The capability approach of Amartya Sen puts people at the focus of development; not economy. Since it revolves around expanding people’s capabilities, it recognizes all factors – personal, psychological, social, political, environmental etc – that can possibly affect people’s capability to function effectively. It recognizes economic development as an important factor, but only as a tool to expand people’s capabilities, not as an end.
Currently popular economics correlates a people’s well-being with the level of their consumption of goods and services. However, this approach is always criticized by experts for taking a too narrow view of human well-being and for the obsession with material goods. If all people were identical, an index of goods consumption would be correlated with people’s well-being. But in reality, no two persons are same and there is considerable diversity among people. It means that they need different amounts and different kinds of goods to achieve the same level of well-being. Moreover, human well-being doesn’t depend upon consumption of commodities only; it also depends upon non-material things. Therefore, measures like per capita GDP are highly imperfect measure of people’s well-being or quality of life. [Amartya Sen – Development Beyond GDP]
Nobel winner economist and philosopher Amartya Sen came up with a drastically new approach, the capability approach that put people at the center of development. The capability theory of development is wholly centered on people as human beings – what people are “capable of doing with what they have” is the central point of his capability perspective of development. In fact, the capability approach encompasses a lot of fields other than economics. Just like the attempt of Einstein to find a unified field theory behind all forces of physics, Amartya Sen’s capability theory can also be seen as unifying various areas that study human well-being.
The capability approach encroaches upon several different areas – development thinking, welfare economics, political philosophy, sociology, and so on. Therefore, it is not surprising if Sen’s ideas have attracted a wide spectrum of people – scholars, activists, policy makers, social workers and government agencies. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has developed a range of alternative indicators of human development, based on the capability approach. They not only supplement the fashionable GDP model of development but also underline its serious shortcomings in using it as a sole measure of progress. The capability approach is equally applicable to study the developmental problems of the so-called developed as well as of the developing or poor societies.
The main reason why the capability approach is so versatile is that it is primarily a framework of thought, a mode of thinking about issues. Loosely speaking, it’s a paradigm. It focuses on the information that is needed to make judgments about people’s well-being. Unlike the traditional approaches which are restricted to monetary or material terms, the capability perspective goes into the wide gamut of non-material factors that also affect human well-being.
The most crucial aspect of Amartya Sen’s capability approach is that it introduced the ‘human element’ into the development debate. Sen does so by putting the focus on people’s capabilities, their ability to do and to be. The traditional approaches concentrate on income, expenditure, consumption or basic need fulfillment or on people’s desire or happiness fulfillment. Putting the focus on people’s capabilities, leads to entirely different policies as compared with the traditional approaches. Sen stresses that in social evaluations and policy design, the focus should be always on what people are able to do and be, on their freedom to do so, and on removing the constraints that bind them in their lives. This would allow them to live the kind of life they value.
Development means Increasing People’s Capabilities
Everything in Sen’s capability approach revolves around people’s capabilities to function, ie on their effective opportunities to undertake actions and activities that they want to engage in, and be who they want to be. These beings and doings, which Sen calls achieved functionings, together constitute what make life valuable. Functionings include working, resting, being literate, being healthy, being part of a community, being respected, and so on.
But Sen goes beyond achieving functionings, to developing capabilities deals with options, choices, opportunities (also called advantages) based on having ‘real’ freedom. What is ultimately important is that people have the freedoms (capabilities) to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, to do what they want to do and be the person they want to be. What is important is that they should have the opportunity to function in a way that is in line with their own ideas of life. For example, every person should have the opportunity to be part of a community and to practice a religion, but if someone prefers to be a recluse or an atheist, he should also have this option (or freedom).
Sen’s capability approach rests on two things: functionings and capabilities. Let’s explore each carefully so that the distinction between the two is not lost.
A commodity can enable a functioning but is distinct from it. A functioning is what a person manages to do or to be. For example, a bicycle is a commodity that helps transportation, but being able to transport using the bicycle is a functioning. If two persons own bicycles, we can’t say that they would be able to achieve the same functioning. If, for instance, one of them is handicapped, he would not be able to use the bike for moving around, while the normal person can. This also points to the crucial difference between the traditional resource based approaches that stop at providing the bicycle and the capability approach that explores if it resulted in functioning.
The commodity focused thinking is only concerned about a person having certain commodities; it is not concerned about the individual. But the capability approach focuses on the individual in order to know what functionings he can achieve with what he has. Therefore, in the capability approach, possession of commodities is important only for the purpose that they enable people to acquire functionings.
The conversion of commodity into functioning – doings and beings – is influenced by three types of conversion factors. First, personal factors (eg, health condition, sex, level of intelligence etc) influence how a person converts the available commodity into functioning. Disabilities drastically hinder this conversion. Second, social factors (social norms, gender bias, discriminations, etc) and environmental factors (climate, infrastructure, institutions, public services, etc) also play a role in conversion of the availability of commodity into individual functionings. Therefore, knowing that a person owns a commodity is not enough to know if the functioning is achieved. We need to know both about the person and the circumstances in which he lives.
More importantly, the capability approach does not consider the functionings that a person has achieved as the ultimate measure of success. It is concerned with his real freedom or opportunity that enables him to implement the functioning.
The functionings achieved by a person may not be sufficient in determining a person’s overall quality of life or well-being. For this we need to know, the person’s “capability,” the functionings that the person could achieve. Hence, the concept of capability is closely related to the idea of opportunity, freedom, or advantage.
For instance, consider this statement – Harry did not go to Chicago and instead remained in Singapore. In the capability perspective, what we need to know is this: whether he got the visa and could have gone to Chicago but chose not to, or he did not have the money to go to Chicago, or if he was denied a visa to get to the United States. Therefore, extra insights emerge the moment we put on the goggles of the capability approach. Therefore, availability of options and choices are embedded in the idea of capability, that’s why capability goes hand in hand with the idea of opportunity and freedom.
Finally, it is important to note that in real life, two people with identical capability sets are likely to end up with different types and levels of achieved functionings, as they would make different choices from their available options. In philosophical terms, we could say that they have different ideas of good life – different desires and wishes on what kind of life they want to lead. The capability approach respects people’s own ideas of the good life, and this is why capability, and not achieved functioning is the appropriate goal. However, it is also clear that in real life, our ideas of the good life are profoundly moulded by our family, tribal, religious, community or cultural background.
Difference between Functioning and Capability
Let’s once again try to highlight the difference between functioning and capability.
Sen explains this by focusing on the difference between fasting and starvation. Consider a person who is a victim of famine in Ethiopia, and another who is sitting on hunger strike to protest against the US invasion of Iraq. Although both persons lack the functioning of being well-nourished, but what distinguishes them is the ‘freedom.’ The protester on hunger strike has the capability to eat – achieve this functioning – which the Ethiopian person lacks. Remember the concept of capability: the functionings that a person could achieve.
Impact of the Capability Approach
Under the lens of the capability approach, policies are evaluated according to their impact on people’s capabilities. For instance, it asks whether people are being healthy, and whether the resources necessary for this capability – such as clean water, access to medical doctors, protection from infections and diseases, and basic knowledge on health issues – are present. It asks whether people are well-nourished, and whether the enabling requirements for this capability – such as sufficient food supplies and food entitlements – are met. It asks whether people have access to a high quality education, to real political participation, to community activities which support them to cope with daily struggles of life, to spiritual activities like Yoga that give them peace of mind. Such questioning never comes up in the commodity or consumption approaches.
For some of these capabilities, the main input will be financial and material goods, but for others people may have to count on social or cultural practices, religion or political participation, public facilities, social institutions, social structures, political practices that guarantee and protect the freedom of expression and so on. The capability approach thus covers all probable factors that may have bearing on human wellbeing. Therefore, in the capability approach much attention is paid not only to the links between the economic, social, political and cultural dimensions of life but it also considers the dimensions of mental, spiritual and social well-being.
The capabilities approach has been used in the contexts of poverty measurement, gender issues, political freedom, and standard of living assessment. The most important attempt to make the approach operational was the creation of the Human Development Reports by the United Nations and the construction of the Human Development Index (HDI). The way countries rank in terms of development when measured by the HDI tends to differ, in some cases widely so, from those rankings based solely on income per capita.
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