Corruption in the West: Using the capability approach to recover social justice

Gkouvali, Christina (2014). 'Corruption in the West: Using the capability approach to recover social justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Corruption has been recognized as one of the largest impediments to advancing social and economic development and as a major factor constraining social justice. In the search for an answer to this challenge, Amartya Sen's human capabilities approach has often been employed in developing countries as a framework for systematically fighting corruption in the hope of accelerating development. This is based on the idea that equipping a population with essential freedoms and capabilities can create the required momentum for confronting social injustice. This approach to systemic corruption has -to the author's knowledge- thus far been applied only to developing nations and emerging economies. Yet little is known on what influence this approach can have when removed from the developmental context and applied to those post-industrialized western societies that also suffer from petty and systemic corruption with often high levels of social injustice.

In an attempt to fill this gap in the literature, this paper will present an analysis and assessment of the influence Sen's capabilities approach can have upon the thinking towards combatting petty and systemic corruption in developed nations. This is the first attempt to explore the possibility of applying the capabilities approach to corruption in western societies. In this light, it will be examined whether and how far the capabilities perspective could be used as a vaccine against corruption in mature, developed societies and whether it can benefit or enhance existing anti-corruption measures. By drawing on theoretical concepts from different epistemological fields, two key weaknesses are revealed that significantly diminish the ability of the capabilities approach to curb corruption in developed nations. First, it will be shown that such an approach largely discounts the cultural and normative scripts that are deeply embedded in corrupt mature societies, failing to address corruption as a sociological phenomenon. It thus disregards the need for necessary ideological work on the nation-level through which such scripts can be altered by engaging the sociological imagination. Second, while praised for its emphasis on the individual and its ability to accommodate diversity of values and circumstances, such an individualistic approach largely neglects the social embeddedness of individuals and the significance of social networks. This entails the danger of discounting the vital need for solidarity and social trust, namely for cultivating the necessary sense of responsibility towards those with less resources - a key aspect missing from developed yet corrupt societies.

Overall it will be argued that, while Amartya Sen's capabilities approach could offer a novel context for conceptualizing and combatting corruption in developed countries, it is limited in its applicability outside the developmental context, in the ideological work it entails and in its focus on individual freedoms, sidelining human solidarity and interconnectedness. Thus, a bottom-up approach to corruption through the creation of capabilities would need to be complemented by efforts to strengthen societal bonds and construct alternative social narratives of a state that is just. This reinforces Sen's assertion to see the capability approach as a framework of thought, which can be applied in diverse ways in different contexts and could -or even should- be supplemented with other theories in the pursuit of social justice.

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