Fennell, Shailaja (2017). 'New Technologies and the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


New technologies brought into economies to diversify production and improve economic productivity do not automatically address issues of social justice and inclusion that provide better lives for the poor and vulnerable. The mainstream focus has been the acquisition of knowledge and capacity building programmes and addressing the challenges of financing the technology transfer into new geographical regions. The papersin this panel propose a different approach and use a capability perspective to examine new technologies, particularly focusing on information and communication technology (ICT) and renewable energy, as a pathway for increased agency and improved human development (Sen 2010). The common concern of these papers is to raise the question of the pathway of knowledge acquisition and the nature of the ownership in new technologies through an institutional exploration of local and national geographies and stakeholders. The intention is to develop further the line of argument regarding the need for an institutional analysis of technologies and capabilities in industrial policy, through an examination of the impact of new technologies on changing political and economic relations in a country and the implications for new forms of governance (Cimoli, Dosi and Stiglitz, 2009). This will permit a more integrated approach to addressing the question of how new technologies can be regarded as agency enhancing interventions rather than regarding them as solely productivity improving development strategies.

The first paper examines the importance of ownership of knowledge through an examination of the right to communication and participation in the designing of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The paper makes the case that current day MOOCs are designed primarily in the West and this has resulted in a core-to-periphery, unidirectional transfer of knowledge. The paper makes the case for decolonizing MOOC design and participation, by devising a decolonized African MOOC based on a ‘blended-learning Community MOOC model’.

The second paper addresses the role of power in industrial decisions regarding new technologies by bringing together Sen’s capability approach and Gaventa’s (2009) approach to power analysis, also known as the “power cube”,in a new institutional framing. The paper presents the state of affairs in the renewable energy sector in Mexico, to show that standard evaluations do not take account of concepts of agency, effective power, control, evaluator relativity, positionality, and empowerment (Sen 1985, 1999, 2009). This is followed by a discussion of Gaventa’s Power Cube to understand relational dynamics between communities, developers, and governments. The paper ends by making the case that such a framework is helpful in analysing social inequalities and power dynamics in the method of adoption of technologies in the wind sector in Mexico. The implications for indigenous communities are also explored.

The third paper addresses the question of whether Mobile Broadband Internet Access (MBIA) can be regarded as a new technology that could positively affect the freedoms that people enjoy and that they have reason to value (Sen, 1999), by using a bottom up review of mobile connectivity usage by youth in rural India. It makes the case that it is important to explore the potential role of ICT with regard to improving the education and employment informational base accessed by the rural youth, in the face of a fall in youth employment. The paper utilises data that shows that ICT networks can facilitate improved decision making for school leavers, with regard to both tertiary education and informal sector employment. It argues that engaging with rural youth to map their patterns of information downloads and broadband access provides valuable insights into the strategies they adopt to increase agency and participation in society.

Key words: capabilities, Inequality, Education, Digital divide, MOOCs, Renewable Energy, Business and Development, Indigenous Communities, Capabilities, Agency, Power, ICT, Mobile Broadband Internet, Social Exclusion, Mexico, India, sub-Saharan Africa,


Cimoli, M., G. Dosi and J. Stiglitz, (2009). Industrial Policy and Development: the Political Economy of Capabilities Accumulation, OUP, Oxford.

Gaventa, J. (2006) ‘Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis’, IDS Bulletin 37 (6), pp. 23–33.

Sen, A. K. (1999), Development as Freedom, OUP, Oxford.

Sen, A.K. (2009) The Idea of Justice. Penguin Books, London

Sen, A. K. (2010) The Mobile and the World. Information Technologies and International Development, 6(special issue), 1–3.

scroll to top