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Operationalising the Capabilities Approach

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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THE Capability Approach (CA) is perhaps the best known and most inspiring contribution of Amartya Sen to the human development literature. His work on poverty, famines, Human Development Index and Indian development (not to mention his work on social choice) are indeed very influential. But it was the development of the CA that has been inspiring researchers across the world and shaping interdisciplinary work on human development topics.

One might wonder whether the appeal of the CA lies in its deep philosophical insights and structured criticism of utilitarian, libertarian, communitarian and Rawlsian traditions. I would like to suggest here that the CA's stimulating influence can be partially explained by (i) its commitment to link theory and practice, and by (ii) its concern with distribution and equity at a micro level as an essential ingredient of human development. Indeed, it is paradoxical that the CA which some critics initially found to be not `operational' is now widely used to examine a large set of human development issues. It is because Sen has put forward an `approach', rather than a fully defined substantive development theory, that his contribution has proven to be very useful for many. As an `approach', his work became an invitation for people to use it by adding their own thoughts and experience about complex phenomena.

But being an `approach' would not be enough to stimulate people's imagination about a better world with less injustice and inequalities. It serves as a guide for a more just world with less inequalities (such as gender, health and educational inequalities), combining bottom-up micro policies with macro democratic governance structures for enhancing human capabilities. The CA's stimulating influence can be also seen in the pursuit of multidimensional analyses (not limited to income comparisons), participatory strategies, emphasis on the agency and autonomy of individuals and distributional assessments of individuals' well-being.

Inspired by the writings of Sen and the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum as well as the initiative and leadership of Dr. Frank Carey and Sir Brian Heap, the Capability and Sustainability Centre at the Von Hgel Institute, St Edmund's College, Cambridge, was created in September 2002. It aims to provide a forum for collaborative research and interdisciplinary discussion tackling human and sustainable development, and their links, from a capability perspective. Spread out in different countries of Africa and South America, the Capability and Sustainability Centre now carries out a number of research projects for the United Nations Environment Programme, the UNEP-Regional Office in Europe, the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme on Capability Indicators. These projects begin to show that the new ways of finding out solutions for complex problems in the developing world have to be informed by philosophical insights about freedom, democracy and well-being - without ever losing sight of the importance of praxis.

Dr. Flavio Comim is Director, Capability and Sustainability Centre, St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge, U.K.

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