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Amartya Sen, The country of first boys

Igor Martinache
The Country of First Boys
Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys. And other essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, 328 p., ISBN : 9780198738183.
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  • 1 Although, as with most successful ideas, they have also been ‘translated’ in various ways according (...)
  • 2 Despite what Sen himself writes, it should be recalled there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize in e (...)

1His original approach to human development having been broadly spread within the academic curricula as well as in the major international institutions1, Amartya Sen needs no introduction. Although he received the economic science award in honour of Alfred Nobel from the Royal Swedish Bank2 in 1998, Sen can not be classified as being simply an economist –at least not in the narrower sense of the term. The present book confirms that heis a rare specimen of that endangered species: the ‘global intellectual’. He may indeed be considered fully ‘global’ in his curiosity which overleaps disciplinary as well as national boundaries. Though this book focuses on India – as its title, The country of first boys indicates – the ideas that Sen develops in fact deal with universal concerns. This book is a collection of thirteen short essays which have already been published, for the most part in The little magazine, over the last fifteen years. None of them have lost their relevance however. On the contrary, like good wines, most of them may well be even more usefulas a means of understanding what is at stake in today’s troubled times than they were when they were first published.

2Readers who are already familiar with Sen’s works will not be surprised to find some of his major concerns, chief among which is the importance of education, health care and democracy in the process of development. Given the editorial form of this publication, some figures and arguments recur in different texts, such as the fact that nearly half of Indian children suffer from malnutrition, double the rate in sub-Saharan Africa. In the end, however, such repetitions help embed the figures in the reader’s mind rather than spoiling the pleasure of travelling through Sen’s accessible and lively prose.

  • 3 Around 200 million people do not have access to electric power, a fact which– as Sen points out – t (...)
  • 4 And more precisely, those where a huge amount of “cultural capital” is transmitted (cf. Pierre Bour (...)
  • 5 For Brazil for example, see Graziela Serroni Perosa, Adriana Santiago Rosa Dantas, Helena de Souza (...)
  • 6 Such as those led by the Pratichi Trust, a foundation aimed at primary education, basic health and (...)

3In order not to spoil your pleasure myself –and also for lack of space in the present review – the content of each essay will not be detailed here, and only a few core topics will be dealt with. First of all, as the tenth essay is entitled, one must mention the scandal of “what should keep us awake at night”. That is to say the fact that the majority of Indian people still lacks some of the major human needs: not only appropriate food and electric power3, but also education and basic health care, all of which, as Sen regularly reminds, us are necessary for people to be able to make real choices in their life. According to the 2001 census for instance, no less than half of Indian women and a quarter of men are illiterate, and many of their children will follow their path since they do not attend primary school. This lack of basic education imposes a major limitation on their freedom, in a broad sense of the term: it not only prevents them from finding a decent job, but also prevents them from dealing with their health problems, knowing and invoking their legal rights, voicing their interests towards decision-makers and, for women, being able to play a fair domestic and social role.As in many other countries, India offers very good educational opportunities toonly a minority of pupils, primarily boys, and even among them only the most “performing” – which generally means those who are born into privileged families4. Otherwise, many parts of the country lack elementary schools, and even when such schools exist, teachers’ absenteeism correlates closely to families’ poverty. Sen also emphasises that this two-tier educational system can thrive because well-off families are in a position to avoid State-run schools and register their children in private institutions. As a result, the ruling elite does not seriously endeavour to address this problem, a phenomenon that can be observed in many other countries, even far richer ones5. This situation not only penalizes poor children and their families: it is also counter to all principles of social justice and hinders the whole economic development of India, as Sen argues using references to other “counter-examples” in Asia: Japan, South Korea, Singapore or even continental China. Serious measures thus need to be undertaken, one of which could beto provide every pupil with free lunches. Such a measure could indeed remedy – at least partially – the issues both of child and teacher attendance, and malnutrition. Be that as it may, as several studies have established6,the main obstacle to primary schooling expansion in India does not reside in the fact that deprived parents are reluctant to send their children to school – contrary to what some analysts are prompt to assert.

  • 7 For a brief presentation (in French) of this concept, see Eric Monnet, “La théorie des ‘capabilités (...)
  • 8 He has worked as an advisor to various international organizations such as the UNDP or the NGO Oxfa (...)
  • 9 Whose fame unfortunately barely reaches the “western” countries, partly because his poems lose much (...)

4All though his essays, Sen demonstrates above all how closely education, health, development and democracy are interlinked, which enables him to come up with a far richer conception of freedom, as expressed by his famous concept of “capabilities”7. What really matters does not lie in the formal liberties one can benefit from, but in the effective ones, as Marxhad already remarked. And yet, mostcurrentreflections on social justice consist in “some transcendental search for ideal institutions” instead of looking for way of “improving the actual world in which we live” (p.197). In his work, as well as in his various social and political involvements8, Sen strives to give priority to this pragmatic alternative, which does not prevent him from building theories, or paying attention to apparently academic subjects. For example, in the essays, he praises the study of the Sanskrit language as well as that of fundamental mathematics – two of his passions – and stresses the importance of acquiring the broadest possible culture in order to face today’s world problems. He exemplifies this idea with many different issues, ranging from recalling the ancient Muslim roots of Indian culture to showing the complexity of the links between poverty and violence. He also contributes directly to the enrichment of his readers’ culture in texts dedicated to Indian calendars or to the clear-sighted writer Rabinadrath Tagore9. He also usefully dedicates many pages to demonstrate that we all have various and mixed identities – that is to say group belongings –as well as the absurdity of trying to oppose people through such a concept. Some readers may consider that Amartya Sen does not go deeply enough in his analyses and fails, for instance, to criticize capitalism and market-economy in their essence. His work nevertheless highlights most of the major issues in today’s world, and opens stimulating perspectives to tackle them. This book definitely offers a very accessible – and very necessary – introduction to these issues.

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Notes

1 Although, as with most successful ideas, they have also been ‘translated’ in various ways according the mental schemes and interests of their recipients. See for example Mathieu Hauchecorne’s “Le ‘professeur Rawls’ et le‘Nobel des pauvres’. La politisation différenciée des théories de la justice de John Rawls et d'Amartya Sen dans les années 1990 en France”, in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n° 176-177, 2009, p. 94-113.

2 Despite what Sen himself writes, it should be recalled there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize in economics. Except a few cases- like that of Sen- almost all the recipients of this prize adhere to the neoclassical school of thought.

3 Around 200 million people do not have access to electric power, a fact which– as Sen points out – the Indian media themselves seem to have forgotten. They asserted for instance that 600 million Indians were stuck in the dark during a widespread electric breakdown some years ago, without realizing that a third actually lives permanently in the dark…

4 And more precisely, those where a huge amount of “cultural capital” is transmitted (cf. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Les héritiers, Paris, Minuit, 1964 and La Reproduction, Paris, Minuit, 1970).

5 For Brazil for example, see Graziela Serroni Perosa, Adriana Santiago Rosa Dantas, Helena de Souza Marcon et Isamara Lopes Rocha Cruz, “Transformations des classes populaires et de l’offre scolaire à São Paulo”, Brésil(s), n°8, 2015 (https://lectures.revues.org/20070). According to the PISA tests lead by the OCDE, the French educational system is also characterized by a harsh competition and a performing nucleus of elitist institutions with poor overall performances as well as deep inequalities among pupils. See Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, L’élitisme républicain à la française, Paris, Seuil, 2099.

6 Such as those led by the Pratichi Trust, a foundation aimed at primary education, basic health and gender equality in India and Bangladesh which was created with the money that came with Sen’s “Nobel Prize”.

7 For a brief presentation (in French) of this concept, see Eric Monnet, “La théorie des ‘capabilités’ d’Amartya Sen face au problème du relativisme”, Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines, n°12, 2007, URL : http://traces.revues.org/211

8 He has worked as an advisor to various international organizations such as the UNDP or the NGO Oxfam, andaccepted the charge of chancellor of the University of Nalanda – the renewal two years ago of one of the oldest universities in the world. In the final, unpublished essay of this book, Sen describes a very ambitious academic and social project.

9 Whose fame unfortunately barely reaches the “western” countries, partly because his poems lose much of their strength when translated.

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Igor Martinache, « Amartya Sen, The country of first boys », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2016, mis en ligne le 09 mars 2016, consulté le 27 juin 2016. URL : http://lectures.revues.org/20323

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