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  December 1998    


UNU/WIDER's Sen wins Nobel Prize
The 1998 Nobel Prize for economics was awarded to Professor Amartya Sen (photo) on 14 October for his extensive work on welfare.

Amartya Sen was a founder of the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University. His work is a central contribution to the theory of social choice, measurement of welfare and poverty, and the study of the root causes of famine.

Professor Sen was involved with a large number of eminent economists in the work of the Institute in its early phase. Sen was the Research Director of several UNU/WIDER projects during 1985-1991, including: Food Strategies; Public Action for Social Security in Developing Countries; Quality of Life and Living Standards; Social Security: Comparative Indian Experiences; Hunger and Poverty: Social Change and Public Policy in Rural West Bengal.

Sen's contribution to the work of UNU/WIDER resulted in the following books published by Oxford University Press: Hunger and Public Action, with Jean Drze, 1989; The Political Economy of Hunger: Volume I - Entitlement and Well-Being; Volume II - Famine Prevention, Volume III - Endemic Hunger, with Jean Drze, 1990-1991; Social Security in Developing Countries, with Ehtisham Ahmad, Jean Drze and John Hills, 1991, The Quality of Life, with Martha Nussbaum, 1993; The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays with Jean Drze and Athar Hussain, 1995; Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives, with Jean Drze, 1995. In addition to these books and studies, UNU/WIDER has published five Working Papers and a Research for Action Study by Sen.

Sen is the fifth Nobel Prize winner who has contributed to the work of UNU/WIDER. John C. Harsanyi was awarded the Nobel Prize of economics in 1994, Robert William Fogel in 1993, Douglass C. North in 1993 and Robert Solow in 1987.

Journalist Carl-Gustav Linden covered the story thus:
The laureate found himself in a hotel room in New York, when he was woken up to hear the message of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

"I am very happy about the prize. But when the call came at 5 a.m. this morning, I first became quite worried because I feared that somebody in my family had fallen ill. However, luckily the news turned out to be happy," he said when the Swedish news agency TT news agency called him immediately after the news had been broken.

The prize came as a surprise to Sen, although he knows that his name has previously appeared in the discussions on the economics award. In 1995 The New York Times claimed (wrongly) that it "knew" that he had won the prize. "This has happened to me and others several times without it leading to any prize," Sen said.

Sen, a professor at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, is especially pleased that he has been awarded the prize for his work with the welfare questions.

"It is good that a research area which does not merely devote itself to how profits are maximized and how enterprise successes are handled receives the prize. Within welfare economics, we deal more with distribution and how ordinary people live. It is an important topic, and I am a bit amazed that nobody devoting himself to this subject has been awarded the prize earlier," Sen said.

The laureate himself says his best book ever was 1970's pathbreaking Collective Choice and Social Welfare, which gave the economic analysis of normative problems a new dimension by dealing with relations between individual preferences and collective decisions. With this research 40 years ago, Sen dispersed the prevailing pessimism around the collective decision.

"He is another kind of an economist. Actually he is more of a philosopher," says Giovanni Andrea Cornia, Director of UNU/WIDER. During the last few weeks Cornia has tried to persuade Sen to come to Helsinki to deliver the next UNU/WIDER annual lecture.

Social problems, welfare, poverty, income distribution, and famines are closer to Amartya Sen's heart than economic models. Cornia points out, however, that his theoretical basis is extremely strong. The selection committee emphasizes that this combination of philosophy and economics is one of his contributions to the moral-philosophical discussion on welfare questions.

The best-known of Amartya Sen's books is Poverty and Famines (1981), in which he provides arguments against the view that famines are caused by only shortages of food. In fact people can starve to death although there are foodstuffs in a country. According to Sen, one should look instead at several economic and social factors before any conclusions are made. Amartya Sen comes from the traditionally Marxist Bengal in India, but he himself belongs to a liberal social-democratic school. He is, however, extremely critical of the development models which the rich countries have "sold" to the developing countries. He himself regards inputs in social development as an investment in the people, which provides economic proceeds.

Sen has also been one of first economists to utilize new indicators for welfare and is one member of the group who helped the UNDP to adapt its index for human development. One of his latest projects, in cooperation with UNU/WIDER, is to show that mortality rate is one of the best measures of development.

Sen was affiliated with the Institute during the years 1985-92 and has produced five books for WIDER, among others The Quality of Life in 1992 (together with Martha Nussbaum). The book is UNU/WIDER's best-seller with 8,000 copies sold. Sen was also a member of the UN group which in 1984 proposed that WIDER, a part of the United Nations University, be located in Helsinki.

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