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Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights: The Work of Amartya Sen

Briefing/policy papers

This Briefing Paper reviews the ways in which the Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Amartya Sen has focussed international attention on the significance of fundamental human freedoms and human rights for development theory and practice.

In the past, dominant approaches have often characterised development in terms of GDP per capita; food security in terms of food availability; and poverty in terms of income deprivation. Emphasis was placed on economic efficiency – with no explicit role being given to fundamental freedoms, individual agency and human rights. In contrast, Sen’s research has highlighted the central idea that, in the final analysis, market outcomes and government actions should be judged in terms of valuable human ends.

His work has contributed to important paradigm shifts in economics and development – away from approaches that focus exclusively on income, growth and utility, with an increased emphasis on individual entitlements, capabilities, freedoms and rights.  

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