HDCA Member Views on the Capability Approach

Read in brief what some long-standing HDCA members have to say about the meaning and importance of the CA.


severine-deneulin-27472-0063 Séverine Deneulin
Associate Professor in International Development,
University of Bath, UK

It is a way of looking at the world from the perspective of people's lives. How well are people doing in given situations? Are they able to live in dignity? If not, what is preventing them from living well? Take for example a 15 year girl who's lost her family to HIV/AIDS and can't find another way of making a living but by being a sex worker. The capability approach asks in that situation: What is it that the girl would aspire to be or do? Does she really want to be a sex worker or if she was given other opportunities, would she choose to go to school and choose another profession? How can these opportunities be provided? Or take a 75 year old disabled man in the United States who is working cleaning a hospital. If he was given other opportunities, like a full state pension and medical care, would he be doing what he's doing? This is what the capability approach is about: asking how well people are living, and if given other opportunities, would they choose to live the life they are currently living? It then asks: what needs to change for these opportunities to be provided?

IngridRobeyns200x200 Ingrid Robeyns
Professor of Practical Philosophy,
Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

For the philosopher, the capability approach is primarily associated with theories of well-being and freedom. Yet the capability approach is not a neat theory as most philosophical theories are. Instead, it is a flexible normative framework or a theoretical language. It is flexible because it can be used for a range of evaluative exercises, including most prominently the assessment of individual well-being; the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements, including assessments of social and distributive justice; and the design of policies and proposals about social change in society. In all these normative endeavors, the capability approach prioritizes (a selection of) peoples’ beings and doings and their opportunities to realize those beings and doings, for example their genuine opportunities to be educated, their ability to move around or to enjoy supportive social relationships. The capability approach can thus be a theoretical tool for any area where value judgments about people’s lives are made, which includes many empirical disciplines, and of course also ethics and social and political philosophy.

atkinson Tony Atkinson
Professor of Economics,
University of Oxford, UK

In economics, my field, theoretical models play an important role in influencing how problems are conceived. The models are typically over-simplified, but they serve to highlight relationships that may otherwise be overlooked or given insufficient weight. In considering the opportunities open to people, we tend to think about their own personal characteristics and endowments, but the opportunity set depends also on the actions of others. In market economies, this means looking at the “other side” of the market. Being able to feed one’s children depends on the pricing policies of supermarkets and on the range of products that they sell. If cheap cuts of meat are no longer available, then budgeting is much harder. An analysis of the market as a whole brings out the way in which the opportunities open to the poorest depend on the range of incomes in society as a whole. This not only provides a firm grounding for a relative theory of deprivation, but also leads us to widen the range of policies concerned with human development, encompassing competition policy and industrial organisation, as well as the policy areas typically considered. This is where the Capability Approach makes a contribution.

melaniewalker Melanie Walker
Senior Research Professor,
University of the Free State, South Africa,

Education in the capability approach is about more than developing human capital to get a job and to contribute to a country’s economic growth. In the capability approach human capital is important because it enables us to access economic opportunities, but it does not say anything about who gets the jobs or why, or what the quality of these economic opportunities are, or who benefits from a country’s economic growth. Instead, education is important in a richer way; it has instrumental (e.g. getting a job) and intrinsic (e.g. a love of reading for its own sake) value and transformative potential (e.g. greater gender equality). Education is also valuable for its democratic contributions; it can teach us to reason and deliberate with others - critically, and in an informed way. Education has interpersonal effects in opening up opportunities for others, e.g. younger brothers or sisters or people in the communities of which we are a part. From a social perspective education can have empowerment and distributive effects, e.g. disadvantaged groups can increase their ability to resist inequalities and get a fairer deal in and through education. Crucially, having a good education affects the development and expansion of other capabilities so that an education capability expands other important human freedoms.

Jaqui-head-shot Jacqui Goldin
Extra-Ordinary Ass. Prof. Anthropology & Water Sciences,
University of the Western Cape, South Africa

The CA is about choice and freedom to be or do what one wants to be or do. As an example - a person who is deprived of water (material good) is deprived of more than the asset (tap, pipe etc) because that person is deprived of dignity and pride. Deprivation isn't only having less physical health (infant mortality for water bourne disease as one example) - but deprivation in this instance is much worse and it restricts choice and the opportunity to live a 'good life' or 'good enough life.' Smith's linen shirt image - linked to the appearing in public without shame, holds true in the 21st century. The idea of 'ubuntu' in South Africa and elsewhere is strong - reciprocating and being hospitable matters. Individuals may have to withdraw from public life so as not to be shamed (without clean clothes or sanitation for visitors). The CA is able to capture intangible (self-esteem, dignity, pride, hope) and tangible goods (taps, toilets) - and reminds us that these goods are incommensurable.

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