Sen, key contributor to the Human Development Report, awarded U.S. Humanities Medal

14 Feb 2012

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, and a seminal contributor to the first Human Development Reports and the Human Development Index, was awarded the prestigious U.S. National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama on Monday night.

Obama said the Indian economist, currently a professor at Harvard University, was awarded the medal for “insights into the causes of poverty, famine and injustice.”

"By applying philosophical thinking to questions of policy, he has changed how standards of living are measured and increased our understanding of how to fight hunger," the citation read.

As of 1990, the human development concept was applied to a systematic study of global themes, as published in the yearly global Human Development Reports under the auspice of the United Nations Development Programme. The work of Sen and others provided the conceptual foundation for an alternative and broader human development approach, defined as a process of enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human capabilities (the range of things people can be and do) and freedoms. This process enables people to: live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge and a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community and decisions affecting their lives.

Sen spoke with UNDP about the origins of the HDI and his collaboration with the Report’s founder, Mahbub ul Haq, on the occasion of the Report’s 20th anniversary in 2010.

“The first real debate we had was about the Human Development Index, which I ultimately helped him devise.  I was very opposed to it originally. I didn’t really want it. I didn’t want one number, because one number would have the feature of simplifying everything so much.”