Amartya Sen Poverty Definition Essay

I’ve just finished (the main text of) Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’. Sen (famously) argues that, contrary to conventional belief, most famines aren’t created by food shortages. Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors – but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed. Absolute scarcity – insufficient food to feed everyone – is extraordinarily rare. Vastly more common is for an adequate supply of food to be beyond the reach of those who need it most. Sen advocates shifting our attention from questions of food availability to questions of distribution, or to the social systems that guide this distribution. “If one person in eight starves regularly in the world, this is… the result of his inability to establish entitlement to enough food; the question of the physical availability of the food is not directly involved.” (p. 8).

Sen is on the side of the angels – we need more economists like him. I mean no disrespect when I approach his text with my usual ignorant belligerence. But I worry about the limits to Sen’s “entitlement approach”. Here he is at the very start of the book:

”An entitlement relation applied to ownership connects one set of ownerships to another through certain rules of legitimacy. It is a recursive relation and the process of connecting can be repeated. Consider a private ownership market economy. I own this loaf of bread. Why is this ownership accepted? Because I got it by exchange through paying some money I owned. Why is my ownership of that money accepted? Because I got it by selling a bamboo umbrella owned by me. Why is my ownership of the bamboo umbrella accepted? Because I made it with my own labour using some bamboo from my land. Why is my ownership of the land accepted? Because I inherited it from my father. Why is his ownership of that land accepted? And so on. Each link in this chain of entitlement relations ‘legitimizes’ one set of ownership by reference to another, or to some basic entitlement in the form of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour.” (pgs 1-2)

The problem with this approach is that it focuses exclusively on legal or social entitlement – and thereby neglects many of the most powerful factors that determine how commodities are actually distributed. Sooner or later this set of entitlement relations is going to come to an end – and we are going to be faced with something like a brute extra-legal possession. “Why is his ownership of that land accepted?” “Perhaps because he appropriated it by use of force, and uses force to maintain possession of it.” Such extra-legal elements may play a role in every link of the chain Sen describes.

Sen is frank about the limits of his approach – but I worry he underestimates their importance. “[W]hile entitlement relations concentrate on rights within the given legal structure in that society, some transfers involved violation of these rights, such as looting or brigandage. When such extra-entitlement transfers are important, the entitlement approach to famines will be defective. On the other hand, most recent famines seem to have taken place in societies with ‘law and order’, without anything ‘illegal’ about the processes leading to starvation. (p. 49)

Those scare quotes indicate Sen’s scepticism about the phrases he deploys. But his approach necessarily ignores the extent which ‘law and order’ can be an active method of resource appropriation. ‘Law and order’ is here implicitly seen as nothing more than the framework within which distribution takes place. This is dubious in any context – but especially given the case studies that form the bulk of Sen’s book.

‘Poverty and Famine’s longest chapter concerns the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – which, Sen tells us in his Nobel autobiography, was one of the formative experiences of his life. (“I had been struck by its thoroughly class-dependent character… it was not a famine that afflicted even the lower middle classes – only people much farther down the economic ladder”.) The famine was largely the product, Sen argues, of Bengal’s war economy. Far from being the product of general impoverishment, “the 1943 famine can… be described as a ‘boom famine’ related to powerful inflationary pressures initiated by public expenditure expansion.” (p. 75) “Those involved in military and civilian defence works, in the army, in industries and commerce stimulated by war activities, and almost the entire normal population of Calcutta covered by distribution arrangements at subsidized prices… could exercise strong demand pressures on food, while others excluded from this expansion or protection simply had to take the consequences of the rise in food prices.” (p. 77).

The problem for Sen’s theoretical approach, I think, is that the Second World War, and the British appropriation of Bengal’s resources to fight that war, so massively exceed any ‘entitlement’ framework that this approach loses its purchase when considering them. This isn’t to criticise Sen’s perspective – which is a powerful corrective to the official line on the famine’s causes. (“The Famine Commission’s view that the primary cause of the famine was ‘a serious shortage in the total supply of rice available for consumption in Bengal’ provides the standard explanation of the famine.” (pgs 57-8.) Sen definitively refutes this idea.) Nonetheless, I think Sen’s approach can provide only one aspect of a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of famine and deprivation.

I sometimes get the feeling, when I read Sen, that he’s working within a framework unable to accommodate his own insights. This is, perhaps, one definition of a great economist. But I worry that Sen is restricting the scope of his analysis because he is writing for a community of professional economists. It can be painful to watch Sen deploy all his brilliance and erudition in refuting positions that not even a child would take seriously. Sen knows all too well that the legal framework he uses as the basis of his analysis can be a tool of oppression. The book ends on this ringing note: “The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.” (p. 166) But Sen’s entitlement approach gives him no way to incorporate this attitude into his formal analyses. Sen’s book’s moral power comes from his belief that our legal economic framework neglects the most important form of entitlement – emphasising, as it does, property rights over human life. But this conviction, which is the book’s heart and soul, plays little part in its economics – in which “entitlement” refers to the legal mechanisms that are the very source of the mass starvation Sen’s humanity revolts against. I wish that, having established his approach, Sen had moved beyond it to examine the forces that create the social framework he is operating within.

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