Creating Capabilities For Development

Martha Nussbaum’s contribution to the Progressive Governance Conference’s handbook.

This article appears in the 2009 Progressive Governance Conference policy handbook 

All over the world, people are struggling for a life that is fully human, a life worthy of human dignity. Countries and states are often focused on economic growth alone, but their people, meanwhile, are striving for something different: they want meaningful human lives. They need theoretical approaches that can be the ally of their struggles, not approaches that keep these struggles from view. As the late Mahbub Ul Haq wrote in 1990, “The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” What theoretical approach could direct attention to the salient features of today’s world, promote an adequate analysis of it, and make pertinent recommendations for action? When answering this question we should bear the following issues in mind:

The limitations of the current dominant theoretical approaches

The dominant theoretical approaches in development economics, used all over the world, are not allies of real people’s struggles. They do not have an adequate conception of the human goal, equating doing well with an increase in gross national product (GNP) per capita. Such a crude measure of development does not even tell us about distribution, giving high marks to states that pursue foreign investment in a way that fails to address the needs of the rural poor. Another shortcoming of development approaches based on economic growth is that, even when distribution is factored in, they fail to examine aspects of the quality of a human life that are not very well correlated with growth. Research shows clearly that promoting growth does not automatically improve people’s health, their education, their opportunities for political participation, or the opportunities of women to protect their bodily integrity from rape and domestic violence.

Asking the right questions

If we want to discuss how people are doing in an insightful way, we need to determine what they are actually able to do and to be. How have their circumstances, familial, social, and political, affected their ability to enjoy good health? To protect their bodily integrity? To attain an adequate education? To work on terms of mutual respect and equality with other workers? To participate in politics? To achieve self respect and a sense of their own worth as a person and a citizen? Developing policies that are truly pertinent to real people means asking all of these questions, and others like them. It means crafting policies that do not simply raise the total or average GNP, but promote a wide range of human capabilities, opportunities that people have when, and only when, policy choices put them in a position to function effectively in a wide range of areas that are fundamental to a fully human life.

The “capabilities approach”

Today there is a new theoretical paradigm in the development world. Known as the “human development” paradigm, and also as the “capability approach” or “capabilities approach,” it begins with a very simple question: what are people actually able to do and to be? This question, though simple, is also complex, since the quality of a human life involves multiple elements whose relationship to one another needs close study. This new paradigm has had increasing impact on international agencies discussing welfare, from the World Bank to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Through the influence of the Human Development Reports published by the UNDP, it also now affects most contemporary nations, who have been inspired by the use of the capability framework in those reports to produce their own capability-based studies of the wellbeing of different regions and groups in their own societies. In addition, the Human Development and Capability Association, of which Amartya Sen and I are the two founding presidents, with membership drawn from seventy countries, promotes high quality research across a broad range of topics where the human development and capability approaches have made and can make significant contributions.

Moving towards implementation

How can nations implement the human development approach? First, as many do already, they can produce an annual Human Development Report that looks in more detail than the UNDP report can at the distribution of capabilities in their own country, focusing on gaps between urban and rural, rich and poor, male and female. Second, if they are currently making or remaking a constitution, they can draw on the approach as a source for the articulation of fundamental entitlements. Third, administrative agencies dealing with environment, health and safety, labour, and other regulatory matters can use this approach to measure their achievements, rather than a crude version of cost-benefit analysis. Finally, by focusing particular attention on access to quality education, they can ensure that the capabilities of young citizens are cultivated from an early age.

Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago

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