On The Capabilities Approach

By: Jacob Taylor

Read the assigned article and watch the video. Then write a short essay explaining how you understand Sen's capabilities approach and what its relevance is, in your view, to the broader project of international development.

Des Gasper nails it in the conclusion where he suggests that Sen's Capabilities Approach is useful insofar as its applicable space is well-qualified. That's not to say it isn't useful as a new starting point – he has usefully broadened the number of fields that classical economists know to account for, and for this he has probably been successful in his endeavor. This is much improved over previous systems where economic growth (considered through neoliberalism, which is to say through the deregulation of markets and the opening up of markets to unimpeded international trade and capital flows) was the only number to beat. Sen recognizes that economic growth is a single metric in a world that is far too complex for a single metric.

I must also applaud that he has so far attempted to fit a model of autonomy with some small amount of nuance into an economic framework that is predicated on rational actors (problematic, at the least). However, it's still very western and individualist (not quite an atomistic view of self, but most certainly not communitarian). The main issue with the presented model of autonomy (capabilities and related) is that, ignoring even the predication on rationality, it still doesn't take into account the necessity of education. The model of autonomy proposed actively requires an educated actor to work – in that model you can only make the best decision you know how to make. Therefore, if you don't know a decision, you can't make it. This seems to not be tackled at all in the video or significantly in Gasper's coverage of Sen and Nussbaum.

The forwardly useful contribution here is the framework for capabilities analysis. As presented in the video, it sounds quite a bit like a comprehensive risk analysis, but flipped such that you're not looking for outsized gains in risk reduction, but outsized gains in outcome improvement (Pareto Principle/Ninety-Nine Rule). This meshes well (on a theoretical level) with Sen's contribution that pluripotentiality (implied: capabilities, and capacity to utilize capabilities to reach some end) is the most important factor in agency, alongside meaningful choices, and that through that growth we can maximize positive freedom over our both our functionings and our utilities. Nussbaum helpfully expands this into three stages of capabilities (Potential, Skill/Suitable Conditions, Opportunity for Action) as well as the differentiation between well-being-freedom and well-being-achievement (what does potential versus success look like?). This still frames Capabilities as choices to make in pursuit of a goal (a critique leveled by Gasper), and so ignores/denies the inherent non-rationality of some people and cultures.

The relevance of this work to the broader project of development is incalculable, and not always in a good way. One of the main issues that cuts through all theorists that could be associated with this approach is that it's a data-based approach. Data does not tell a story, people do. Data is merely a list of facts upon which a human, divorced from context, imposes their own imagined narrative. So, I think it's useful insofar as it allows otherwise incognizant development practitioners to attain some greater realization of the complexity of the task ahead of them. Complexity theory was better, if vastly more complex.

Works Referenced

“Sen’s Capabilities Approach and Nussbaum’s Capabilities Ethics,” Journal of International Development, Volume 9, Issue 2, pages 281–302, March 1997

Introduction to Capability Approach, at the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative link