Source: E-mail dt. 17.8.2012


Amartya Sen’s Contribution to Human Development 


Dr. Gopalakrishna B.V

Associate Professor, Department of MBA, A. J. Institute of Management, Mangalore -06.




Dr. D.S. Leelavathi

Chairman and Head, DOS in Economics, University of Mysore, Mysore – 08.




This paper examines the major economic contributions of Amartya Sen’s especially in the area of human development. Amartya Sen is an Indian economist and winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his contributions to welfare economics for his work on poverty and famine, human development theory and gender aspects in economic development. Since the publication of first human development report in 1990, there will shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies. The basic purpose of development is to enlarge human freedoms. The process of development can expand human capabilities by expanding the choices that people have to live full and creative lives. And people are both the beneficiaries of such development and the agents of the progress and change that bring it about. This process must benefit all individuals equitably and build on the participation of each of them. The paper concludes with a brief assessment of the significance of Sen’s work.


Key words: Amartya Sen Contribution, Capability Approach, Human Development Approach, Entitlement Approach




Amartya Sen occupies a unique position among modern economists. He is an outstanding economic theorist, a world authority on social choice and welfare economics he is carrying out path-breaking work on appraising the effectiveness of investment in poor countries and more recently, on the economic analysis of famines. He has greatly influenced international organizations such as the United National Development Organisation (UNDP), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Bank. Over the years, he introduced innovative solutions to help underdeveloped countries cope with social problems like poverty, famine, gender inequality, human rights and biased liberalism. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to him for his work in welfare economics in 1998 and honored with the Bharat Ratna by the President of India and 1999.


Amartya Sen made remarkable contribution to development economics on the one hand and welfare economics on the other.  In this juncture, human development may be regarded as a blend of both Development Economics and Welfare economics. A.K. Sen probed into choice of techniques in development planning and subsequently moved to issues of social welfare including poverty and famines. The Human Development Index (HDI) constructed by the UNDP under the leadership of Mahbub-ul-Haq of Pakistan has derived roots from the writings of A.K. Sen as well as his personal advice to the UNDP, the real wealth of a country is its people and the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for them to enjoy long, creative and healthy lives. He argues that the standard of living of a society should be judged not by the average level of income but by people’s capabilities to lead the life they value. He also expressed that commodities should not be valued in their own right but as ways of enhancing capabilities such as health, knowledge, self-respect and ability to participate actively in common life. In this paper is focus on an analysis and assessment of Amartya Sen’s contributions towards human development especially in the area of human development approach, capability approach, poverty and famine, and social choice theory.


Methodology and Data Sources


The information for the study has been collected mainly from secondary sources. The study is descriptive and analytical in nature. The information was collected from various published sources such as various issues of Global Human Development Reports, World Development Reports, Various issues of South Asian Human Development Reports (MHDRC), various issues of Economic Survey and Oxford Publication series.


Amartya Sen and the Human Development Reports


The concept of human development is complex and multidimensional. Human Development Index (HDI) is extensively used to measure the standard of living of a country. HDI is calculated based on three indices – life expectancy to measure longevity, educational attainment to represent knowledge and real gross domestic product (GDP) to represent income. The First Human Development Report (HDR) published by UNDP in association with Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen in 1990 stressed that people are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This may appear to be a simple truth, but it is often forgotten in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth.


Economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the promotion of human development. Beyond quantity, it is the quality of growth that is crucial for human well-being. Growth can be jobless, rather than job creating – ruthless, rather than poverty reducing – voiceless, rather than participatory – rootless, rather culturally enshrined and futureless, rather than environmental friendly. Growth that is jobless, ruthless, voiceless, rootless and futureless is not favourable to human development (Jahan, 2000). In this regard, economic growth is a means of development and not its ultimate goal. Increased income contributes largely if it improves people’s life. But income growth is not an end by itself. Development should be people centered and economic growth must be equitable for its benefits to have an impact on people’s lives.


Since publication of HDR, Haq brought together a group of fellow development economists and friends, among them Paul Streeten and Frances Stewart, who had worked with him on the basic needs approach, Gustav Rains and Keith Griffin his collaborators in Pakistan and others such as Sudhir Anand and Meghnad Desai, who had creative expertise in quantitative methods. Dozens more who shared his vision also contributed (Haq, 1995). But it was Sen’s work on capabilities and functions that provided the strong conceptual foundation for the new paradigm. His approach defined human development as the process of enlarging a persons functionings and capabilities to function, the range of things that a person could do and be in her life, expressed in the HDRs as expanding choices (Amartya Sen, 1989).


Various Dimension of Amartya Sen’s Contribution


Prof. Amartya Sen one of the world’s most popular and influential intellectuals made tremendous contributions in the field of economics, but he is more specialized in the area of Welfare Economics and Development Economics, both come under Human Development disciplinary. Therefore we are discussing various dimensions of Amartya Sen contribution.


Human Development Approach


Sen would continue to influence the evolution of the human development approach, refining and broadening the basic concepts and measurement tools as new areas of policy challenges were tackled from sustainable development (HDR, 1994) to gender equality, poverty, consumption and sustainable development, human rights and democracy (UNDP, 2002). In turn, the HDRs have paralleled Sen’s own work on freedom, participation and agency, incorporating more explicit references to human rights and freedoms. With Anand and Sen also played a critical role in developing the measurement tools of human development, starting with the Human Development Index and going on to cover issues such as gender equality – the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) were developed in 1995 and the measurement of poverty in human lives rather than income through the Human Poverty Index (HPI) (UNDP, 1997). Thus, while Sen helped develop the initial conceptual framework and measurement tools used in the HDRs, the reports carried Sen’s work even further as they explored the policy implications of this development approach in areas that are of major contemporary significance.


Capability Approach


Amartya Kumar Sen has defined development in term of an expansion in capabilities and ‘entitlement’. Capabilities refer to what a person can (not) do or can (not) be. Freedom from hunger, being free to participate in the political process, being adequately sheltered access to health and education etc can be quoted different manifestations of capabilities. In this context, it will be essential to remember that capabilities are generated by ‘entitlements’ of an individual (within a society), which is measured not simply as income, but rather as the bundle of rights and opportunities available to an individual. These two together, thus imply, both the available choice set and also the capacity to exercise their right over the choice set. Needless to add, the greater is the capability and entitlements of individuals in a society, the higher is the level of development of that society. (Sen. 1989)


Development according to Sen is the quality of life in terms of capability expansion. That is the expansion of valuable capabilities – broadening of the set of valuable beings and doings an individual can achieve. Development is the freedom to achieve valuable doings and beings (Functionings). Functionings are ends of human life and they can also be means to human life. Functionings are parts of a person’s state of being or doing in leading a good life. Capability gives the combinations of functionings achievable by an individual. It is a set of functioning that reflects the freedom of an individual to make choices of possible livings desired by the individual. Capabilities include endowment, individual capacity and social opportunity that in turn impact on capability and are capable of being developed.


Sen’s capabilities approach explains development as freedom and ‘capability to function’. That is “what we can do with what we have”. From Sen’s approach there are three core values of development, which are sustenance the ability to keep individual alive, self-esteem and freedom from servitude and poverty.  According to Sen, freedom is the matter but there is implication that the means of having the freedom may not matter. Sen’s notion of development as capability expansion has been criticized (Dizilbash 1996), for example, argues that capability expansion may include impoverishment of some lives and can be achieved through vicious means. The ways in which expansion of capabilities are achieved may be objected to partly because the means may be anti-social. That is, the means of achieving objectives are important and should be considered, just as well as the ends. Sen does not seem to take this into consideration. Sen neglects incorporating negative freedom into his analysis.


Different cultures within different contexts may provide different conditions for functioning and developing capabilities. What is regarded as correct functioning may not be the same in some cultures; since functioning may differ from culture to culture. Values cannot be measured and so cannot be compared. In discussing development in terms of expansion of capability it is not possible to say anything about development when expansion or contraction in capability occurs in a given situation. This is partly because one’s capability cannot be compared with that of another person’s. Interpersonal comparison of capability is not possible. We cannot also compare one’s loss with that of gain of capability, since capability is not measurable.


Poverty and Famine


Poverty and famine is one of the most important works of Amartya Sen highlighted in his one of the best ever remembered books “An Essay on Entitlement of Deprivation published in 1981. In this work he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. Sen’s not only focused on famine occurred in Bengal in 1943 but also studies such situations in various countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Korea, Sahara, China etc.  According to him the absence of sustained entitlements for portions of society resulting in inadequate command of real purchasing power to buy subsistence in the market is analysed as the chief cause of famines affecting large numbers of poor people.


He concluded that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, raises food prices and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person’s actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural labourers negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have functiong of nourishment nor the capability to escape morbidity.


In addition to his important work on the causes of famines, he observed that all the famines are not the result of natural calamities. According to him, most of the famines of the world are man-made. In most of the cases, famine takes place in one region and food grains are in abundant quantity in another region. In some cases, at the time of the famine, the food grains are exported to another region by the same country. So most of the famines take place due to lack of mobility of food grains from one place to another, lack of Knowledge of information about the food grains by the governments, lack of purchasing power to the poor and downtrodden people due to which they die without food grains and cannot purchase food grains, lack of employment opportunities to the poor people due to which lack of income generation takes place and they become unable to purchase food grains, the reluctance and indifference of the government in the beginning


After the study of the famines in India, China, Korea, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Sahara, Sen has observed that dearth of food grains alone has not remained responsible always for food crisis. In the 1974, Bangladesh faced a famine, due to nation-wide flood situation, the price of food grains increased. At the same time, as a consequence of the damage of one crop the agricultural labourer lost the employment opportunities. Due to lack of purchasing capacity this class became prey to hunger and death in the famine such kind of famine was faced by China in 1958-61 in which about 1. 16 to 3 crores of people died. On the basis of this data, it was the biggest famine in the history of mankind. 


Various thinkers made some comments on the real and monetary factors during the famine. Sen has an interesting reference to Malthusian analysis of the rise in food prices and their effects on the poor and on the other classes. In the case of Malthus diminishing returns were occurring in food grains production; there was no monetary inflationary factor. The relative prices of grains were going up because of the rise in the money and real costs of their production.


The Entitlement Approach


Entitlements approach defined as the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that he or she faces. It should be noted immediately that this is a descriptive rather than normative concept. The entitlements derive from legal rights rather than morality or human right (Sen, 1981). He concludes poverty and famine with this famous stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance there is clearly something odd – at best uncomfortable at worst defective with an analytical approach that appropriates a normative term like entitlement and scrips it of all ethical connotation. In Sen’s framework, people destitute by famine are not entitled to food instead they are entitled to strive. Despite its normative connotation, entitlement does not reflect in any sense a concept of the right to food (Edkins, 1996). The Entitlement Approach is based on three conceptual categories such as Endowment Sets, Entitlement Set and Entitlement Mapping.


The Endowment Set is defined as the combination of all resources legally owned by a person. In this definition, resources include both tangible assets such as land, equipment, animal etc and intangibles such as knowledge and skill, labour power, membership of a particular community etc. Furthermore, the word ‘legally’ has to be interpreted broadly to mean conforming to established social norms and practices and not merely to what is sanctioned formally by the state.


The Entitlement set is defined as the set of all possible combinations of goods and services that a person can legally obtain by using the resources of his endowment set. The use of the resources to get final goods and services may be either in the form of production, exchange or transfer. The Entitlement Mapping, called E-mapping, is simply the relationship between endowment set and entitlement set. It is the rate at which the resources of the endowment set can be converted into goods and services included in the entitlement set.


According to Sen, famine is caused due to shortage of food but due to failure of entitlement. A person suffers from failure of food entitlement when his entitlement set does not contain enough food to enable him to avoid starvation in the absence of non-entitlement transfers, such as charity. Thus famine occurs, since entitlement set is derived by applying E-mapping on the endowment set, the entitlement failure and thus famine can occur only through some adverse change either in endowment or E-mapping or both. Thus there are two types of famines – one is caused due to change in endowment and the other due to change in E-mapping. The analysis of famine can also be done in slightly different manner. As we know that E-mapping consists of three different kinds of relations such as production, exchange and transfer, we can distinguish four types of famines caused due to endowment loss, failure of production, exchange failure and transfer failure.


Social Choice Theory


Amartya Sen highlighted Arrow’s Theory of Impossibility of Social Choice in his famous book by name Choice and Social Welfare in 1970. The theory should aim at establishing the need for equitable distribution arrangements in the initial status of human beings in society. In their absence equality in opportunities has no meaning. The equitable distributions arrangements have to be decided on the basis of universally, or near universally, acceptable ethnical norms or rules for the functioning of society. The decisions on social choices should give the greatest weight to the lowest status of societies is one such rule favored by Sen after Rawls Theory of justice in 1971.


Social choice theory, broadly speaking with the interrelationship between the choices of individuals and collective decisions. Kenneth Arrow put forward a mathematical result that suggested that under set of conditions. The Choice of Technique of Amartya Sen’s constitutes an important contribution to the analytical underpinning of development planning and cost-benefit analysis. Sen explicitly considers a balance between employing many people today and employment tomorrow, a problem concerned with the welfare of the present generation and its, labour force as well as that of future generations. Infact, Sen’s doctoral thesis work on “Choice of Techniques” was successively completed under supervision of Joan Robinson in 1950s was exclusively relevant to developing countries that had high levels of unemployment and underemployment. When they attempted to strike a balanced between alternative techniques, between capital intensiveness and employment.




This paper has analysed the contributions of Amartya Sen in the field of human development. Sen, one of the world’s most important and influential intellectual thinkers who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 and prestigious award of Bharata Rathna in 1999. He was popularly known as the Mother Teresa of Economics for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics and the underlying mechanisms of poverty, gender inequality and political liberalism. People are the real wealth of nations, the basic purpose of development is to enlarge human freedoms. The process of development can expand human capabilities by expanding the choices that people have to live full and creative lives. Development is about removing the obstacles such as illiteracy, ill health, lack of access to resources or lack of civil and political freedoms. He demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.




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