Is Diversity a difficulty or a virtue of the Capabilities Approach?
de Tienda Palop, Lidia (2016). 'Is Diversity a difficulty or a virtue of the Capabilities Approach?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
The Capabilities Approach has influenced various initiatives to measure quality of life since Sen and ul Haq launched the HDRs in 1990. These reports have a significant impact on policies carried out by international organisms as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, initiatives, following the same line, such as the Sarkozy Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress or the GNH (Gross National Happiness Index) in Buthan show the interest of different countries to evaluate wellbeing and quality of life in order to adjust their public policy to improve the life of their citizens effectively. Furthermore, a number of projects to collect data and measure development, well-being and quality of life according to multidimensional factors with the aim to guide public policy are being currently undertaken. By way of example, the OECD Better Life Index or the operationalization of the Capabilities Approach and Multidimensional Poverty Measurement carried out at OPHI (Oxford Poverty Human Development Initiative) at the University of Oxford.
All of these are examples of projects and initiatives that are currently being carried out and agree on the idea that development and quality of life are something more than income, economic growth or the provision of commodities. However, still there is one question that is not completely clear and seems difficult to respond, what are the basic dimensions of what Sen calls the “good life”?
This difficulty deals mainly with the fact of admitting pluralism as the cornerstone of the Capabilities Approach. Pluralism is indeed a value that should be guaranteed because it entails the protection of diversity, therefore the goal of freedom as its ultimate aim. Freedom, diversity, heterogeneity or pluralism are the backbones of the core proposal that has guided the development of the Capabilities Approach. Nevertheless when it comes to freedom it is unavoidable to also cope with the possibility of chaos, disorganization, and more pointedly, for the case of public policies, a certain risk to hamper positive actions on the grounds of incurring some kind of prescriptivism.
The objection of prescriptivism has been reasonably endorsed as a salient critique by those that claim for the protection of minorities, cultural diversity or heterogeneity of different kind. It is true that these claims must be seriously taken into consideration and the right to difference has to receive particular legal protection in a truly inclusive community, however we should not undermine the fact that we live in a global and interconnected world.
From this point of view, it would be highly counter-productive ignoring this fact not only because every country that aspires to be judged as a just political community should ensure a minimal array of justice guarantees to its own citizens but also to secure fairness in the international sphere. Although some authors, and particularly Sen, are reluctant to endorse a universal set of capabilities or even a comprehensive theory of human functioning, most probably due to their commitment with freedom and pluralism, it is essential to note that certain degree of universality is highly desirable for at least two reasons: firstly there are some problems that are common problems, shared by the whole planet and have an evident impact on everyone’s life no matter where; secondly that a common shared framework is a basic requirement upon which it may be feasible to justify any claim for justice.
Once the main reasons to discuss a cross-cultural list of capabilities has been laid out we need to face another issue: the content of a universal framework. Precisely, this paper arises as an attempt to deal with the complexity of specifying universal capabilities not only in its formal aspect but also in its particular content. The task of providing the specific content to a formal framework is highly problematic but also something that should be undertaken in order to bring to practice the theory.
In fact the Capabilities Approach has naturally evolved from its germinal beginning as a critique to the dominant theory of the economic utilitarianism to ground-breaking practical initiatives which ultimate goal is to put the theory into practice. Nevertheless in this pathway the Capabilities Approach has had to grapple with its former and genuine principle of pluralism to survive. Freedom is the value that gives the Capabilities Approach its theoretical strength but also its weakness when it comes to operationalization.
Nevertheless, in my view, although there are numerous studies on comparisons between lists, the underlying problem does not only reside in the frames or formal elements of the list but in its specific content: in the very conceptualization of each of its constituents.
In this regard, in this paper I will hold and explore the idea that we need as a basic requirement to operationalize the Capabilities Approach to enable different channels and means to discuss in detail and cross-culturally the specific content of the constituents of the different lists for at least two reasons: the categories provided by the lists are just a framework that requires further specification to be implemented effectively; and also because precisely the specific content of its elements can provide the defined concept on which to agree or disagree; therefore steer the discussion to reach truly positive results.
Diversity, Pluralism, Freedom, Operationalization, Universality, Cross-cultural, List of Capabilities