The Nobel Prize-winning economist delivered the Prospect/Joseph Rowntree Foundation anti-poverty lecture in front of an audience of several hundred peopleby Jonathan Derbyshire / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Professor Amartya Sen with Prospect‘s editor Bronwen Maddox ©Sophia Schorr-Kon
Listen to a podcast of Amartya Sen’s lecture on “Poverty and the Tolerance of the Intolerable”
Last night, Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, delivered the Prospect/Joseph Rowntree Foundation anti-poverty lecture in front of an audience of several hundred people at the London School of Economics, with many more watching the live stream online and following #LSEpoverty on Twitter.
Sen took as his title “Poverty and the Tolerance of the Intolerable”. No country in the world, he declared, is “free from poverty”, though in India, the country of his birth, where there is a “massive disparity between the privileged and the rest”, extreme deprivation is particularly deeply entrenched. India, he said, is an example of a country with a large middle class which is able to tolerate, with something approaching equanimity, the serious poverty in its midst. (Although the situation in India is extreme—Sen referred to the “special nature of the neglect of its poor” —there is no reason for those of us elsewhere in the world, especially the developed world, to be complacent. “Blaming the victims” of poverty, he observed, is as common today as it was in the era of the Poor Law.)
How is it, Sen asked, that a society is able to avert its gaze from, or else accept as a “fact of life”, the kind of deprivation that robs human beings of the very “social qualities” that make us the sort of creatures we are? To illustrate the damage that poverty does, Sen recalled his own experience, as a child of almost ten, of the Bengal famine of 1943. He remembered giving a banana to a malnourished woman and child. The woman burst into tears as she instinctively started to feed herself before offering the fruit to her child. “We are no longer human beings,” she cried.
Tolerance of destitution on a mass scale is a phenomenon that “demands explanation”, though none of the frequently canvassed explanations that Sen went on to consider is, he thought, at all satisfactory.
In the first of these explanations, tolerance of the intolerable is said simply to be a matter of “ignorance”. In the second, it is asserted that poverty is ineluctable and irremediable; as the Gospel According to St Matthew puts it,…