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Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory of Development and Poverty

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Table Of Contents

1. Overview Of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach
2. Core Concepts: Functionings, Capabilities and Agency
3. Poverty In Rich Countries
4. Non-Monetary Poverty
5. Importance Of Freedom and Democracy
6. Development means Expansion of People’s Freedom
7. Freedoms Supports Expansion of Capabilities
8. People are “Agents” of Change
9. Accepting Human Diversity
10. Poverty is Deprivation of Basic Capabilities
11. Influence of Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory
12. Challenges in applying the Capability approach
13. Critique Of Capability Approach
14. Conclusion

The central theme of the Capability Approach to development

The central theme of the Capability Approach to development

1. Overview Of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA)

A People Centric Approach

The capability approach (CA) is a people-centred model of development and involves the process of acquiring more capabilities and enjoying more opportunities to use those capabilities. With more capabilities and opportunities, people have more choices. Expanding choices is at the core of the capability approach. Over the past decades, Amartya Sen’s capability theory has emerged as a serious alternative model of progress and development. It is both comprehensive and flexible.

It shifts the development discourse from pursuing material opulence to enhancing human well-being, from maximizing income to expanding capabilities, from optimizing growth to enlarging freedoms. Sen’s approach focuses on the richness of human lives rather than simply on the richness of economies, and in doing so it has changed the lens for viewing development results. It is broader than other approaches, such as the human resource approach, the basic needs, minimum rights and the human welfare approaches.

People should be the focus of development.

People should be the focus of development.

A Paradigm Shift!

People who have grown seeing economic growth as development will undergo a paradigm shift in their thinking when they step into Amartya Sen’s capability approach of development. People obsessed to measure human well-being in simplistic money terms get disheartened when the CA reveals social, personal or say, psychological dimensions of development. And people who have grown up taking economic expansion as the only goal of development are confused when Sen puts ‘people first.’

Rather than talking of philosophical equality of people, the capability approach explicitly recognizes the individual differences coming from things like age, sex, race, class, health, disability, intelligence, education and so on. It also accepts that people’s abilities are influence by external factors – other people, social arrangements, access to infrastructure and public services, freedom to speak and participate, state policies and so on.

Since it considers people as humans (and not as mere consumers) the scope of the capability approach is quite vast. All possible factors – personal, economic, social, political, or environmental – that can possibly influence human capabilities which dictate the real well-being of people, come relevant. In this approach social exclusion is as important as racial discrimination.

Resource based theories do not acknowledge the fact that people differ in their abilities to convert their resources into capabilities. The capability approach rejects normative evaluations based exclusively on commodities, incomes, or material resources. The capabilities don’t refer exclusively to a person’s abilities or internal powers, but it refers to an opportunity made feasible (and constrained by) both internal (personal) and external (social and environmental) factors.

In the capability framework, poverty is seen as deprivation of capabilities, which limits the freedom to pursue the goals in life. For Sen ‘capability deprivation’ is a better measure of poverty than lowness of income. He asserts that poverty should be seen "as a deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than inadequate income. If in today’s world of sheer abundance there are people living in poverty, they are living in a state of 'un-freedom', unable to realize their capabilities.

Salient Features Of The Capability Approach

  • The capability approach focuses on people as humans, not as mere consumers.
  • It focuses on individuals, unlike the basic needs and standard of living approaches that concentrate on households.
  • It views goal of development as expansion of people’s freedom, not expansion of economy.
  • The capability perspective is intrinsically multidimensional; it is concerned with a plurality of different features of our lives and concerns.
  • It considers individual differences. For instance, it recognizes that senior citizens, young children, people with disability need extra attention.
  • It does not see people in isolation, but inherently considers societal, political and other factors that affect people’s lives and capabilities to function.
  • It focuses, not on poverty, but on the poor – in terms of capabilities’ deprivation.
Poor people are not patients of disease called poverty.

Poor people are not patients of disease called poverty.

2. Core Concepts: Functionings, Capabilities And Agency

Sen argues that people’s well-being depends upon what they are actually capable to be and do with resources, facility and freedom available to them. Knowing what a person has doesn’t tell about how well his life is going. A simple example: Having a cycle doesn’t say that the owner has acquired the capability of mobility from it. He might simply doesn’t like to ride the cycle, or he might be handicapped, or doesn’t know how to ride it.

Functionings: Life of a person to consist of “a sequence of things the person does, or states of being he achieves: together they constitute 'functionings'.” Thus, functionings are what people actually “do and are” – they are achievements of people. Taken together, these doings and beings – achieved functionings – give value to life. They can be both basic and complex achievements.

Putting in simple words, functionings are various things a person value being and doing — such as being happy, being literate, able to work, rest, adequately nourished and in good health, as well as having self-respect and participating in social and political activities.

Achieving a functioning with available resources and facilities depends on a range of personal and social factors (e.g. age, gender, activity levels, health, access to medical services, nutritional knowledge and education, climatic conditions, and so on). A functioning therefore refers to the use a person makes of whatever is at his/her command. They are closely related to another core concept: capability.

Capabilities may be visualized to have two parts: functionings and the substantive freedom to choose from them. They denote a person’s opportunity and ability to achieve desired outcomes, considering all internal and external factors. Most significantly the freedom should be intrinsic (has valuable in and of itself). If the freedom were just a means to achieve an end then the capability set would simply the combination of functionings.

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Thus, the capability approach is not merely concerned with achievements (outcomes), but basically with freedom of choice, which is of direct importance to a person's quality of life. They are like opportunities about what a person may like to do, have, or be. In other words, capabilities refer to the real freedoms a person “enjoys to lead the kind of life he/she has reason to value”.