Approaches to capability impact assessment – a scoping review

Meerman, Jan (1); Rijke, Wouter (1); van der Klink, Jac (2); Bloemen, Bart (1); van der Wilt, Gert Jan (1) (2018). 'Approaches to capability impact assessment - a scoping review' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.



The capability approach (CA) offers an alternative to the utilitarian approach to address equity issues. Not the maximization of subjective wellbeing should be a society’s key concern, but the distribution of the real opportunities that citizens have to be and do things they have reason to value. From this, it follows that societies should also be interested in gauging the impact of actual or proposed programs and services on citizens’ capability and its distribution. The purpose of our review was to explore what approaches have been adopted to conduct capability impact assessment (CIA).


A literature search was conducted in PubMed, Web of Science and Google Scholar, using (‘capability’ or ‘capabilities’ or ‘capabilities approach’) and (‘impact’ or ‘assessment’) and (‘intervention’ or ‘program’) as search criteria. Inclusion criteria were 1) an empirical study, 2) measuring the impact of a program or intervention 3) on the wellbeing of beneficiaries in terms of the capability approach. References in retrieved articles were examined to identify further potentially relevant studies that had not been identified in the initial search. Four researchers independently assessed articles using a check list covering the following domains: a) the selected mode of operationalization of the CA, b) quality and credibility of the data collection methods and c) interpretation of the findings in terms of impact of the program or service on the beneficiaries’ capability. Ratings were discussed in group meetings, achieving consensus in case of dissenting views.


Sixty-seven articles  were retrieved as potentially relevant. Of these, nine studies were included. The interventions covered a wide range of programs and services, including community based rehabilitation programs, a free health care program, development projects, technological innovations and microcredit programs. Most studies were conducted in low-middle income countries in South America and Africa. Target groups consisted of women, indigenous communities and people with disabilities. Methods of data collection included group interviews (3), individual interviews (6), a survey (1), documentary analysis (3), workshops (2) and participatory observations (3). Some researchers made use of existing capability lists or domains (e.g., Nussbaum, Finnis), others have constructed these within the target group, and others did not use a specific capability set. Three studies explicitly focused on capabilities in relation to agency. Data was mainly qualitatively analyzed by means of inductive thematic analyses. Eight studies claimed impact of the intervention by expansion of capabilities. Subjective experiences of capability expansion by the beneficiaries were only rarely triangulated with objective indicators. None of the studies reported member checking  to validate interpretations of data. Social, cultural, historical and political context of the target group were often described but not analyzed in terms of the CA model constituents, resources, conversion factors and functionings.


Conducting CIA and reporting its results remains a challenge. Most studies seem to rely on subjective reports of beneficiaries. Following Wolff and De-Shalit’s recommendations, we feel that this is necessary, but not sufficient. Empirical studies of the impact of programs and services on beneficiaries’ capability would benefit from triangulation with objective indicators of capability expansion. Also, as a rule, studies are not aimed at understanding changes in capability (or lack thereof) in terms of the interplay between changes in resources, conversion factors and functionings.  The results of our review can serve as a basis to identify areas for further improvement of assessing the impact of programs and services on the capability of its beneficiaries, a key element of the CA.

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