By John Cheo
Amartya Sen is an Indian economist who has made extensive contributions in the fields of economic and social justice, development economics, and social choice theory, among others. He has served on the faculty of several universities around the world, including serving as Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, and is currently at Harvard University. He will serve as the first Chancellor of the proposed Nalanda International University in India. In August 2013, Sen published An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions on reshaping development and policy priorities in India.
You wrote the book The Argumentative Indian. Do you think there is the argumentative Chinese?
Well, the Chinese, they have been very argumentative for a long time. The Confucian culture is also argumentative. I think being argumentative is a feature that fits into the Chinese culture and background very well. In the religion, there are conflicts between Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and they all flourished in China in different areas and at different times, but sometimes also simultaneously with each other. They are arguing all the time – a very argumentative culture.
What then do you think of China’s democratic prospects?
I think the prospects are very good. The Chinese had made good progress in the direction of freeing up information and allowing dissent. But they are not as tolerant of a diversity of political views as India is. They are also not very keen on multiparty politics. But these are issues that China will have to address. But do I think, in the long run, that the prospects of democracy in China are very strong? Yes.
How do you see the Nalanda University project contributing to greater understanding and collaboration between India and China?
Well, that is a big thing, because the Chinese, next to the Indians, made up the largest group in Nalanda University in the past. The Chinese and Indian intellectual interactions were very strong from the early fifth century. So Nalanda was an exceptional place, and I think you have to recognize that Nalanda was the only institution of higher learning to which Mandarins in ancient China went for education outside China. In this sense, it is completely unique. There is good evidence that the Chinese attach a high level of seriousness to the Nalanda University project.
What do you consider to be one of the world’s most underappreciated challenges today?
There are so many of them! Well, I think health care across the world is very dysfunctional. It’s even dysfunctional in America. It’s more dysfunctional in many other parts of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Second, I think it’s an absolute scandal that so many people are still illiterate in so many parts of the world. That’s a very big problem.
What about the gap in wealth between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’?
I don’t think that’s the really important way of looking at it. It is certainly a factor. And to some extent it also influences the neglect in education and healthcare. But I would put my focus on the really serious failure in healthcare and education in a way that is totally unnecessary and entirely unjustified.
Let’s switch gears a little. What is your take on microfinance?
Well, it has been less successful in India than in Bangladesh. You have to ask why. I’m not an absolute expert on that.
What about microfinance’s role in the sex workers’ union activism in places like Calcutta?
But microfinance wasn’t that important in that; microfinance was only marginally related to the efforts of the sex workers union. My daughter, who is a journalist and teaches journalism in the City University of New York, did one of the early studies on sex workers.
What is your take on the cooperative model for microfinance?
I don’t take the view that there is a model that informs everything else in every field. I would only be able to judge with much more data.