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Spotlight on Amartya Sen

November 18, 2013
by Jacque Porte

At this year’s Open Government Partnership Summit, UK prime minister David Cameron referenced the work of Amartya Sen, stating that open governments were conducive to economic prosperity, whereas "closed governments breed poverty.” But just who is Amartya Sen, and why does he warrant a reference in Cameron’s opening speech at the Summit?

Born November 3, 1933, Amartya Kumar Sen is an Indian economist awarded with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his work in welfare economics. He is responsible for several papers and books in the field in which he writes:

"Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have."

Sen’s books dealt not only with economics, but with the ethics of economics, and inspired researchers to focus on issues of basic welfare. He identified ways to measure poverty that allowed him to see the wide range of factors that lead to adverse economic conditions and he found that political engagement often accompanied a healthy economy. In The Idea of Justice, Sen wrote:

"To conclude this discussion, assessment of justice demands engagement with the 'eyes of mankind', first, because we may variously identify with the others elsewhere and not just with our local community; second, because our choices and actions may affect the lives of others far as well as near; and third, because what they see from their respective perspective of history and geography may help us to overcome our own parochialism."

He stressed the importance of public discussion and defended political freedom, asserting that famines do not occur in functioning democracies because their leaders must be more responsive to the demands of the citizens. He argued that social reforms such as improvements in education and public health must precede economic reform in order for economic growth to be achieved.

Sen is an appropriate reference for the opening speech of the OGP Summit because his work shows that a country thrives when the government value transparency and citizen engagement. And now that Sen has helped to define the why, it’s up to municipalities to identify the how: What can you do to improve communication between local government and citizens? What initiatives do you currently employ that encourage transparency and improve the community? Continue this discussion with us on Twitter or Facebook.

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