Szaboova, Lucy (1); Brown, Katrina (1); Chaigneau, Tomas (1); Coulthard, Sarah (2); Daw, Tim (3) (2017). 'Poverty, capabilities and sustainable development: Insights from a decade of research on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The contribution of ecosystem services - or the benefits people gain from the environment (MEA, 2005) - to wellbeing, especially the potential of such services for poverty alleviation (Daw et al., 2011; Fisher et al., 2014; Suich et al., 2015), has been gaining traction in sustainable development debates, which aim to deliver more equitable social, economic and environmental outcomes for present and future generations alike.

In the UK, the Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, has funded interdisciplinary international research over the past decade, aiming to inform the science of sustainable development, as well as current development policy and interventions. The ESPA programme is funded by two research councils – the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) - , as well as the British government’s Department for International Development (DfID), the body in charge of overseeing international development policy and foreign aid. We interrogate the research undertaken in more than 100 ESPA projects through a capability lens, to explore how they can bring new insights for sustainable development.

To date, empirical work remains limited in scope to observations of the direct impacts of ecosystem services on poverty (Suich et al., 2015), often only focusing on income, instead of applying a multidimensional approach. Additionally, most wellbeing work tends to describe poverty as an outcome - a state of being poor - overlooking the dynamic processes that lead to poverty, as well as those that may be instrumental in preventing or alleviating poverty. Challenging such static notions of poverty is especially important when a high incidence of poverty prevails in the context of rich ecosystems (Ioris, 2014), indicating the presence of inequalities in terms of people’s ability to access and benefit from ecosystem services. The ESPA programme has sought to address these gaps. In this paper, we unpack what has a decade of ESPA research and engagement added to knowledge and to impact.

In contrast with much of existing poverty research, we emphasize the variety of opportunities (or capabilities) ecosystem services can support, rather than merely focusing on observable outcomes. Therefore, we regard poverty as the ‘deprivation of capabilities’ (Sen, 1999), and apply the capability approach (Sen, 1985) as an alternative, potentially more dynamic, analytic framework for unpacking how may ecosystem services contribute to the wellbeing of the poor and foster development. We adopt Sen’s vision of development, which transcends the mere provision of material goods or delivery of economic growth, and places the focus on human freedoms and the expansion of capabilities (Sen, 1999).

We explore the application of wellbeing theories and frameworks within ESPA research. We examine how wellbeing is conceptualized and used within the ESPA literature, and what types of evidence are presented to articulate the poverty alleviation potential of ecosystem services. We use Sen’s conceptualization of wellbeing (Sen, 1985) as the analytic lens for interpreting the results of this review process. We ask: What do existing applications of wellbeing for poverty alleviation mean for sustainability? Do they engage with the capability approach? Can the capability approach offer insights for future sustainable development research and practice?

The paper presents results from a scoping review of recent developments in the wellbeing literature and ESPA research outputs. A handful of the ESPA projects were analysed at a closer angle, which raised a number of questions. These, and the findings from the review process, were further elaborated through a series of semi-structured interviews with the investigators involved in the selected ESPA projects, inviting reflections on the insights they have gained, with particular focus on how ecosystem services contributed to the expansion of capabilities.

We demonstrate how the concept of wellbeing is being conceptualized and applied across the broader literature and within ESPA. We find that while there is limited direct engagement with the capability approach (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer, 2012 within the broader wellbeing literature; Dawson and Martin, 2015 within ESPA), applying a capability lens can reframe outcome-centred findings, and inform a more dynamic understanding about how ecosystem services might contribute to poverty alleviation, through both direct and indirect means.

This has important implications for sustainable development research and policy in the context of unprecedented environmental changes, which continuously redefine what is required to escape or avoid poverty. The capability approach facilitates a departure from linear models of both the ecosystem services - poverty relationship and the dynamics of change. While research focusing on outcomes is slow to adapt to change, placing emphasis on capabilities that can lead to a variety of different outcomes fosters a more receptive platform for devising appropriate and timely responses, and thus holds particular relevance for sustainable development research, policy and practice.

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