On the Capabilities approach, Acquirement problem, and Oppression

Weekly reflections as I study urban policy in Asia

Based on the reading(s):

Nussbaum, M. (2003). Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist economics, 9(2-3), 33-59.

Young, I. M. (1990). Five faces of oppression. Justice and the politics of difference (pp. 39–65).

Sen, A., Eicher, C. K., & Staatz, J. M. (1998). Food, economics, and entitlements. International agricultural development., (Ed. 3), 240-256.

While setting and pursuing development goals, how do we care for the marginalised?

This was a long but fascinating read. My apologies, this entry might be slightly disorienting, as I try to make sense of Nussbaum’s observations and propositions, while tying in ideas from Sen’s and Young’s works.

I recall last week’s reading by Langford (2010) and my key question at the end of my writing:

In this paper, Langford suggests that a refocus on human rights could improve future development goals in the following aspects: the representativeness and relevance of selected targets (1), the customisability of the targets to individual societies (4), the accountability of policymakers to their domestic populations (especially those most in need) (6), and in integrating the human rights-centric ideals of the MD (2, 3, 5). 

For those who hold alternative values and / or are deliberately marginalised, what rights should they be accorded, and by whom?

While I am convinced that developmental goals cannot be formulated in a policy space void of normative guidance, I had unresolved questions of how such a normative framework could be arrived at.

Should a society manage to arrive at some form of broad popular consensus, be it through elections or public consultations or authoritarian rhetoric, what kind of a consensus might also take care of the marginalised? It was with such a background that I approached Nussbaum’s writing.

The limits of Utility, and Sen’s Capabilities approach

Despite having never read Sen’s work, I found myself agreeing with Nussbaum that Sen’s capabilities approach (Capabilities) provides useful guidance in one’s considerations of social justice and related policies, beyond what other approaches focused on output, utility or resources could achieve.

In particular, I found Sen’s critique of the utility-centric approach, as represented by Nussbaum, especially insightful. While I had known that the utility-centric approach, while well-meaning, can be too reductive to encompass the “heterogeneity and noncommensurability of diverse aspects of development”, it hadn’t occurred to me how such an approach could be biased towards the status quo due to:

  • Its lack of consideration for “adaptive preference, where the preferences of individuals in deprived circumstances are formed in response to their restricted options”
  • How its emphasis on the state of persons as the key indicator of development could mislead us into disregarding the process through which development is achieved, which determines structural relations between different groups of people – the winners and losers of development goals, the have’s and have’s-not due to particular policies

How, then, might Capabilities help us in deciding on our development goals, and how we are going to achieve them?

As an extension of my questions last week, how might Capabilities as an approach or thinking tool also safeguard the interests of the marginalised, not simply as part of a post hoc redistribution effort but throughout the development of a jurisdiction – be it a regional bloc, a country, a city or a village?

As a preliminary attempt at this question, I draw upon Young’s categorisation of oppressions (quick summary) and, in particular, the concept of marginalisation. I propose that any framework that we employ to consider development goals and developmental pathways has to provide a space for reflection on issues of marginalisation, followed by subsequent mechanisms safeguarding the marginals’ ability to participate in the discourse on development.

As explained clearly by Young, marginalisation results in more than simply material deprivation, which policymakers often attempt to fix via redistribution efforts. This is so as, such efforts are often taken as legitimate grounds to deprive the marginals of rights, freedoms and often their voices. Already isolated from social life, redistributive efforts often entrench the marginals’ oppressed positions in society.

This is not to say that redistributive efforts are meaningless and should be discontinued. In fact, I think they are still necessary, given that many countries have already been working towards their development goals arguably without due consideration for the marginalised in their societies. That there exists an inequitable distribution of the fruits of development is undeniable in many societies.

Here, I think Sen’s “acquirement problem” and his emphasis on understanding the “precise mechanism for acquiring food that people have to use” might help these societies figure out how to go about redistributing without exacerbating the state of the marginals. It is not enough to simply deliver the spoils of development to the marginals. The precise mechanism through which these marginalised peoples acquire a share of the country’s development could make a big difference. On one extreme, it could trap the marginals further by making them undignified dependents, scorned upon by the have’s who think themselves more worthy; on the other extreme, it could give have’s-not the ability to “command” a share of the country’s development with autonomy and dignity.

If I were to take up Nussbaum’s challenge of developing a “list” of minimum capabilities deemed essential to social justice…

I believe I would start with Young’s categories of oppressions and the structural limitations these oppressions place on different parts of the society. By examining the precise mechanisms through which oppressions occur for different peoples, and understanding how privilege and oppression intersect, I should be able to arrive at a list of essential capabilities – not necessarily enough for “social justice” but perhaps enough to keep the marginals within sight of policymakers and for more discussion in this area.

I’ll try to use Singapore as a case study for this endeavour of mine and work on it in my future reflections, bringing in new material from each week. Maybe, at some point, I’ll switch over from “Sen-mode” to “Nussbaum-mode” and make a commitment on the substance of the capabilities approach when applied to development in Singapore and its immediate region. That said, I should also explore why Sen’s been so averse to making such a commitment.

Other stray thoughts from reading Nussbaum’s writing

On adaptive preferences

I wonder if I had, too, exhibited “adaptive preference” with regards to the curtailing of certain personal freedoms in this city. For all that is said about Singapore’s curtailing of free and uninhibited speech, I am comfortable with expressing myself and am certainly happy that the local discursive environment appears to emphasize nuance and responsibility. That said, I’m certainly aware that a lot rests on the ability of the judiciary to tell vitriol libel apart from non-malignant freely expressed opinion.

Using Capabilities, am I actually hungry for the capability to say what I want? I do and, as far as I am concerned, I’ve always said what I want to, albeit with due consideration for the degree of accountability and responsibility I have to undertake for the factual accuracy and logic of my statements. Do I also desire accountability and sensitivity in discourse? I do. More than that, I also enjoy the other capabilities in this city, many of which I value more than the ability to express unverified claims without reasonable caveats. In this regard, I can certainly understand Nussbaum’s view that there is a need for some form of consensus-building with respect to the core capabilities that a society deems inalienable.

On neoliberal ideals and the political conception of the individual

Nussbaum’s comparison of the Indian Constitution – with clear support for affirmative action – with that of the United States of America – which equates the securing of rights with simply non-intervention by the state – provided clear evidence of the limiting nature of a neoliberal interpretation of social justice, and the subsequent codification and enforcement of rights.

I also learnt much from Nussbaum’s analysis of how Capabilities is superior to other approaches rooted in “the Western notion of the social contract”. That we are not necessarily “free, equal, and independent” and should dig deeper and examine our political conception of a person (in particular, to consider a more Aristotelian approach) was something that I did not anticipate but find invigorating.


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