PPIW Poverty Series: Understanding poverty in Wales – What Can the Capabilities Approach Add?

How should the social problem of poverty best be framed, and what evidence will best help to understand and resolve it? The Public Policy Institute for Wales kindly invited What Works Scotland (WWS) to a roundtable to exchange views on this stimulating issue.

At WWS we are exploring the utility of the capabilities approach in reforming public services and tackling poverty. A paper documenting our reasons for adopting this approach can be found here.

The capabilities approach was originated by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who saw that large-scale measures of poverty in the global south missed out important dimensions of how poverty was actually experienced. This meant that the lived experience of poverty was both underrepresented and misrepresented, including for women and for disabled people (e.g. Sen, 1992). Sen developed the capabilities approach to bring a fuller analysis of poverty, more closely connected to the ways in which people actually live. Instead of focusing on resources such as income, wealth or legal rights, capabilities emphasises the importance of analysing what people are actually able to do and be, understood through what Sen terms functionings and capabilities, which have regard for human diversity, substantive freedom, agency and participation (see Brunner and Watson, 2015).

Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, added to Sen’s model, arguing for a:

… threshold level of each capability, beneath which it is held that truly human functioning is not available to citizens; the social goal should be understood in terms of getting citizens above this capability threshold. (2006, p.71)

These threshold capabilities are compatible with human rights norms and instruments, but due to the capabilities principle of participation, provide the opportunity for adding elements of what might be important to people beyond formal rights. In their research to support the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop the Equality Measurement Framework, Burchardt and Vizard (2011) asked disadvantaged groups to identify capabilities which were important to them, but which may not be indicated by formal human rights instruments, so demonstrating how the human rights approach and capabilities approach are compatible.

child in poverty

This bifocal approach is also being taken by the current European project RE-InVEST which aims to contribute to a more solidary and inclusive European Union, using an explicit capabilities and human rights perspective, and including evidence drawn from a participative approach that gives voice to vulnerable groups and civil society organisations affected by the austerity agenda in Europe.

So, in capabilities, human wellbeing is evaluated in terms of the ‘actual opportunities a person has’ for example in health, in education or in community engagement (Sen, 2009, p.253). This WWS paper shows how capabilities has been applied to support understanding of what public services as ‘conversion factors’ can do to improve social outcomes. So, using capabilities in can highlight the normative role of public services in tackling poverty in all its dimensions.

Capabilities helps us to think about the nuances of how we should measure relative and absolute poverty to include what is important to people and how we really live. Capabilities doesn’t make understanding poverty any easier! But using it allows an understanding that is fuller, it reminds us that poverty measures need to relate to what is actually important to people, and it allows us to place public services at the centre in addressing the problem of poverty: a focus for action.

Useful References

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006). Frontiers of justice: disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane.

About the author: Richard Brunner is a Research Associate  at the University of Glasgow and What Works Scotland.


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