The capability approach and different views on technology and poverty reduction

Oosterlaken, Ilse (2014). 'The capability approach and different views on technology and poverty reduction' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This paper discusses both the benefits and the limitations of the capability approach for the critical assessment of technology as an instrument for poverty reduction.

It starts with an outline of a pamphlet which development scholars Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones (2006) published, titled The Slow Race – Making Technology Work for the Poor. It is very helpful in getting a better understanding of different views on the relation between technology and poverty reduction, because it abstracts away from specific disciplinary approaches and all sorts of detailed differences of opinion that one may have about the subject. Instead, it sketches three very broad and general views on the relationship between these two phenomena (poverty reduction and technology). The first view is called 'the race to the top', where technology is appreciated for its role in economic growth and modernization, which is considered an essential means for poverty reduction. The second view is labeled 'the race to the universal fix' by Leach and Scoones. The idea here is that we need to focus on technologies which have a direct impact on poverty and which can be rolled out world wide. The One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC) exemplifies this view very well. The third view is the 'slow race', a view in which it is emphasized that a choice for the best technological solution always needs to be made with an awareness of local cultural, social and institutional realities, and that considers bottom-up, participatory technology development as the way to go. These three races, Leach and Scoones note, 'are not mutually exclusive and all are important' (p.14). Yet the first two are, so they observe, very prominently present in policy debates, whereas the third 'less glamorous, but ultimately more important race is being overlooked' (p.12).

With its emphasis on the importance of agency and human diversity it seems that the third view is the most natural 'ally' of the capability approach. In the first part of this paper I will explain that the capability approach has indeed a lot to offer to those wishing to criticize fixation on the first two races, and to promote the 'slow race' instead. In the  second part of the paper I will examine in more detail how the capability approach relates to the appropriate technology movement, a more specific perspective on technology and human development which is briefly mentioned by Leach and Scoones as fitting in with the 'slow race'. On the one hand some scholars have emphasized the commonalities between and compatibility of the capability approach and the appropriate technology movement (Oosterlaken et al, 2012). On the other hand other scholars have emphasized how a capability approach of technology and human development would improve on and go beyond the appropriate technology movement (Fernández-Baldor et al, 2012, 2014) – especially in how it deals with agency and with gender.

There are, however, at least two concerns which may be raised against this whole line of argumentation. The first is that it discusses 'the' capability approach, whether in reality there exist many different versions. Only a limited number of claims, so it has been argued by some capability scholars, are shared between all partisans of the approach. The second concern is that the discussion in the paper up to this point insufficiently acknowledges that the capability approach is merely a normative framework and not a theory about empirical reality. It does, for example, not tell us much about the causes of poverty, or the factors which play a role in determining trajectories of technological change and their consequences. Both come down to a concern that the argument so far has been overestimating what the capability approach can do, and underestimating the degree to which people can still differ of opinion about matters even when they all adopt the capability approach as a key normative framework. It would therefore be a mistake, so I will argue in the third part of this paper, to think that the capability approach is incompatible with the 'race to the top' or 'the race to the universal fix'. And if one accepts the claim that functionings and capabilities are the best informative base for questions of well-being, this does not necessarily mean that one has to deal with agency and gender along the lines of the majority of the mainstream capability approach literature.

The last part of this paper is strongly based on work by leading capability scholar Ingrid Robeyns. She has shown (Robeyns, 2008) that one might arrive at a different capability analysis or normative evaluation of certain gender cases, depending on whether one supplements the capability approach with a conservative or feminist gender theory. The capability approach, so she argues, has different features that make it in principle gender-sensitive and useful for feminist research. Yet, she warns, 'feminists should be concerned that the capability approach might be interpreted and applied in an androcentric way' (p.101). In a later publication (Robeyns, 2011) she makes a distinction between a narrow and a broad usage of the capability approach. In the narrow usage, she claims, the capability approach is concerned with individual well-being, interpreted in terms of capabilities and functionings. In its wider usage the capability approach is taken to embrace other values as well, such as agency. In a more recent, so far unpublished paper, she describes a 'concentric circle account of the capability approach' (Robeyns 2014). According to this account, all varieties of the capability approach share only a limited number of core claims. From this core, Robeyns explains, 'the capability approach can be developed in many directions whereby additional commitments may be endorsed.'

In short, this paper is meant to give the reader a better understanding of both the benefits and the limitations of the capability approach for the critical assessment of technology as an instrument for poverty reduction.

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