, most notably the Internet, as well as the availability of news across the world—CNN or BBC or whatever—all these make a contribution to what I would call "global speech" and through that help to advance the pursuit of global democracy.

In order to make the division of benefits from globalization more favorable, there is something we can all do: we can pay attention to it, speak about it, and holler about it. That is a very important thing to do right now. Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.

Martha Nussbaum has elaborated on your work and expanded the list of universal human capabilities to include issues such as being able to express "justified anger" and having "opportunities for sexual satisfaction." Do you believe there are limits to such an approach? In other words, is this not too subjective a conception of an allegedly objective way of measuring universal human well-being?

This is a difficult but excellent question. In terms of what we desire and what we regard to be important in our lives, our thinking must enter into that evaluation; to look for something which would be untouched by the human mind would be a mistake. On the other hand, the fact that it emanates from our thinking process does not indicate that the process itself would lack objectivity. Objectivity in matters of valuation and judgment demands open and unrestrained critique—it demands public reasoning and challenging discussion. If there is one thing that we have learned from the progress in political philosophy over the last half a century—to a great extent led by John Rawls—it is that objectivity in ethics and in political philosophy is basically linked to the need to subject beliefs and proposals to the scrutiny of public debates and discussions. What priority - if any - to give to any capability, like expressing justified anger, must depend on the valuations that emerge from critical assessment. Given everything else, if we could express "justified anger" that others too see as reasonable (this is the central exercise in the search for "truth and reconciliation" in contemporary South African politics), it would obviously be a good exercise of a significant capability. Similarly, if there are opportunities for sexual satisfaction involving consenting adults, there should be no particular reason to object to it. Difficulties arise only when one good thing conflicts with another. Then it is a question of relative evaluation, and that is where the discipline of public scrutiny of contentious matters comes in.

When, at a point of particular repression in British India, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a journalist in London what he thought of British civilization, Gandhi had replied, "It would be a good idea." That certainly was a quiet expression of critical anger (even if expressed rather gently), but objective public assessment could yield the conclusion that this anger was indeed justified (most people even in Britain today would accept that). It would have been a serious loss of freedom for Gandhi if the liberty to express such anger, under considerable provocation, were to be denied.

Martha Nussbaum has been a major contributor to the literature on capabilities. She has made the whole field much more vibrant as well as accessible. She has also created the context in which this field is taken seriously into account not by economists alone, but philosophers as well, and social scientists generally. We do, of course, have some differences on how the capability approach is to be used. Martha is more inclined to get use out of an agreed list of capabilities, whereas my leaning has been towards taking the relevant lists to be contingent on public discussion, and variable with context and circumstances. It is not a big difference, and I do see clearly the advantage of working with a pre-eminent list of capabilities (as Martha does) for many exercises, such as the assertion of human rights of the most basic kind.

On the other side, we come to learn the importance of some capabilities through intense public discussion. We learn certain things over time which we may not have known earlier - public discussion may bring this about. Just to give an example from the field of gender equity (since the issue of gender often comes up in this context), consider the understanding that women being induced to stick to their traditional role in the family may itself involve an oppression, even though they have accepted that role with little protest over thousands of years. This recognition is a new learning which has emanated to a great extent from the work of feminists and from public discussions based on new scrutiny. Similarly the idea that neglecting women's identity in language (referring to everyone as a man) is not just a rhetorical problem, but is a part of a real deprivation of freedom, is again a new understanding. Now if one were listing the parameters of women's freedoms in the 1940s, I do not think these would have emerged as factors of great importance, because people did not fully understand the reach of these freedoms. We are always learning, and that is one of the reasons why public reasoning is so important.

Next: "it is extraordinarily important to fight for reason."