Famine economist wins Nobel prize

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The Independent Online
A CAMBRIDGE University professor who suggested that famines are not necessarily caused by food shortages has been awarded the 1998 Nobel Economics Prize.

Amartya Sen, born in Bengal in 1933, is a leading figure in the field of development economics. In a seminal book in 1981, he challenged the view that famines were necessarily caused by shortages of food, arguing instead that social and economic factors were often to blame. The 1974 famine in Bangladesh, for example, was partly due to sharp declines in agricultural incomes following severe flooding, according to Professor Sen.

Making the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Professor Sen had made "key contributions to the research on fundamental problems of welfare economics". As well as noting Professor Sen's research into famine, the academy referred to his work on measuring poverty and inequality.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, told Professor Sen the country was proud of his achievement. Manmohan Singh, the former Indian finance minister, said the professor's "great contributions in economic theories in philosophy" had had a substantial impact on government policy".

"This is something that has been long overdue," commented Dipaka Banerji, former head of economics at Calcutta's Presidency College.

Professor Sen, who was awarded a doctorate from Cambridge University in 1959, began making his name in the field of development economics from the mid 1960s.

During the 1970s, his work on poverty indices - which allow international comparisons of poverty levels - helped form the basis of modern indicators of poverty such as the United Nations' Human Development Index. Poverty could not be measured by income levels alone, Professor Sen argued. Factors such as health and education were also key.

The 1981 book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation is perhaps Professor Sen's best-known work. The book contains an analysis of the causes of famines in India, Bangladesh and Africa, and concludes that famines are not necessarily caused by food shortages.

Although winning the Nobel prize - worth about pounds 600,000 - will undoubtedly boost Professor Sen's public profile, he is unlikely to achieve the notoriety as last year's winners.

Robert Merton and Myron Scholes - who were awarded the 1997 prize for work in the field of financial instruments - were partners in Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), the hedge fund that almost collapsed earlier this summer after its complex investment strategy went wrong.

Hamish McRae,

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