Prizes, poverty and pasta: a week in the life of a winner

October 23, 1998

Best known for his work on the causes of famine, Amartya Sen, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has won the 1998 Nobel prize for economics. He tells Alison Goddard about his first week as Nobel laureate


I flew out to New York for a memorial meeting for the imaginative and influential Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq. We met in 1953 as undergraduates at the University of Cambridge. Despite my coming from India and his coming from Pakistan, we were very close friends. He died two months ago.

The United Nations arranged his memorial meeting, which was addressed by the secretary-general Kofi Annan, but I was asked to give the principal address. I flew out a day early so that I could see his widow, whom I have not seen since his death. But my plan of spending Wednesday with the bereaved family was derailed.


I was woken by a 5am phone call. My first thought was that something terrible had happened to the children. I was jetlagged and had only had a few hours' sleep, but the call was from the Royal Swedish Academy. My first reaction was relief that it was not the terrible news of an accident. The second reason for being happy was that the news was reasonably good.

My wife was in Cambridge. She had formed the impression five minutes earlier that I might have won the prize, when the Royal Swedish Academy had called me at Trinity College. My wife told them that I would be back in a couple of days but they wanted to contact me more urgently than that.

The rest of the day was news interviews. I appeared on television and gave interviews to several print journalists. One acquires prominence by winning a Nobel prize and I have no hesitation in using it to say: "Look, you people ought to take the problems of poverty and unemployment more seriously."

It is a crying shame that in Europe so little attention is given to intolerable and persistent levels of unemployment. One way of getting something done is to bring the importance of this deprivation to the attention of the public. I do not think that any United States government would survive the 12 per cent unemployment seen in some European countries. There is a difference in attitude: employment is treated as a very basic thing in the US. I think that unemployment could be much reduced in every European country if the problem was specifically targeted.

I was pleased to have two of my children with me. My daughter Indrani - who did English literature at Oxford University and graduated last year - now works on a small newspaper in the Boston area, and she flew over to New York.

My son Kabir is in the final year at Wesleyan University. He took a bus and came over. They helped me to arrange the interviews; my daughter has experience of handling news things.

In the evening we all went out for a meal with an old friend of mine, Lincoln Chen, Takemi professor of public health at Harvard University and vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation. He had brought a bottle of champagne and we drank that. But as we were entering the restaurant, I ran into another Pakistani friend, Mahnaz Ispahani, and she insisted on getting another bottle of champagne. So we had a subcontinental celebration. Actually we had something quite normal - some pasta possibly - and I think I had salmon.


In the morning I spoke at the memorial meeting for Mahbub ul Haq. And then I flew back to the United Kingdom - but on Concorde this time. When I arrived at Heathrow with my Indian passport, I needed a stamp. The immigration officer said: "You know, all you economists are getting Nobel prizes and the economy is still in a mess." There is a lot of healthy scepticism around. I think he must have seen a picture of me in the papers and related the name to that on my passport.


I chaired the college council in the morning and held consultations on college policy. It was an important day for us, because it was the day when we admitted the senior and junior scholars, which happens in the chapel. In the afternoon I gave a press conference and a series of interviews to journalists.

Since hearing that I won the prize, I have not had a moment to sit down with myself and think what to do with it. Half the money - $500,000 - will go to the US government. Until the summer I was a professor at Harvard University and I am taxable in the US. There are good reasons to think that prizes should be taxed; there is no reason why they should not be taxed. And $500,000 is still a tidy sum.

This evening, I am having dinner with the master of Churchill College, Sir John Boyd.


he Indian High Commissioner is coming to lunch - he wants to speak with me. And my eldest daughter is here now. She is senior editor of the Hindustan Times and this year she is in Oxford as a Reuters fellow. I am having dinner in college with her and her husband.

Sunday We are planning to go abroad but we shall have to see whether or not it will be feasible. I think I had better not commit myself to any plans at the moment.

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