Swartz, Sharlene (2017). 'Foundations of Well-Being and Agency' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


This panel explores the conceptual foundations of well-being and agency with respect to inequality and social injustice. The overarching theme that unites the papers in this panel relates to what the capability approach can contribute to, and learn from, alternative approaches to welfare. The other approaches considered cover elements of materialism and utilitarianism, relational aspects of development, and approaches to the welfare of migrants. The papers reflect on the origins and evolution of national accounting frameworks, the relevance of Andy Sumner’s three-dimensional approach to well-being, a critique of the emerging literature on plural utility functions for gauging women’s bargaining power (which falls short of the kind of agency freedom advocated by Amartya Sen), and a capability enhanced approach for investigating migrants’ welfare.

All the papers explore the synergies and complementarities between the capability approach and alternative approaches to social evaluation. The first paper shows that concern for welfare was at the heart of economic measurement prior to the recalibration of the national accounts in the 1960s. This unfortunate turn of events has contributed to the gulf between hard finance and practical spending on health, education and social protection. This in turn has been exacerbated by austerity in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Through a combination of archival research and interviews in addition to an analysis of existing literature, it is argued that returning to early concepts and measures of economic welfare can provide a theoretical basis for protecting capabilities that resonates with human capability and development paradigm.

The second paper draws attention to those living in oppressive environments and the limits placed on people’s ability to be and do. Structural and symbolic violence, it argues, reduces the availability of options, which limits individuals’ capabilities. In other words, internal capabilities are diminished by continued oppression, providing a further constraint to people’s ability to live the life they have reason to value. The early work of Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Steve Biko, followed by a host of other global South academics, outlines how oppressive environments take their toll on people. Dehumanizing treatment, overtime, dehumanizes. People living in oppressive environments are angry at the treatment they receive, but that they feel powerless (at least as individuals) to fight back against such treatment. This anger and sense of powerlessness can lead to apathy and, for some, self-destructive or anti-social behaviour. This, in turn harms internal capabilities and can dramatically alter the achievement of desired functioning, even when external barriers to such functionings are absent or minimal. This paper focuses on how measuiring these myriad internalized effects of living in oppressive environments is necessary in order to support people to overcome the consequences of prolonged experience of dehumanizing environments.

The third paper examines the ethical and empirical foundations for employing a strict capability approach to improve the evidence base for measuring the women’s agency and empowerment. It considers the move from unitary to plural utility functions within the household to better capture women’s decision making power. Although these improvements in the utility calculus represent a step forward, the overall methodological approach lacks the strong foundations of the capability approach and its normative concerns for women’s values and basic freedoms. The paper calls for the development of a psychosocial questionnaire to assess women’s agency within the household. This module would be designed to capture Sen’s notion of agency freedom, and could be incorporate within existing household poverty surveys. Such an approach has the potential to provide a more rounded picture of women’s agency and empowerment as well as household inequalities.

The final paper considers the contribution the capability approach can make to investigating the agency and well-being of international migrants. Three principles from the capability approach are identified and developed to help augment contemporary approaches for thinking about migration. The first of these principles involves broadening the conceptualisation of well-being to cover cultural and social factors. The second principle entails recognising basic capabilities as human rights in an effort to strengthen protection and entitlements for migrants. The final principle involves distinguishing between agency and well-being to gain a fuller appreciation of the aspirations, motives and decisions behind the livelihoods strategies of migrants.

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