Amartya Sen: Biography, Theory of Capacities and Concept of Human Development

Amartya Kumar Sen is an Indian economist and philosopher born in 1933. His works were recognized with the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998. The Stockholm Academy of Sciences, the entity that awards this award, highlighted his contribution to the analysis of economic well-being.

Sen has distinguished himself by his studies on poverty and human development. He began to study these subjects after being impressed by the famines he witnessed in South Asia. Sen also collaborated in the establishment by the UN of the Human Development Index, seeking to overcome the simple measurement of economic parameters.

Biography of Amartya Kumar Sen

Among its outstanding contributions is the theory of capacity, as well as its concept of development based on people and the distribution of wealth in the countries. He has been a professor at several universities around the world and was an advisor at the World Institute for Research on Developing Economies between 1985 and 1993.


  • 1 Biography of Amartya Sen
    • 1.1 First years
    • 1.2 Studies in economics and philosophy
    • 1.3 The Apostles
    • 1.4 Career
    • 1.5 Nobel Prize
  • 2 Theory of capabilities
    • 2.1 From the right to the ability to exercise it
  • 3 Concept of human development
    • 3.1 Overcome the figures
  • 4 References

Biography of Amartya Sen

First years

Amartya Sen came to the world in the Indian town of Santiniketan, in West Bengal when he still belonged to the British Raj. He was born on November 3, 1933 in the bosom of a Hindu family of good standing. His father was a university professor and president of the public administration organization of the region.

Sen developed his secondary education in Dhaka in 1941, attending St. Gregory's School.

Studies in economics and philosophy

After completing high school, Amartya Sen opted to study economics in Calcutta and graduated in 1953. Having just graduated, he went to the United Kingdom, specifically to Oxford, where he spent three years completing his training in the same subject in prestigious Trinity College.

In that same center he finished his doctorate in 1959 under the direction of Joan Robinson, a famous economist.

But Sen did not conform to these teachings, but also enrolled in Philosophy. As he said himself, this discipline was very useful when developing his work, especially when entering moral lands.

The Apostles

One aspect that was important during his stay in Cambridge was his participation in the many debates that took place between supporters of John M. Keynes and economists opposed to his ideas.

In that environment of intellectual wealth Sen was a member of a secret society, The Apostles. In this he met many important figures of English society, such as Gerald Brenan, Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and those later convicted of espionage in favor of the USSR, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess.


Amartya Sen's professional career is closely related to the university world. He was professor of the London School of Economics (LSE) until 1977 and in the university of Oxford the ten following years. After Oxford, he went on to teach at Harvard.

In addition, he has been a member of numerous economic organizations, such as the Econometric Society (of which he was president), the Indian Economic Association, the American Economic Association and the International Economic Association. Finally, it should be noted that he was named honorary chairman of Oxfam and advisor to the UN.

Among his many published works, his essay stands out Poverty and famine . In this it shows with data that famines in undeveloped countries are more related to the lack of wealth distribution mechanisms than to the lack of food.

Nobel Prize

The maximum recognition for his work came in 1998, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The award came to him for having contributed to improving welfare economics.

With the money that is awarded with the award Sen founded Pratichi Trust, an organization that seeks to improve health, literacy and gender equality in India and Bangladesh.

Theory of capabilities

Among the works of Amartya Sen is his theory of abilities, considered one of the most valuable in the social sciences.

It is an analysis of human development and the problems faced by poor societies. The theory of capabilities aims to know the freedom that each person has to be able to exercise their rights, as well as to reach a decent level of life.

From the right to the ability to exercise it

In the theory presented by the Indian economist, an important difference is established between the rights that each person possesses (including according to the laws of each country) and the capacity to carry them out.

For Sen, each government must be judged depending on the capabilities of its citizens. The author gave a clear example of what he means by this: all citizens have the right to vote, but this does not help if they do not have the capacity to do so.

When talking about capacity in this context, Sen refers to a wide range of concepts. It can be from having been able to study (and, in this way, vote in a more informed way) until you have the means to travel to your polling station. If these conditions are not met, the theoretical right does not mean anything.

In any case, his theory focuses on positive freedom and not on negative. The first refers to the real capacity that each human being has to be or do something. The second is the one that is usually used in classical economics, only focused on non-prohibition.

Again, Sen uses an example to explain that difference: during the famine lived in his native Bengal, nothing cut off the freedom to buy food. However, there were many deaths because they did not have the capacity to buy those foods.

Concept of human development

If there is one aspect that runs through all of Amartya Sen's work, it is human development and poverty. Since the 1960s he joined the debates on the Indian economy and provided solutions to improve the welfare of the underdeveloped countries.

The UN collected a good part of its contributions when its Program for Economic Development created the Human Development Index.

Overcome the figures

The most novel thing that Sen contributes to the field of human development is his attempt to not give such importance to the macroeconomic figures. On many occasions, these are not able to reflect the level of welfare of society.

The author proposes to go beyond, for example, the Gross Domestic Product to measure prosperity. Fundamental freedoms are also important for measuring development. Thus, rights such as health, education or freedom of expression are of great importance in human development.

Their definition of this development is the individual capacity to choose the activities that they want to perform freely.

According to his own words"it would be inappropriate to see human beings as mere 'instruments' of economic development." In this way, there can be no development without improving the capabilities of people.

To illustrate this concept, Amartya Sen states that if one is illiterate, the risk of poverty and illness increases and, in addition, the options to participate in public life are reduced.


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