What is the capabilities approach capable of?

Sen’s capabilities approach is not interested in poverty reduction through economic transformation. We should recognise it as a normative theory of well-being, not a social theory of change

Graham HarrisonIn development studies, the ‘capabilities approach’ has experienced a remarkable rise in popularity over the last decade or so.  It has refocused our interest in the political economy of poverty reduction away from questions of growth and income inequality and towards the livelihoods and rights of poor people.  Capability is in essence a term used to talk about the capacity of people to exercise their own choice and agency in seeking a better quality of life for themselves and those they care about most; their being and doing.  It is a pragmatic concept, advanced by Amartya Sen, that wants to seek out ways to expand and enhance ‘the ability of people to help themselves’ out of poverty.

The capabilities approach seems seductively simple and humane.  It endeavours to look at individuals and communities and ask questions about people’s assets, knowledge, power, plans.  It rejects a ‘materialistic’ view of poverty in favour of a broader focus on quality of life which might include aspects of self-esteem and socio-cultural value.  Economic growth and increases in monetary income are therefore only part of the picture.

The capabilities approach has seen its star rise within both the study and practice of global development.  Major international development agencies are increasingly wont to integrate capabilities and livelihoods concerns into what were previously orthodox frameworks of growth, equity, index ranking, and project planning.  The World Bank, for example, has taken on concerns with human rights, capabilities, and livelihoods in its ‘big picture’ statements like ‘Voices of the Poor’; the UNDP’s Human Development Reports even more so.  One gets the sense that the global project of poverty reduction has found a consensus-building hegemony in the capabilities approach.  In one form or another, references to capabilities and Sen, as the approach’s main author, pop up in all sorts of specific studies and analyses.

But, there is another story to tell about poverty reduction; one that does not easily map onto the capabilities approach. Let us consider some headline stylised facts about global poverty.  Firstly, the largest numbers of people who have escaped poverty have done so as a result of sustained growth and industrialisation in emerging economies, most notably China.  Secondly, although most studies argue that the absolute numbers of poor people in the world have been falling, new forms of poverty and precariousness continue to emerge in ever-more spatially and socially-diverse settings.  Thirdly, those countries which continue to have the highest proportions of poor people tend to be in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, regions that can both be characterised as relatively un-industrialised.

These stylisations of complex bodies of statistics suggest that poverty reduction is strongly interlinked with processes of economic growth and transformation; that poverty is a immanent tendency within capitalist political economies; and that there remains a set of countries with high proportions of mass poverty which is the result of having untransformed economies.  Within this framing, poverty reduction is a profoundly political process that emanates from the contestations that take place within the transition from low-productivity and low-technology political economies to higher-productivity and technologically dynamic political economies.  It is a politics of possibility, and what victories it wins – welfare states, basic income grants, programmes for more employment, legislation for workers’ rights – have to be constantly defended and advocated.  This is a very different framing of global poverty to the capabilities approach.

Writing on the capabilities approach sometimes acknowledges structures such as global trade, economic sectors, policy regimes, but mainly in passing to more localised concerns with livelihoods, incremental change, and the agency of poor people themselves.  In Sen’s work, the possibility that reductions in poverty might emerge out of rights-constraining processes is defined out of the equation. But so many massive and systemic processes of poverty reduction take place in precisely these circumstances.

Are we stuck between two irreconcilable visions of poverty reduction?  One focusing in a rather austere fashion on the statistics and grand processes of poverty reduction; the other more pleasingly focused on the proximate and human but failing to see beyond the incremental improvements in largely untransformed political economies?  Fortunately not.

Let us start by asking a different question about poverty reduction: under what political and economic conditions is major poverty reduction possible?  This line of inquiry draws our attention to broader processes of structural transformation but it also eschews a purely technical concern with growth, economies of scale, regulation and institutional disposition.  Yes growth matters, and matters most.  It is the change that makes a difference in two respects: it provides the possibility – only the possibility – of expanded accumulation and investment in pursuit of an economic transformation towards an industrial economy.  Secondly, it provides a socio-political context upon which forms of political mobilisation and contestation can emerge which – in a wide range of specific ways – can push governments and firms to create forms of social provision within which certain conditions of poverty are seen as unacceptable and therefore must be effectively tackled.  Poverty reduction is, to use a simple equation, economic transformation plus systemic pro-poor state action.

What is interesting about this understanding of political agency is that it does not resemble the more individualised and proximate agency that the capabilities and livelihoods approaches take as their main focus.  It might be said that the structural transformation of political economies is a rights-denying process but one that simultaneously also generates a politics of rights.  Not only a politics of individual human rights but rather notions of the ‘social’ attached to social justice and the empowerment of the poor.  This might be a politics of farmers’ associations, labour unions, left-leaning political parties, social movement organisations, socialist-leaning religious and cultural groups, and others.

Such political associations are not the focus of the capabilities approach.  Although there is some debate about it, it is clear that the capabilities approach has been set out by Sen and deployed by others with an overwhelming focus on individuals and communities, their ‘sets’ of functionings and capabilities, and their rights, just treatment, or specific livelihood changes.

The capabilities approach is not interested in poverty reduction through economic transformation.  It has broadened out to encompass almost every aspect of the human condition, asking questions about individual value and well-being, mainly in parts of the world where poverty is quite clearly reproduced through structures of uneven and combined capitalist accumulation.  Those places in which mass poverty reduction has taken place do not proffer up the normatively-pleasing stories that development-as-expanding capabilities would want.  Nor does the capabilities approach concern itself with the institutional forms of political activism and governance, even if it does recognise these phenomena.  It is not a social theory of change but rather a normative theory of well-being.  It is important to insist that one is not the other.