Capability in Athens – Thoughts on the recent Human Development and Capability Association

By Razia Shariff Doctoral Candidate Politics and International Relations

I was recently fortunate enough to be given a grant by CCCU to attend this year’s Human Development and Capability Association ( Conference in Athens, Greece, entitled ‘Human Development in Times of Crisis, Renegotiating Social Justice’. This was a packed four day conference, over 400 delegates from around the world, from diverse disciplines with sessions starting at 8am through to 7pm in the evening. The capability approach pioneered by the Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen, and Martha Nussbaum (Founding President’s of HDCA) is a new theoretical, evolving paradigm providing an intellectual foundation for human development from a wellbeing, participation and freedom perspective (their words not mine).

The great Amartya Sen in (blurry) action
The great Amartya Sen in (blurry) action

Although originating from an economic and philosophical theoretical tradition the conference key note speakers were very keen on developing a critical social science understanding of the capability approach, and many of the presenters had started considering the approaches applicability beyond the ‘developing world’ where it has been traditionally applied to the ‘west’.  There were papers presented from leading academics in the field, as well as policy makers from the World Bank, practitioners from international NGO’s and a space for emerging academics to share and learn in informal thematic groups and poster sessions over lunch.

For me, it was a huge opportunity to learn about the current debates regarding collective capabilities and agency and how this could inform my PhD. The presentations and discussions were stimulating, informative and showed how adaptable the capability approach was in exploring instrumental capabilities and functionings (the freedom to achieve wellbeing through opportunities to DO and BE what you have reason to value). As a normative approach it helps us conceptualise the notions of freedom and development, offering a practical approach to making decisions not just for the ‘end goals’ but also the ‘means’ by which they are achieved. Agency is key as it is through individual agency that resources and capabilities are transformed into real change by trading off capabilities and functions depending on what the individual’s social contexts are, and what they value. It can be argued that agency is thus part of the process of deliberative democracy where capabilities and functionings are negotiated by the collective for social justice and change. There is an emerging strand of research that is exploring ‘collective capabilities’ as all individuals are part of a context influenced by market forces, political interventions and social conditioning. It is argued that this area needs further research, to explore the role of social spaces such as civil society on the expansion of individual capabilities and thus their aspirations for social justice and freedoms.

If you would like to learn more about the capability approach best to start with Sen’s key publication ‘Development as Freedom’ (1999).


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