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External Capabilities by James E. Foster and Christopher Handy

maggio 18, 2011

An introduction to capabilty approach and to his limites

The capabilty approach it’s a different way to measure human devevelopment, that use freedom instead of increase income, it was introduct by Amartya Sen in 1980, according to him development process increase capabilities, give more freedom and better functionings to individuals.

“The capability approach evaluates well being in terms of a person’s ability to achieve certain otcomes, doings, and beings, wich are collectively called functionings”.

In capabily approach freedom are seen as “the capabilities of people to lead the kind of lives they value”.

If a person has a given income it doesn’t necessary means that it give certain level of utility, because this is different for each person and for each country. So the scope of Amartya Sen’s approach is to give a more realistic view of well being, for this reason the approach include market based capabilities and non market based capabilities.

As defined before, the capability set represent all the capabilities of a person from wich him/her can choose the vector of functionings to reach.

Amartya Sen formulate his approach thinking about determination of individual well being, so persons are the basic unit of capability approach and in the “original version” a lot of capabilities are individual. This is the point on wich is based the critique of this document, so in the next paragraph will be explained how relations between people can influence, improbe and enlarge individual capabilities.

The human development index (HDI) calculated by UNDP use capability approach, in order to demonstrate the multidimensional aspect of human development, it is focused on 3 dimensions:

–          the income of a country

–          life expectancy

–          school enrollement rates

UNDP use the same approach also for other idexes as Human poverty index. The capability approach aim to prove that income is not enough to prove well being of a country, for instance in many cases income and life expectancy don’t go in the same direction, so it’s easy to find country with relatively high income but with a little life expectancy and viceversa.

There are some limits in this approach beacause it doesn’t exist an explicit method to measure the importance of capabilities, so it’s always a matter of values judgment. Martha Nussbaum made a list of ten fundamental capabilities, according to her, in fact this is the real power of capability approach, but Amartya Sen says that is really diffucult to complete a list of the most important capabilty, beacause doing this list bring a lot of consequences.

There are two important themes in this approach:

1)      it’s important to understand the differences between the means and the ends of development, for instance income and production are means, instead capabilities and achieved functionings are ends. Sometimes a mean can also be an end, like political participation, for instance.

2)      The key role of choice in the capability approach that is view as an intrinsic value, not like  an option value.

Let’s see what appen when we add the effects of relations between people.


The external capabilities and the group capabilities

In capability approach there is a multidimensional focus based on individual and his/her capabilities, it studies interaction between capabilities in the same person, but not the effect that a certain individual capability have on a society.

Classical examples are the consequences of the presence of an internet connection in a village, and the connected spread of information, or a mother that teach to her child the basis of hygiene and how to take care of himself.

The individual aspect of capability approach it’s pretty evident, but it’s also important the consequences that a certain capability can have on others persons: the external capabilities, wich depends on direct human relationships as friendship, matherood or family and on access that someone can have to capabilty of someone else and so on.

The relations on wich these capabilities are based are often informal, they born outside structured gropus or institutions, like households, an  external capabilty in this case can be the presence of someone that can read and write in a family. The informal side of this relations make them work better with fewer persons.

Some important examples are given by Basu and Foster:

1)      distribution of informational brochure between agricultural workers

2)      a medical centre that give basic notion about prevention of disease and about the service that it can provides.

These informations can arrive directly or through other persons, maybe from literate persons to illiterate ones like Basu and Foster called “Proximate literacy”, even if the two authors never talk explicitly of capability approach it can easily adapt to their concept. It’s easy to extend this idea of external capabilities on a lot of skills, like proficiency with numbers or foreign languages or technology.

Information comunication technology (ICT) can help a lot the spread of external capabilities and enlarge the range of them, in order to improve individual ones. It has been noted that in some country fisherman use mobile phone to guide other persons to aeras where fishing is better. ICT expand external capabilities of a person and his friends and family providing the access to informations, sometimes using social networks too.

Probabily the most important case is KIVA.

KIVA is a nonprofit organisation that allows to people who lives in developed countries to finance enterpreneurs in developing nations through internet, with different tools as credit card, paypal or checking account, sending money to local microcredit partners, so the locals will have access to credit beacause of the relations with other persons. If the enterpreneur who receive the money will use the loan in the right way he/her will have access to ordinary credit market easier, so this will become an individual capabilities. This is an important example of external capability.

The willingness to share creates the external capabilities, from someone who own it to someone who doesn’t. There are some limits in this approach too, usually individual capability derived from external ones are less, and the quality depends very much from the carachterics of the person that provide them, for istance Basu and Foster noted that talking about family literacy female are more adapt than male ti generate external capability, therefore sometimes it’s necessary some investments, of time for instance to complete a cycle of study, in order to “translate” the external capability into individual one.

External capabilities are the freedoms to reach functionings that someone values through relations with other persons, and moreover everyone can choose wich kind of relationship want to have, so according to the choices  maded he/she will have different set of external capabilities. As there is the freedom to share capabilities or not an individual could decide to don’t make it.

The concept of group capabilities have somenthings in common the external, according to Stewart they are “capabilities that belongs to groups even though the groups are made up of individuals and the behaviour of the group affects individuals”. He classified 3 resons for wich group capabilities improve well being:

1)      direct impact, like the sense of inclusion and respect.

2)      Group confer capabilities that individual would not have outside the group, Stewart says that group capabilities are more than individual capabilities of the members.

3)      Group can influence individual’s preferences and behaviours, so Stewart write that according to what a group promote, can exist bad or good group.

Several scholars says that groups, collectivities, political parties, unions and so on, are important for the formation of individual preferences and help poor people to develope individual capabilities in order to “choose the lives they have reason to value”.

Some other authors use similar concept, like Collective capabilities as Evans called them, he recognizes the importance of the impact of the group in formation of individual preferences, such as Stewart said.

Another important author that follow this thoery, maybe in a stronger way, is Ibrahim, accordiong to her in fact it’s necessary to focus on collectivity and not on individual, beacause “the structure of living togheter” are iportant intresecally more than promoters of idividual capabilities.

Group and collective capabilities are extremely different from external ones, because the first exist with the group and estinguish with his end, instead external capabilities are just an input for the individual ones.

Even if capability approach is focused on on the individual, it recognise social influences, but the argument has not been studied so much.

As Robeyns said there are three types of individualism:

1)      ethical individualism, wich is a philosophic idea and recognize influences of group and collective structures seen as something that can improve idividual well being.

2)      methodological individualis, wich is the theory that declare that everything is related to individual and his property, so deny evey influences of group and similar institutions.

3)      ontological individualism that follow the idea that society is just the sum of individual, so doesn’h have any effect on individual.

Capabilty approach, anyway, use just the first type of individualism, so the lacking of studies and reaseraches about this argument is not justified.


In the end of this discussion there are some questions about external capabilities approach:

1)      which types of capabilities are more easy to store through social networks?

2)      Which kinds of people are better providers for external capabilities, and wich type of capability they can provide?

3)      Are external capabilities imperfect subsitutes for individual capability? They discourage their enhance?

Let’s try to answer to these questions:

1)      not all the capabilities can be shared through internet and social networks, but for a lot of them it’s possible as it was seen with price of crops, better places for fishing, and so on; this is impossible for capabilities like nourishment or healthcare, or literacy wich need someone that can teach them directly.

2)      Better providers for capabilities are people in stritcly contact with persons who need the individual capabilities, in some case mothers or member of the family. It’s not possible for every capabilities beacause as it was seen studing the limites of external capabilities, not each of them become individual ones and sometimes also the quality is different.

3)      External capabilites are just a way “to plant a seed” of the corrispective individual capabilities, it’s not a way to discourage them, just a way to make this process easier, like in the case of KIVA, enterpreuner take money from nonprofit organistation, but the process doesn’t stop here, beacause for him/her will be more easy to have access to ordinary credit that is a real individual capality different from the external one, so the enterpreuners with the money could improve his activity because he own the individual capabilty to access to credit market.

Nowadays ICT is really important and the fact that capabilities can travel through it, is not possible to ignore. It’s true that individual aspects of capabilities are more evident, but it’s also an important fact that relations between persons influence and can improve them. So external capabilities are as important as individual ones, even if this concept can not be applied to every capability. In some case it’s a very useful argument, like for capabilities that can easily “travel” through internet like information of any kind from prices of the crops, till the best spot for fishing; or for example mothers who teach health and nourishment to her children. This is a good way to integrate capability approach because people live togheter in the same place and it’s impossible to consider  well being of a country without considering this kind of relationships.


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