What is Amartya Sen’s “Capability Approach” to Development

A Development Model Beyond Economic Growth

Can You Answer My Question?

Can You Answer My Question?

Over the past decade Amartya Sen’s Capability theory has emerged as a serious alternative model of progress and development. It goes well beyond the boundaries of economic or industrial growth as practiced today but includes them among other means of development which it sees as expansion of people’s capabilities. Rather than goods and resources (the inputs), the focus of Sen’s capability approach is people and their capabilities (the end-results). It also provides the frameworks for thinking about issues like poverty and inequality that can’t be adequately addressed by the economic tools alone.

The CA can be used as a normative framework for assessing social arrangements, social justice, equality, and quality of life, as well as for designing policies. It has also been seen as a theory of social justice – seeking to reduce social exclusion and inequalities. The CA is perhaps best known for having inspired the creation of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in order to gauge countries’ level of human development or well-being. The HDI offered an alternate measure of human progress in terms other than GDP growth and has played a key role in advancing alternative ideas about development and welfare.

Sen’s approach is both comprehensive and flexible. It focuses on people as ends in themselves rather than treating them as mere tools to achieve economic growth. Rather than talking of some theoretical equality of people or seeing them in terms of numbers, the capability approach explicitly recognizes the differences in individuals coming from say, age, sex, race, class, health, intelligence, education and so on. It also accepts that people’s abilities are affected by external factors coming from the other people, social arrangements, access to infrastructure and public services, opportunities to participate in social and political activities, freedom to speak and influence state policies, and so on.

Thus, the scope of the capability approach is quite vast. It considers all possible factors – personal, economic, social, political, or environmental – that can possibly influence human capabilities which dictate the real well-being of people. In this sense, it is a complete human development model. Although Amartya Sen is commonly associated with welfare economics, but in recent years his theory has been increasingly used for analysis of social policies in economically advanced nations, for example France.

There have been several major international conferences on the CA since 2001, which have generated a lot of new research. A growing number of special journal issues have also been devoted to the CA.

How A Rich Country can have Poor Human Life?

A country can be very rich in conventional economic terms (say, per capita GDP) and yet has very poor quality of human life. How can a country with plenty of money be very poor?

It can be answered in three ways. First, human well-being is a multidimensional phenomenon that cannot be measured in wealth or income. Such measures also fail to indicate how well people live and how equally economic resources (functionings) are distributed among individual, households, and different social groups.

Second, we need to consider conversion of resources. Obtaining goods and services is one thing and converting them into functionality is another. For example, a bicycle makes it possible to move around freely. But mere possession of a bicycle does not in itself assure the function of mobility. A person with some handicap would find it difficult to convert the bicycle into mobility. Similarly, a country may be achieving high economic growth, but if it is concentrated in few hands it would not assure increased well-being for the masses.

Third, economic growth often ignores inequalities and injustice leading to social exclusion. People are excluded not just because they are currently without a job or income, but also because they have little prospects for the future. Social exclusion is a matter not only of current status but also of the future expectations – likelihood of future improvement and empowerment.

Sen Praises Democracy and Rejects Authoritative Regimes

For Sen, democracy is not limited to voting and elections from among multiple parties. Rather, “demo­cracy is best seen as ‘government by discussion’”, namely people’s participation and public reasoning.  Analysing past famines, Sen emphasizes the importance of democracy and freedom of the press, and argues that “no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation)”. “The prevalence of famines, which had been a persistent feature of the long history of the British Indian Empire, ended abruptly with the establishment of a democracy after independence.” Another historical example he cites is the massive famine in China during 1958-61 during the failed ‘Great Leap Forward’, which claimed close to 30 million of lives.

Functionings and Capabilities

school girls

Sen argues that people’s well-being depends upon what they are actually able to be and do. Knowing the availability of resources or wealth alone doesn’t tell how well their lives are going. For instance, availability of a cycle is fine but can’t tell whether the person can get the capability of transportation from it. Therefore, the Capability Approach demands that while designing polices, the focus should be on enhancing capabilities of people; it also involves removing hurdles from their lives so that they have more freedom to ‘live the life they value’.

The CA focuses directly on the quality of life that individuals are actually able to achieve. In other words, a capability is a perspective in terms of which the advantages and disadvantages of a person can be reasonably assessed. Sen searched for measure to adequately represent people’s well-being and deprivation and found that neither income and command over commodities, nor happiness and fulfilment of desires constituted good enough indicator of human well-being or lack of it. Thus, he focused on something more direct such as human functionings and capabilities in terms of which the quality of life is analysed.

The capability approach focuses on two things: freedoms to achieve and the capabilities to function.

Functionings: Functionings are what people really “do and are”. They are achievements of people: they are ‘doings’ or ‘beings’. Taken together, these doings and beings – achieved functionings – give value to life. The functioings may include being well-nourished, having shelter, able to work, rest; or being literate or healthy; being part of a community or group; being respected, and so on.

They should be distinguished from the commodities employed to achieve them (as ‘cycling’ is distinguishable from ‘possessing a cycle). Achieving a functioning (for example, being adequately nourished) with a given bundle of commodities (say, bread or rice) depends on a range of personal and social factors (e.g. age, gender, activity levels, health, access to medical services, nutritional knowledge and education, climatic conditions, and so on). A functioning therefore refers to the use a person makes of whatever is at his/her command.

Capability: It refers to the set of valuable functionings that a person has effective access to. In other words, capabilities are different combinations of functionings that a person can achieve and reflect his freedom to choose. They are like opportunities about what a person may like to do, have, or be. A person’s capability is best thought to be the equivalent of a person’s opportunity set.

Difference between functionings and capabilities

Thus, while functionings refer to what people really “do and are”, capabilities denote what people really “can do and can be”. The achieved functionings are the realized achievements and the capabilities are potentially possible. Functionings are, in a sense, more directly related to living conditions, since they are different aspects of living conditions. Capabilities, in contrast, are notions of freedom, in the positive sense: what real opportunities you have regarding the life you may lead.

The difference between functioning and capability can be best clarified with an example. Consider two persons, both don’t eat enough. One is a victim of a famine in Ethiopia and the other decided to sit on a hunger strike in front of the US embassy in London to protest against its troops in Afghanistan.

Although both lack the functioning of being well-fed, the freedoms they have to avoid hunger are vastly different. The first person is badly constrained in freedom and lacks the capability to achieve the functioning to be well-fed; the second person has this capability.

Likewise, you are capable of driving a car – ie, you have the functioning ability to drive a car. It is a skill that you have. It becomes a capability if you have the freedom (having the driving license, road connectivity, availability of fuel, as well as the motivation) to use it to live or do things you value. So, merely having a car or being able to drive it by itself does not add value to your life. You also lose this capability if, say, you are a female and the state passes a law forbidding women to drive. In Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Talibans regularly issue decrees (or threats) to prevent girls from going to schools.

Thus, poverty is seen in terms of a shortfall of ‘basic capabilities’ or ‘basic capability failure’. Such failure involves the inability to achieve certain minimally adequate levels of crucially important functionings, such as being nourished and being sheltered.

Application of the Capability Approach

Many attempts have been made to apply the CA. For instance, it has been used to investigate poverty, inequality, well-being, social justice, gender, social exclusion, health, disability, child poverty and identity. It has also been related to human needs, human rights and human security as well as development more broadly. Most empirical studies fall into at least one of three categories.

First, there have been numerous attempts to apply the CA to the measurement of poverty and well-being. The most well known measure is the human development index, which covers income (opportunities), life expectancy, and education.

Second, several studies have investigated the links between income (or expenditure) and various capabilities. Studies provide evidence that income and capabilities do not always go together.

Finally, a third strand of work highlights group disparities by pointing to gross inequalities in terms of life expectancy, nutrition and literacy, etc, along the lines of gender, race, class, caste and age.

Reading Further
Amartya Sen’s Concepts of Development and Poverty
Poverty is Multidimensional, So Should be Development
Why “Development” should Focus on People, Not Economy

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. I also undertake content writing and documentation projects. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views. If you wish to write for this blog, please contact me at vj.agra@yahoo.com Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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One Response to What is Amartya Sen’s “Capability Approach” to Development

  1. Dr. Shubhada a. Joshi. Thane, Maharashtra says:

    A very good article explaining in simple words what the approach really is without compromising the details or the essence of the approach. 👌

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