Amartya Sen, ‘The Country of First Boys’

Sen First Boys“A novel”, writes Amartya Sen, “can point to a truth without pretending to capture it exactly in some imagined numbers and formulae” – and the same could be said for this book. If you tend to agree with the consensus that Amartya Sen is one of the most important development thinkers of our time, but find your eyes glazing over when he gets into “capability vectors” or “transcendental institutionalism”, The Country of First Boys may be for you. It is an accessible introduction to the main themes of Sen’s thought, as well as a good insight into his more personal interests and priorities.

The book contains 13 short essays, published between 2000 and 2015, on a wide range of subjects. About half of the essays relate specifically to India, focusing on the injustice of an increasingly rich country which still cannot prevent hunger or provide basic education and healthcare for large sections of its population. Sen describes India as “the country of first boys”, where the privileged few get world class education and opportunities but hundreds of millions of children miss out on primary school, a third of the population cannot read and write, and chronic undernourishment is nearly twice as high as in Sub-Saharan Africa. (The data are from 2000-2001, so will likely have changed a bit since). Whilst these essays are practical, focused on action that needs to be taken, Sen’s anger and frustration at injustice come through… the words ‘protest’, ‘rage’ and ‘holler’ are used surprisingly frequently given his otherwise patient and polite writing style!

The other half of the essays deal with more global concerns, such as the dangers of nationalism and communalism, the value of press freedom, and how to share the benefits of global economic development. These pieces helpfully summarise in passing some some of Sen’s big ideas – for example that the main focus of development should not be on increasing GDP but on giving people “freedom to do what they have reason to value” (Development as Freedom); or that justice should not only be about choosing the right institutions and principles but on the real-world outcomes of those systems (The Idea of Justice).

When I did my Master’s in development studies in London 13 years ago, Sen was venerated – by both students and the faculty – as something close to a development god. It was therefore with some excitement that I went to see him talk ‘live in St Paul’s Cathedral’ – almost a rock star’s billing. The theme was identity; Sen put forward his counterarguments to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. I remember him talking about the fact that we do not have just one identity but several: we are not just Christians or Muslims (for example) but may be “a South African citizen, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a doctor, a keen tennis player” etc. My reaction at the time was that this was true up to a point, but that Sen underestimated the extent to which people choose, in certain situations, to prioritise one identity over others. In other words, Sen explained the world how it should be, not how it is.

A US resident, of Indian ancestry, an atheist, a man, a university professor, a heterosexual, a cyclist, and a firm believer in the power of public reasoning

I had a similar feeling reading through these essays: several times I found myself torn between admiration for Sen’s belief in humanity and a creeping suspicion that he was a little too optimistic, even naïve. His essay ‘The Smallness Thrust Upon Us’ is one example: repeating many of the themes of that lecture in St Paul’s Cathedral, Sen sets out why we should not accept that a person’s community should entirely determine their way of thinking, and how people can escape their own community’s outlook and understand different ways of looking at the world. The essay dates from 2001 but it’s difficult not to read it in the context of the current European refugee crisis. Several European countries are currently struggling with an influx of large numbers of people who do not share the same cultural background and values. This is leading to some unfamiliar situations for Europeans, for example where female teachers have to deal with fathers of students who refuse to speak to them, or in business where men refuse to work with women and demand that a woman’s male superior be appointed as their point of contact.[i] Sen would probably argue that these differences are not insurmountable, and that if they are debated in public, with sufficient mutual respect, suitable ways forward could be found. But many in Europe (rightly or wrongly) feel they should not compromise or find special work-arounds on these issues. The attitude seems to be that immigrants should either accept every aspect of the culture they are moving into, or leave. Whatever your views on this question, it seems one where rational debate will struggle to find a solution, at least in the short term.

A second example of Sen’s optimistic world view comes in his treatment of democracy. In ‘What Should Keep Us Awake at Night’, about injustice in India, and then again in the last essay in the collection, ‘On Nalanda University’, Sen praises democracy as “government by discussion”. Where he is critical of democracy – for example in the failure of democratic India to address chronic poverty and lack of opportunity for many citizens – he tends to blame “the deficiencies of politically engaged public reasoning.” In other words, democracy fails because it is not democratic enough – there is not sufficient, or sufficiently rational, debate about important issues. This is a logically defensible position, to be sure, but the possibility of democracy reforming itself in this rational way seems unlikely from where we are now. At the moment, political leaders in the UK (for example) face rejection at the ballot box every 5 years if they do not satisfy their voters, and bow to media pressure on certain subjects, but this is not always a matter of being won over by rational public debate so much as public misconception or, sometimes, mass fear. Also, many decisions – even big, important ones – are not necessarily decided by public debate but by elected leaders according to their own priorities. “Government by discussion” is some way from the reality of how democracy works today. In fact I sometimes wonder if Bismarck’s more cynical and brutal phrase is closer to the truth: “The great questions of the age are not decided by speeches and majority decisions […] but by blood and iron.”[ii]

Then again, if I find myself agreeing with Otto von Bismarck over Amartya Sen, something must be wrong. Sen’s confident belief in human reason may be hard to accept fully as an organising principle for the world now. Reason as a whole is rather out of fashion these days, with behavioural economics, for example, arguing that humans are not as rational as economists once thought we were. Also, in the world of development aid, there have been too many examples of outsiders trying to impose their ‘rational’ projects on supposedly ‘irrational’ people in developing countries. But giving up on rational debate altogether and falling back on communitarian thinking (‘Western tradition’, ‘Muslim values’ etc) is no solution. There is something in the ideal of different people coming together and thrashing out their differences through public debate rather than resorting to violence or living in a series of parallel, apartheid-like worlds. Reason will not be able to solve all the problems that Sen discusses, but if we give up the ideal of reason, we will have even less of a chance of living together in peace.


[i] See for example

[ii] Golo Mann, The History of Germany Since 1789, Pelican, 1985, p.204


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