Campus & Community

Amartya K. Sen Wins 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics

6 min read

Three million people died in India’s 1943 Bengal famine. Living through it was a 9-year-old boy named Amartya K. Sen, who, 55 years later, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on poverty and famine.

Sen, Lamont University Professor Emeritus and a current adjunct and visiting professor at Harvard, was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics Wednesday “for his contributions to welfare economics.”

He is Harvard’s 37th Nobel laureate.

Sen, 64, has done extensive work on the economics of poverty. He has developed new ways to predict and fight famine as well as ways to measure poverty, so that more effective social programs can be designed.

Sen said he was awakened early Wednesday morning by a phone call. When the phone rang that early, he said, he feared it was bad news.

“It turned out it wasn’t bad news; it was very good news,” Sen said. “I’ve been giving more interviews today than I ever have in my life.”

Sen said he was happy that the prize will call attention to welfare economics and to the situation of society’s poor.

“I thought that was the best aspect of [the prize],” Sen said. “All my life I’ve been concerned with the underside of economics.”

Sen is the adjunct professor of population and international health at the School of Public Health and is based in the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies in Cambridge. Sen is also visiting professor of economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Sen was named Lamont University Professor shortly after his arrival here in 1987 as a professor of economics and philosophy. He became Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, England, in 1998.

Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine said the prize is very appropriate for a man who looks for solutions to problems at the heart of both economics and philosophy.

“This is the most fitting possible prize,” Rudenstine said. “Amartya works on the most fundamental problems that lie at the crossroads of economics and philosophy. He brings to those problems imaginative, brilliant analytic power and a moral vision that keeps him focused upon matters of equity as well as functionality. He is, in addition, a wonderful person – a devoted teacher who has had a profound effect on his Harvard students as well as his colleagues for many years.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy Knowles said Sen has had a deep impact at Harvard as well as in the world beyond its academic walls.

“Amartya has touched the intellectual lives of so many students and faculty at Harvard. It’s wonderful that such a gracious teacher and illuminating thinker should be so honored,” Knowles said.

Sen, a native of India, graduated from Presidency College in Calcutta and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge. He taught economics at Jadavpur University in Calcutta; Trinity College; the Delhi School of Economics; and the London School of Economics. He was appointed professor of economics at Oxford University in 1977 and Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1980.

Sen served as president of the Econometric Society in 1984, the International Economic Association from 1986 to 1989, the Indian Economic Association in 1989, and the American Economic Association in 1994. He has been named a Fellow of the British Academy, the Econometric Society, and an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

He is also a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Association. He has received dozens of honorary degrees and been awarded several prizes, including the Edinburgh Medal and the 9th Catalonia International Prize, both in 1997.

Those who have worked with Sen said it is his concern for the poor as well as his technical brilliance that make him unique.

“He exhibits his passion for the social dimension of economic issues very clearly,” said Sanjay Reddy, a Harvard Ph.D. student in economics.

Though he serves as Master at Trinity College and continues to hold posts at Harvard, graduate students who work with him say Sen is generous with his time.

“It is this aspect of Professor Sen that sets him apart, this deeply human quality,” said Arun Abraham, a master’s degree student in public policy and in theology who has worked as Sen’s research assistant for three years.

Sen has written and edited about 20 books and more than 200 articles. He had done extensive work on famines, exploring their causes and ways to fight them. He challenges, for example, the common assumption that famines are caused by food shortages. In many cases, they can be caused by poverty and distribution problems and treated by giving hungry people cash, instead of food, so they can buy it on the open market.

Sen has also done extensive work on ways to measure poverty. Poverty indexes that simply measure the number of people below the poverty line, for example, do not provide a very detailed snapshot of the problem. Sen developed an index that takes into account other factors, such as how poor the average poor person is and the distribution of resources among the poor.

“If one takes all three of these things into consideration, one can design a better poverty index,” Reddy said.

Sudhir Anand, acting director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, said it was “great news” that Sen had received the prize. Anand said Sen will be at Harvard in November to deliver a paper at a two-day conference on health equity.

“His work has had a phenomenal impact,” Anand said.

He said Sen spends about four months per year at the Center in his capacity as an adjunct professor.

Sen was in New York Wednesday to attend a memorial service Thursday for Mahbub ul Haq, a friend and the former finance minister of Pakistan. Ul Haq developed an index used by the United Nations to measure the wealth of nations by their citizens’ living standards.

Sen said he had no plans for the $963,000 prize and that half of it will go to the U.S. government in taxes.