Sen is everywhere

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have had a hard time reading Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom* on the tube or in a cafe. It’s serious reading and requires a suitably contemplative atmosphere to avoid the dreaded “I’ve read this sentence three times now, and I still haven’t taken anything in” effect. It’s very precisely written, with little wasted (although to be fair, a helpful amount of repetition of the main ideas) and feels a little like reading maths. (Or, perhaps, like reading philosophy which, apart from the obvious, I’ve never seriously attempted.)

Anyway, it cheered me somewhat to see an article in the New Statesman (11-17th January 2013) by Tim Wigmore, apparently nowhere to be found online, entitled “Give a little, but give it well”. The article is a plea for evidence-based targeted of money to charities and describes the work of givingwhatwecan.org who claim to be able to rank charities based on their ability to “provide the greatest return in terms of quality-adjusted life years” for each quid donated.

Two things strike me as interesting about this:

  1. Ranking charities in this way seems to me to be a direct application of Sen’s plea for a more rounded “capability approach” to assessing development: rather than focusing on how much incomes are increased by a given development intervention, he proposes we look instead at which things the people involved are able to do which they couldn’t do before. (Only things which the people themselves “have reason to value” are to be included in the list. These are things which Sen refers to as “substantive freedoms”.) It’s encouraging to see practical applications of Sen’s philosophy making it into a popular weekly magazine. It also makes me think it was worth the effort to read the book in the first place!
  2. Given the famous difficulty in knowing what NGOs are doing with their donation money, it seems incredible that one organisation can not only find this stuff out, but find it out in sufficient detail to be able to compare across organisations in terms of an effectiveness metric. Amazing.

So, with this in mind, I’m off to find out how “Giving What We Can” are able to do what Wigmore says They Can, and also off to continue to enjoy/battle through Sen’s heavy-hitting classic, the effects of which are clearly still being felt throughout the development research community.

* Sen, Amartya 1999 – Development as Freedom, Anchor Books

Author: Rob Levy

Senior teaching associate (or, in English, "teacher") of Economics at Bristol University. Recently submitted my PhD. We'll see what happens...

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