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The Capabilities Approach to Development

The capabilities approach grew out of the pioneering work of Mahbub ul Haq (1999), a Pakistani economist who sought to develop a holistic means of measuring human well-being as an alternative to economic measures such as the gross domestic product (GDP). He stated, “Development plans would look very different if their preoccupation were with people rather than production” (p. 4). For ul Haq, the focus on people instead of production means that rather than focus on “the expansion of only one choice—income” the focus now “embraces the enlargement of all choices—whether economic, social, cultural or political” (p. 14). This view, what ul Hab refers to as the human development paradigm, places people not economic outcomes at the center of development and well-being. For ul Haq, it is crucial that individuals be participants in their own development through the choices they make from a range of opportunities.

Amartya Sen (1997, 1999, 2005) along with Martha Nussbaum (2000, 2011) have expanded upon ul Haq’s initial work to develop what is known as the capabilities approach. For Sen, the central premise of the capabilities approach is that people have the freedoms “to choose the lives they have reason to value” (1992, p. 81). Similarly, Martha Nussbaum says that the capabilities approach “is focused on choice or freedom, holding that the crucial good societies should be promoting for their people is a set of opportunities, or substantial freedoms, which people then may or may not exercise in action: the choice is theirs. It thus commits itself to respect for people’s power of self-definition” (2011, p. 18; italics original).

Human capital theory aims to equalize resources through investments in early education with outcomes measured by cost-benefit analysis. When cost-benefit analysis uses economic outcomes as a measure of well-being, the goal of investment then, in early education, is economic return. Sen challenges this view because the capabilities approach focuses not on equalizing resources but rather on capabilities—what it is that people can do or be. Yet, in Sen’s view the freedom to make choices, that is, what he calls substantive freedom, and the ability to act on those choices, an individual’s agency, can be limited due to restrictions on social, economic, and political freedoms.

For Sen, social, economic, and political freedoms have to do with “the way different kinds of rights, opportunities, and entitlements contribute to the expansion of human freedom in general, and thus to promoting development” (1999, p. 37). Social freedoms have to do with access to opportunities for education, health care, and other services that can, in turn, enhance one’s substantive freedoms. Political freedoms include the ability to determine the principles of government and to engage in political activities, such as determining who should govern. Economic freedoms involve opportunities to “utilize economic resources for the purpose of consumption, or production or exchange” (p. 39). The point Sen is making is that individuals’ agency and the freedom “to choose the lives they have reason to value” can be greatly limited by the absence of one or more of the instrumental freedoms. Development, then, is inextricably tied to social, political, and economic factors.

Walker and Unterhalter (2007; Unterhalter & Walker, 2007) see the capabilities approach as focusing our attention not only on both the resources made available to individuals but also, and importantly, on the freedom and opportunities individuals have to convert the resources into valued achievements. In Unterhalter’s view, “The key point for education is that resources are very important, but what then matters are the opportunities each person has for converting their bundle of resource into valued doing and being” (2009, p. 221). Thus, the capability approach recognizes how social, political, and economic factors can either support or hinder individual agency and freedoms. In sum, the capabilities approach provides a fuller picture of how social, political, and economic factors influence program outcomes for individual participants than cost-benefit analysis can.

At this point it is important to consider some critiques of the capabilities approach. Three issues will be discussed. The first issue addresses whether or not the capabilities approach can offer a better approach to justice than a resourcist view as advocated by Rawls (1971, 2001) or a welfarist view of utilitarianism. The remaining issues come from those working within the capabilities approach. The first among these is the question of whether or not there are central capabilities that in Nussbaum’s words “a life worthy of human dignity require” (2011, p. 32). A second issue is what some view as a lack of specificity in operationalizing terms that can cause difficulty in implementing the capabilities approach (Pogge, 2010).

Pogge notes that the capability approach has made important contributions to political philosophy and normative economics. Its contribution continues to be, as noted above, as an alternative to both the welfarist and resourcist approaches to justice. Pogge asks of the three approaches, “Which approach can deliver the most plausible public criterion for social justice?” As Pogge answers this question from the welfarist and resourcist positions, his critique of the capabilities approach is that neither Sen nor Nussbaum can provide the public criterion needed. One of Pogge’s main concerns is that the capabilities approach lacks the specificity required for institutions to provide compensation for the full range of human diversity. A second concerns is that the “capability theorists regard natural human diversity in vertical terms and human beings as better or worse endowed” (Pogge, 2010, p. 44; italics original) rather than in horizontal terms as the welfarist and resourcist positions do. For Pogge, this poses the problem unaddressed by capabilities theorists that to make a valid claim for compensation “as a matter of justice, she must present her special limitation, need, or handicap as one that outweighs all other particular vertical inequalities and entitles her to count as worse endowed all things considered” (p. 46). Pogge sees seeking such claims as much more stigmatizing then either the welfarist and resourcist approaches, which in his view can provide a better criterion for social justice.

Several critiques come from those working within the capabilities approach. Nussbaum has listed ten central capabilities she believes necessary for establishing a threshold for leading a life of dignity. Sen, in contrast, sees such a list of central capabilities as an imposition on the freedom of individuals to choose for themselves those capabilities central to their own lives. Sen believes, “The problem is not with the listing of important capabilities, but with insisting on one predetermined canonical list of capabilities, chosen by theorists without any general social discussion of public reasoning. To have such a fixed list, emanating entirely from pure theory, is to deny the possibility of fruitful public participation on what should be included and why” (2005, p. 158). In a sense the opportunity or freedom to select basic capabilities is a capability or freedom itself.

Biggeri has employed the capabilities approach in a series of studies examining children’s well-being (Biggeri, 2007; Biggeri & Libanora,

2011; Biggeri & Mehrotra, 2011; Biggeri, Libanora, Mariani, & Menchini, 2006) notes two issues pertinent to research with children. The first is related to the necessity of the list of basic capabilities when analyzing children’s well-being and child poverty. Biggeri and Mehrotra note that in such research “the procedures or selecting a list of relevant capabilities are central” (2011, p. 49). While acknowledging both Nussbaum’s list and Sen’s concerns about a predetermined list, their second issue is the lack of specific procedures for “identifying, prioritizing, measuring and comparing diverse capabilities in different situations” (p. 49).

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