In Honour of Amartya Sen, Initiator of Global Cooperation Par Excellence

Bettina Mahlert

On 18 October 2020, Amartya Sen will receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt am Main. This is a welcome occasion to honor him from the nearby location of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research here in Duisburg. Originally from present-day West Bengal, where he was born in 1933, Sen studied economics and philosophy in Calcutta and later in Cambridge. He served as professor at numerous elite universities in India, Great Britain and the United States, and received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in addition to many other renowned awards. 'I never had a noteworthy non-academic job', commented Sen in his typically modest way on his unprecedented academic career. Rooted in welfare economics and philosophy, his publications address poverty and inequality, development, famines, the notion of the 'living standard' as well as freedom, democracy, and collective choice among others.

While Sen’s immense academic merits have been highlighted on many occasions, what is remarkable from the view of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research is that he is an initiator of global cooperation par excellence. I am referring here to global cooperation as understood at the Centre, namely as 'extensive and intensive collaboration among two or more parties in addressing a collective problem of global scale' (Centre for Global Cooperation Research 2020). The collective problem that Sen has focused on throughout his academic life is to enhance human welfare, especially for the most disadvantaged, thus creating a more equal and just world. Sen believed that academia needs more and new ways of collaborating across established disciplinary borders in order to effectively contribute to this overall goal. He conceptualized welfare in terms of capabilities – i.e. the freedom to realize valuable functionings, which means ways of being and doing. This framework has not only become immensely influential but is specifically devised so as to enable inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Sen effectively opened up welfare economics to key themes of moral philosophy, stimulating a dialogue between the two disciplines that has persisted over several decades. With many others, Sen shared a deep discontent with the longstanding concentration on utility, GNP, and related income-based measures of development. But it was he who, in cooperation with a group of other economists, provided a collaborative space for all who shared that discontent. Based on Sen’s concept of capabilities, the Human Development Approach and Index were introduced in 1990 by explicitly inviting scholars from all disciplines to bring in their ideas for enhancing the proposed analytical framework – and they did. Today, those who work with Sen’s ideas range from local practitioners, global analysts, activists, and gender researchers to philosophers, sociologists, and pedagogues, among others.

How did Sen manage to initiate these and other path-breaking forms of global cooperation? Putnam (2004) offers some illuminating insights. First, Sen radically criticized economic theory while at the same time insisting that the perceived deficits needed to be addressed within its general framework. By sticking to this framework instead of discarding it altogether, Sen valued the professional identity of his colleagues, thus making it easier for them to engage with his arguments. Second, over the years, Sen forced welfare economics to recognize that its key concern with economic well-being is inherently moral and cannot be addressed in a responsible manner as long as economists refuse to take reasoned moral argument seriously. With this, Sen broke down walls between economics and philosophy that had so comfortably sheltered economists from the fuzzy and politicized world of evaluation. He achieved this by appealing to the key value commitment among his audience – scientific soundness. In order to convince his colleagues by way of scientific argument, he engaged tirelessly in drawing together all available evidence. By taking a holistic approach, Sen demonstrated how weak money and GDP are as measures of economic well-being. More specifically, he showed how limited the informational base of economists will be if they do not collect information on the different capabilities that the same income level enables under varying conditions:

'The relationship between income and capability [is] strongly affected by the age of the person (e.g. by the specific needs of the very old and the very young), by gender and social roles (e.g. through special responsibilities of maternity and also custom-determined family obligations), by location (e.g. by the proneness to flooding or drought, or by insecurity and violence in some inner-city living), by epidemiological atmosphere (e.g. through diseases endemic in a region), and by other variations over which a person may have no - or only limited - control' (Sen, cited in Putnam 2004: 57).

By taking this holistic approach, e.g. referring to social roles or flooding, multiple other disciplines are invited to enter the process of inter-disciplinary collaboration. Third, Sen did not only criticize others but offered a concrete proposal himself – the capability approach – in order to remedy the perceived deficits.

Sen’s efforts have been remunerated abundantly. In order to further increase their pay-offs in the future, let me add some proposals from my personal background in sociological development research. Sociologists have well received Amartya Sen’s capability approach; incorporating it into their analytical frameworks has worked out well, especially within the field of social inequalities. Conversely, it might be also fruitful to open up economically dominated development research not only to philosophy but to sociology and other social sciences as well. In his late work on inequalities in India (together with Drèze), Sen built intensely on sociological knowledge; however, this remains an exception in welfare economics.

Sen always refused to identify universal capabilities that would be valuable for every human being. Instead, individuals and groups should themselves identify the capabilities that they would like to achieve. Institutionalizing this evaluative exercise is a key lever for giving people at the 'receiving' end of so-called development 'cooperation' an active role in their own development. At the same time, scholars have pushed forward strong arguments in favor of both the necessity and feasibility of referring to elementary universal capabilities – such as basic human needs for food and shelter, security, social recognition, or self-actualization. Resonating with this, many projects and studies within the Human Development tradition opt for combining both – caring for the elementary bases first and giving space to specific desired capabilities on this base afterwards. An example would be Alkire’s work on the 'vital core' (cf. Martin 2020). Sociology could contribute relevant methods and modes of thought here (Mahlert 2020). Drawing on these resources would resonate with Sen’s above-mentioned holistic approach. In order to implement it in the most effective manner, this approach can be tailored to the specific goals at stake in each concrete development project. For each individual project, an interdisciplinary team can be put together, selecting professionals from those and only those disciplines that are relevant to the specific goals.

As a final observation, a certain Western bias is inherent in the capability approach, as reflected in its emphasis on individual freedom.  This might have been required in order to get welfare economists on board for Sen’s concerns at all. Today, however, it is no longer necessary. The way forward in global cooperation in service of human welfare is to include the Global South on fully equal terms.



Centre for Global Cooperation Research (2020). Research Agenda 2018-2024: Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation (2018-2021).

Mahlert, Bettina (2020). Needs and Satisfiers: A Tool for Dealing with Perspectivity in Policy Analysis, European Journal of Development Research, forthcoming.

Martin, Mary (2020). Human Security Course e-learning, Module M1: The Vital Core of Human Security. (last retreived 13.10.2020).

Putnam, Hillary (2004). Fact and Value in the World of Amartya Sen. in: The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 46-64.


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