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Column by Li Bennich Björkman

“Liberty, equality, fraternity!”

The French revolutionaries threw a hierarchical and unjust society on the dust heap with forward-thinking ideas: not just the few, but the many should be able to live good lives over which they themselves have control. Rarely has anything proven to be more difficult to realise politically, however. Together, these ambitions create a humane and decent society. Applied individually, they can, and often do, lead to the opposite.     

Amartya Sen, who has been awarded the 2017 Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, asserts that it is only greater political equality – democracy – that will lead to the many gaining the freedom to govern their own lives. Making political power dependent on the entire people and not just the elite will put disadvantage on the political agenda systematically, not just because of the benevolence of individual leaders. The political leaders cannot afford to leave be. The lack of freedom gradually decreases through reforms that create conditions for reduced vulnerability. Education, public healthcare, sanitation and housing increase the individual’s ability to make choices for or against.

What we all want to be able to do in our short time here on Earth, to live a good life as we see fit, is within reach for more people. This, nothing else, is development. Sen’s way of looking at things has had a considerable impact, and has influenced both the United Nations’ development programmes and the thinking of the World Bank.

But what about fraternity? Sen noted early on that a free, humane and decent society can never be a reality unless women’s freedom increases. In most of the world, being a woman means being fundamentally disadvantaged and thereby not free. According to Sen’s wishes, the money from the Johan Skytte Prize, SEK 500,000, will go to the foundation for girls’ education and healthcare in India and Bangladesh that he himself created, the Pratichi Trust, as did the prize money he received when he was awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1998. By brain and heart alike, Amartya Sen is creating a better world.    

Li Bennich-Björkman, Skytte Professor of Eloquence and Political Science at the Department of Government, Uppsala University