The capability approach, empowerment and participation: concepts, methods and applications

Clark, David (1); Biggeri, Mario (2); Frediani, Alexandre (3) (2019). 'The capability approach, empowerment and participation: concepts, methods and applications' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


This book explores the linkages between Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and participatory forms of development – especially variants associated with critical pedagogy and empowerment. It shows how the capability approach and the participatory movement can complement and reinforce each other in a variety of ways that help ensure democratic principles are respected and become the foundation for sustainable forms of human development that emphasise empowerment from the bottom-up. The Capability Approach provides guiding principles for protecting the transformative roots of participation (safeguarding ownership, accountability and empowerment), while participation delivers vital methods for making the Capability Approach operational. This book unpacks power relations, addresses adaptive preferences, explores individual and collective agency, considers new partnerships for development, and develops innovative concepts including ‘empowered learning systems’. It is divided into three overlapping parts that focus on concepts, methods and applications respectively, and draws on diverse fieldwork experiences from Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada, Central America, Morocco, Palestine and the South Pacific.

The book itself is diverse and includes contributions from a range of scholars who have worked on the capability approach. In this session, the editors will bring together some of the main themes discussed in this book and will provide an overview of the main findings and conclusions. This will include: (1) considering the characteristics of effective and equitable form of participation and its significance for promoting capabilities of intrinsic and instrumental value for development; (2) exploring the ways in which the capability approach can contribute to a theory of change to guide participation and promote empowerment (these include procedures to protect individual autonomy and voice, curb vested interests and power imbalances, promote reason and impartiality, and cultivate critical learning and collective agency); (3) reflecting on how the capability approach to participation can be applied at the global as well as the local level (including with reference to the Sustainable Development Goals); (4) showing that empowerment plays a crucial role in promoting the instrumental freedoms required for effective participation in development; (5) introducing “Empowered Learning Systems” as a concept based on four integral components that support empowerment: supportive institutions, relationships of solidarity and trust, critical pedagogy (including group consciousness and collective agency) and emancipatory outcomes; and (6) demonstrating that there is a reciprocal relationship between democracy as public discussion and empowerment in terms of the formation of capable agents.

The presentation of the findings and conclusions will serve as a springboard to stimulate discussion. We have three confirmed discussants: (1) Professor Gianni Vaggi (University of Pavia); (2) Andrea Ferrannini (Action Research for CO-Development, University of Ferrara); and (3) Professor Mozaffar Qizilbash (University of York). Each of our proposed discussants is well-placed to talk about different aspects of the book – specifically, development cooperation and policy, participatory methods and conceptual issues. If the number of proposed discussants is an issue, Professor Qizilbash has indicated that he could withdraw.

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