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

Overview of Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach

people are humans beingsAmartya Sen’s capabilities approach revolves around people and sees development as expansion of their capabilities. It aims to enhance people’s well-being by expanding their capabilities. It emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice, individual diversities and the multidimensional nature of human well-being. The emphasis is not only on how people actually function but also on their having the capabilities, which are practical choices, “to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value”. As opposed to accumulating resources it construes capabilities in terms of the substantive freedoms people have. It provides a relatively universal grammar for understanding the elements of human well-being.

In the capabilities approach, poverty is understood as deprivation of basic capabilities. People get deprived of such capabilities in several ways, for example, ignorance, oppressive state policies, lack of financial resources, ill health, lack of proper education. The scope of this approach is quite vast; all factors that can potentially affect capabilities are relevant for consideration. It considers all possible factors – social and political processes, gender, inequality, social exclusion, disability, environmental conditions, personal and psychological factors – 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.

A Development Model Beyond Economic Growth

society's success freedom - senOver the past decade Amartya Sen’s Capability theory has emerged as a serious alternative model of progress and development. 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 an alternative perspective on issues like poverty and inequality that can’t be adequately addressed by the economic viewpoint.

Sen’s approach is both comprehensive and flexible. It provides dignity to people who are currently treated as mere tools to achieve economic growth. If the GDP growth model dis-empowers them, the capabilities approach makes empowerment a central issue. Rather than talking of some theoretical equality of people or seeing them in terms of numbers, the capability approach explicitly recognizes the differences among individuals. 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, discriminations, opportunities to participate in social and political activities, freedom to speak and influence state policies, and so on.

How A Rich Country can have Poor Quality Life?

poverty in rich countries social exclusionA country can be very rich in conventional economic terms (say, per capita GDP) and yet has large percentage of people with poor quality of human life. How to account for low well-being of people in poverty in rich countries?

It can be answered in two ways. First, human well-being depends upon several things other than wealth or income. A country obsessed with GDP growth alone may not provide basic infrastructure of education, healthcare, transport, clean drinking water, sanitation and so on. Today, it is a proven fact that economic growth inherently favors the rich and hence wealth gets increasingly concentrated in few hands. It means rising inequalities and injustice that lead to social exclusion of the poor. Social exclusion is a matter not only of current status but also of the future expectations. It works to sustain and increase poverty.

Second, we need to consider how well access to resources empowers people. Obtaining goods and services is one thing and converting them into functionality is another. People and groups of people differ in their ability to convert resources and facilities into valuable functionings. For example, children, disabled people and senior citizens need more resources to achieve similar functionings compared with normal adults. Pregnant women require more resources and facilities than non-pregnant women.

Further, mere possession of an item doesn’t automatically imply increase in capability. For example, a bicycle makes it possible to move around freely – it can enable capability of mobility. But mere possession of a bicycle does not in itself assure that. What if the owner doesn’t know how to ride it, he may be handicapped, or he is simply not interested in riding it.

Functionings and Capabilities

poverty is denial of choicesSen searched for measure to adequately represent people’s well-being and deprivation and found that neither income and command over commodities, nor happiness and fulfillment of desires constituted good enough indicator of human well-being or lack of it. Sen argues that people’s well-being depends upon what they are actually able to be and do. Thus, he focused on something more direct such as human functionings and capabilities in terms of which the quality of life is analysed. In other words, a person’s capabilities offer a perspective in terms of which his advantages and disadvantages can be reasonably assessed.

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.

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.

Capabilities: Capabilities are different combinations of functionings that a person can achieve; it also reflects his freedom to choose. So, capabilities refers to the set of valuable functionings that a person has effective access to. They are best thought to be the equivalent of a person’s opportunity set.  In nutshell, capabilities are made up of two things: functionings and the freedom to choose from them.

Difference between functionings and capabilities

Functionings refer to what people really ‘do and are’; capabilities denote what people potentially ‘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 are notions of freedom, in the positive sense: what real opportunities a person has regarding the life he can potentially lead. Take away the freedom to choose, the two things become same.

The difference between functioning and capability can be best clarified with an example. Consider two persons who are not eating. One is a victim of a famine in Ethiopia and the other decided to sit on a ‘fast’ in front of the US embassy in London to protest against its troops in Afghanistan. What distinguishes the two is the freedom. 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 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.

How Democracy Protects People’s Well-Being

For Sen, democracy is not mean voting and elections. 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 colonial India, 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.

Applications of the Capability Approach

poors friend amartya senMany 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, as well as for designing policies. It has been related to human needs, human rights and human security as well as development more broadly. It has also been seen as a theory of social justice – seeking to reduce social exclusion and inequalities.

There have been numerous attempts to apply the CA to the measurement of poverty and well-being. The CA is perhaps best known for having inspired the creation of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in order to gauge countries’ level of human development or people’s 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. The HDI covers dimensions of material well-being, health, and education.

The gender development index (GDI), gender empowerment measure (GEM) and gender inequality index (GII) are other measures that probe capabilities. The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) is another useful measure that evaluates poverty through 10 indicators.

Although widely used, the GDP is a highly unsatisfactory (and often deceptive) indicator of people’s well-being and development.


The well-being of people depends upon many things other than increased income or resources. All such things are sidelined when an economic measure like the GDP is taken to indicate development. The basic objective of development should be to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy, and creative lives. This goal is lost when the immediate concern becomes accumulation of commodities and financial wealth. In reality, they are only means to expand people’s capabilities and freedom of choices, not ends in themselves.

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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