Sunday, December 12, 2004

Amartya Sen interview

Here's an excellent interview with Amartya Sen, winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (known to some as the Nobel Prize in Economics). He's one of my favorite economists, and my thinking on globalization/trade issues has come to run in the direction that he's pointing here. I've excerpted my favorite parts below:

...economic globalization itself could be a source of major advancement of living conditions, and it often is. The main difficulty is that the circumstances in which it produces the maximum benefits for poorer people do not exist now. This is not however an argument for being against global economic contact but rather an argument for working towards a better division of benefits from global economic contact.

It is not, by and large, the case that as a result of globalization the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, which is the rhetoric that is often used, and which I believe is mistaken. It may have happened in a few countries, but by and large, this is not the case. The relative success or failure of globalization should not be measured by whether the poor are getting a little richer; the question is: could they have become a lot richer by the same process if the governing circumstances were different? And the answer is yes. This requires both national, local policies like advancing educational arrangements, particularly school education, advancing basic health care, advancing gender equity, undertaking land reforms. It can also be helped by a more favourable global trade situation and more equitable economic arrangements, for example better access to the markets in the richer countries, which would help the poorer countries to benefit more from global economic contact. For that, patent laws have to be re-examined, arrangements have to be made whereby the richer countries are welcoming to commodities coming from poorer countries, and so on. Globalization can become more equitable and effective through these changes. So the issue is not whether economic globalization is ruining people. It may not be doing that, and yet it can actually benefit people much more - and this is the central issue - than it is doing now.

When, at a point of particular repression in British India, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a journalist in London what he thought of British civilization, Gandhi had replied, "It would be a good idea."

There is often a peculiarly mistaken diagnosis suggesting that somehow it is the celebration of reason in the Enlightenment, beginning in the mid-18th century, that is responsible for the Nazi concentration camps, the Japanese prisoner of war camps, and the Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda. I really do not see why people take that view because these are quintessential examples of people being driven by passion rather than by reason. In fact reason could have played a major part in moderating such turmoil. When a Hutu, for instance, is being told that he is just a Hutu and he ought to kill Tutsis on grounds that Tutsis are an enemy lot, a Hutu could reason that he is not only a Hutu but he is also a Rwandan, an African, a human being, and all these identities make some demands on his attention. It is reason which could stand up against the imposition of unreasoned identities on people (such as, "You are just a Hutu and nothing else").

As a child, I saw the Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s and I know how easy it is to make people forget their reasoning and the understanding of the basic plurality of their identities in favor of one fierce identity, whether fiercely Hindu, or fiercely Muslim. There again the appeal has to be to reason. Indeed, precisely because we have emerged from such a blood-drenched century, it is extraordinarily important to fight for reason - to celebrate it, to defend it, and to help expand its reach.

Colonialism imprisons the mind. But the colonized mind often takes a deeply dialectical form. One of the forms that the colonized mind takes is rabid anti-Westernism: you judge the world in terms of having been dominated by the West for a hundred years or more, and this can become the overarching concern, drowning all other identities and priorities. Suddenly, for example, activist Arab-Muslims might become persuaded that they must see themselves as people who are trying to settle scores with the West - and all other affiliations and associations are unimportant. The whole tradition of Arab science, Arab mathematics, Arab literature, music, painting would then have lost their informing and identifying role. That is the result of a colonized mind because you forget everything else other than your relation with the former colonial masters. I would link the outburst of some of the violence we see today to a deeply misguided reaction to colonialism; it is certainly not unconnected with colonialism.

The success of India in preventing famines is an easy success, because famines are extremely easy to politicize: all you have to do is to print a picture of an emaciated mother and a dying child on the front page and that in itself is a stinging editorial. It does not require much reflection. But in order to bring quiet but widespread hunger to public attention, in order to publicize the debilitating effects of lack of schooling and illiteracy, and similarly the long-term deprivations of not having land reform, you need a great deal more engagement and use of imagination.

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