Powell, LesleyJoy (2017). 'The Development of a Community Capability Plan: Methodological learnings from South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


One of the problems confronting the capability approach is the challenge of operationalising the relatively abstract account of individual wellbeing and human flourishing into a concrete approach valuable for assessing social interventions. As Alkire (2008) argues, “the proof of the pudding … [is in] the value-added of the capability approach in comparison with alternate approaches” (2008, p.26). This limitation has served to severely hamper the application of the capability approach to policy diagnosis. Even in contexts where there is support for a human development reading of national policies, the actualisation of this reading into policy frameworks is stunted by the absence of a model that can be used to evaluate progress.

In this paper I discuss the methodological approach that is to be used in a South African research project funded through the Education, Training and Development Practices (ETDP) Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) as part of the ETDP Research Chair on Youth Unemployment. The project, titled The Development of a Community Capability Plan aims to apply the capability approach to the assessment of community education and training needs. While developing an understanding of the impact of current education and training initiatives on the lives of young community members is central to the project, more important than the empirical findings of the study is the aim of testing a methodological approach framed within capabilities that can be applied to determine the skill needs of communities.  

The project applies the capability approach to develop a methodological approach grounded in capabilities that identifies the education and training needs of poor South African communities.

Faced with the ‘triple crisis’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality, skills planning has been identified as central to providing responsive education and training that narrows the pathway from education to work. Despite the target audience being the unemployed (most of whom are located in poor communities), the processes of inclusion and exclusion that take place during South Africa’s National Skills Planning Cycle has led to the privileging of employer voices, and particularly the voices of large employers, and the silencing of the voices of the informal sector and most importantly, the marginalised, the unemployed and the young. The Community Capability Plan is alternate to the National Skills Planning Cycle in its commitment to public deliberation, the development of agential freedom and the expansion of capabilities.

The methodological problem confronting the capability approach rests in the distinction that it makes between capabilities and functionings where capabilities exist as a set of potentials rather than as a set of actualities. The result is that it is possible to deduce part of the capability set only by determining the actual achievements resultant therefrom. These functionings would necessarily exist as a subset of the full capability set and the identification of these functionings would allow that sub-set of capabilities to be identified and evaluated.  The concern with this approach for identifying what matters to communities and specifically, which education and training capabilities matter to communities, is twofold: (i) first is that the focus on functionings begins to overlap with productivist accounts of skills development that prioritises employability above all else and (ii) second is with the extent to which this prioritises instrumental accounts that serve to reduce the purpose of education to income driven approaches. While Sen (1992) argues clearly that “the point is the recognition of a significant distinction not the assertion of any possibility of analysing one independently of the other” (p. 57), Alkire’s concern is that we may “after scrutiny, [have to] concede that the capability approach can do no better” than income driven approaches.

This paper contributes to this discussion by introducing the approach that is to being developed for use in The Development of a Community Capability Plan.  It focusses specifically on the epistemological and methodological learnings for the capability approach that emerged from the project. First, the paper argues that the term valued functionings can be used to denote not only achievements that are valued (as Tao 2009 has applied the term), but also to capture agency freedom, i.e. thegoals or personal projects which an individual has reason to value. In this alternate sense, valued functionings serve as a proxy for epistemologically determining an individual’s agency freedom and provides a useful concept for identifying the capabilities that matter. Applying the concept of valued functionings as a proxy for agency freedom allows the methodology to add another dimension other than functionings to develop a capabilities list of capabilities that matter to community members and the implications that this has for education.   

Second, the paper contributes theoretically to the capability approach by applying Archer's (2003) theoretical frame on structure and agency to discuss agential mediation in the pathway from agency freedom (choice) → to capabilities (opportunities) →to functionings (achievements). In terms of this, a focus on functioning as a proxy for capabilities neglects in the choices that individuals make in the activation and selection of capabilities and then in the actualisation of these into functionings. Applying the notion of valued functionings as suggested above, however, allows agency freedom to be recognised and acknowledged.

Third, the paper discusses the operational steps and principles that are to be utilised in the research project with the goal being to develop a mechanism other than National Skills Planning Cycles that can be used to determine the education and training needs of poor communities that are largely excluded from entering the labour market and meaningful education that provides for sustainable livelihoods.

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