Capabilities and resilience – a helpful conceptual alliance for dealing with child poverty?

Gutwald, Rebecca Sarah (2014). 'Capabilities and resilience – a helpful conceptual alliance for dealing with child poverty?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The aim of my paper is to connect the widely and often employed concept of resilience with the normative perspective on well-being that the capability approach (CA) provides.

'Resilience' describes a person's, a society's or a system's ability to cope with major risks. Poverty, destruction of environment, severe distress or social exclusion may pose such risks. The concept of resilience is versatile: it is often used in social sciences and ecological studies as a blanket term to define and explain why some people or systems recover from severe crisis, while others break or even perish. Thus, the idea of resilience is used mainly in a descriptive-empirical context. However, there are several normative aspects about the concepts, many of them only implicit. Usually, resilience is viewed in a positive light: for instance, a person who overcomes emotional, developmental, economic or environmental challenges seems to be very admirable. She seems to live a good life in the sense that she has be resources and abilities to cope with difficult situations and lead a self determined life. Hence, the concept of resilience has become quite fashionable e.g. in social work to identify the factors that make people strong in this respect and design suitable social interventions in order to make people more resilient.

Nevertheless, I believe that the normative aspect of resilience cannot be judged so easily. My paper argues that a more secure normative underpinning is needed in order to make use of this important notion. I believe that the right normative guidance can be found in the CA and the normative perspective on well-being that it offers. There are two reasons why I believe that the concept of resilience should be viewed from the perspective of capabilities – and that it should be defined by them, at least in part.

First, resilience may often be positive, especially for the groups and persons that possess it. However, there are persons and societies who are quite resilient, e.g. dictatorships, oppressive regimes or very egotistical people. Their resilience is definitely not desirable. Second, most works about resilience acknowledge that social relationships are important for people. But the issue of promoting resilience usually focuses on an individual's abilities and qualities. This often leads to the – mistaken – view that we only need to make individuals stronger and more resilient without thinking about factors in people's environment or the political system.

Introducing the CA in the discussion of these two issues does not only clarify how to conceive the normative aspects of resilience. I believe that the CA can also be enriched by thinking along the lines of resilience which has an important bearing on whether people are able to sustain their own well-being. Therefore, the main aim of my paper is to clarify the conceptual connections between the normative aspects of resilience and capabilities conceived in the version of Amartya Sen. I illustrate my arguments by examples from the discussion of child poverty, because this is a context in which resilience and capabilities play a prominent role.

My paper has two main parts. First, I argue that it is a worthwhile goal to relate these two concepts, even given that they stem from very different scientific backgrounds. This is the place to point out the striking similarities between the concepts of resilience and capabilities, since the CA also examines the capacities and opportunities a person needs to conquer disadvantage. Surprisingly, there are very few theoretical papers on how to characterize the relationship of these concepts. In a couple of empirical studies on child poverty the concepts are connected: Capabilities are used to define resilience or conceived of as the necessary conditions for its development. However, this body of work is rather limited. In this first part my aim is to expand it.

In the second part, I present a normative outline of resilience in the language of capabilities which offers perspectives on the problem of dealing with child poverty on the level of social justice. I claim that it is especially important to examine the social environment that influences children's conversion factors, e.g. shaping abilities necessary for rational thinking, reading and writing or the social conditions of building self-esteem (which is problematic e.g. for young girls). By viewing children's conversion factors and the respective capabilities, we can, I argue, make a case for a normatively positive form of resilience. Speaking of capabilities will create a holistic, multi-dimensional picture: we shift away from merely looking at the crisis that (child) poverty is for the individual, but look at the social, environmental and personal factors that are needed to overcome poverty.

In my conclusion I will emphasize how viewing resilience in terms of capabilities will lead to a better formulation of social policies that are designed to promote resilience and prevent poverty. By using the CA we will not begin to intervene when people are already poor and in a crisis. The CA suggests  prevention and treatment programs in order to strengthen resilience factors. Thus, one may avert situation in which people will have to face crisis. So, the CA does fulfill one of its core normative purposes: giving people the abilities and opportunities to lead a good human life.

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