Cover image for Capabilities, Power, and Institutions: Toward a More Critical Development Ethics Edited by Stephen L. Esquith and Fred Gifford

Capabilities, Power, and Institutions

Toward a More Critical Development Ethics

Edited by Stephen L. Esquith and Fred Gifford

BUY

$61.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03661-8

$26.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03662-5

216 pages
6" × 9"
2010

Capabilities, Power, and Institutions

Toward a More Critical Development Ethics

Edited by Stephen L. Esquith and Fred Gifford

Development economics, political theory, and ethics long carried on their own scholarly dialogues and investigations with almost no interaction among them. Only in the mid-1990s did this situation begin to change, primarily as a result of the pioneering work of an economist, Amartya Sen, and a philosopher who doubled as a classicist and legal scholar, Martha Nussbaum. Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999) and Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development (2000) together signaled the emergence of a powerful new paradigm that is commonly known as the “capabilities approach” to development ethics. Key to this approach is the recognition that citizens must have basic “capabilities” provided most crucially through health care and education if they are to function effectively as agents of economic development. Capabilities can be measured in terms of skills and abilities, opportunities and control over resources, and even moral virtues like the virtue of care and concern for others. The essays in this collection extend, criticize, and reformulate the capabilities approach to better understand the importance of power, especially institutional power.

 

  • Description
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Development economics, political theory, and ethics long carried on their own scholarly dialogues and investigations with almost no interaction among them. Only in the mid-1990s did this situation begin to change, primarily as a result of the pioneering work of an economist, Amartya Sen, and a philosopher who doubled as a classicist and legal scholar, Martha Nussbaum. Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999) and Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development (2000) together signaled the emergence of a powerful new paradigm that is commonly known as the “capabilities approach” to development ethics. Key to this approach is the recognition that citizens must have basic “capabilities” provided most crucially through health care and education if they are to function effectively as agents of economic development. Capabilities can be measured in terms of skills and abilities, opportunities and control over resources, and even moral virtues like the virtue of care and concern for others. The essays in this collection extend, criticize, and reformulate the capabilities approach to better understand the importance of power, especially institutional power.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Sabina Alkire, David Barkin, Nigel Dower, Shelley Feldman, Des Gasper, Daniel Little, Asunción Lera St. Clair, A. Allan Schmid, Paul B. Thompson, and Thanh-Dam Truong.

Stephen L. Esquith is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.

Fred Gifford is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Graduate Specialization in Ethics and Development.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Institutions and Urgency

Stephen L. Esquith

1. Instrumental Freedoms and Human Capabilities

Sabina Alkire

2. The Missing Squirm Factor in Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach

A. Allan Schmid

3. Institutions, Inequality, and Well-Being: Distributive Determinants of Capabilities Realization

Daniel Little

4. Development Ethics Through the Lenses of Caring, Gender, and Human Security

Des Gasper and Thanh-Dam Truong

5. A Methodologically Pragmatist Approach to Development Ethics

Asuncioń Lera St. Clair

6. Social Development, Capabilities, and the Contradictions of (Capitalist) Development

Shelley Feldman

7. The Struggle for Local Autonomy in a Multiethnic Society: Constructing Alternatives with Indigenous Epistemologies

David Barkin

8. Capabilities, Consequentialism, and Critical Consciousness

Paul B. Thompson

9. Development and Globalization: The Ethical Challenges

Nigel Dower

Contributors

Index

Introduction

Institutions and Urgency

Stephen L. Esquith

The essays in this collection extend, criticize, and reformulate the capability approach to human development to better understand the importance of power, especially institutional power. As originally formulated by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, the capability approach has certainly been concerned with institutions. In Development as Freedom (1999), Sen writes, “Individuals live and operate in a world of institutions. Our opportunities and prospects depend crucially on what institutions exist and how they function. Not only do institutions contribute to our freedoms, their roles can be sensibly evaluated in the light of their contributions to our freedom. To see development as freedom provides a perspective in which institutional assessment can systematically occur” (142). The organizing question of this volume is: Has the capability approach been concerned with institutions enough? Despite past criticisms along this line, there are clear signs that Sen has taken institutions seriously, including his 2005 review of Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power (Sen 2005, xi–xvii).

We begin with a relatively friendly answer: not quite enough. We then move through a series of essays that take the capability approach more heavily to task. Each of the essays maps out new territory, some closer to home and some well beyond the boundaries of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s capability approach to development. In every case, however, the arguments presented take the capability approach as an important point of departure or object of contestation. Whatever its shortcomings, the capability approach is the most ambitious theory of development we have; it must be addressed critically to move human development further along a more ethical path.

As Mahbub ul Haq put it in 1995 during the early days of the capability approach: “It is fair to say that the human development paradigm is the most holistic development model that exists today. It embraces every development issue, including economic growth, social investment, people’s empowerment, provision of basic needs and social safety nets, political and cultural freedoms, and all other aspects of people’s lives. It is neither narrowly technocratic nor overly philosophical. It is a practical reflection of life itself” (Haq 2003, 21). The essays in this collection share this ambition; they take up issues in economics, anthropology, politics, and society without being narrowly technocratic, and they raise philosophical questions about moral assumptions and goals without being overly philosophical. In the process, they sometimes extend the original capability approach, but more often they criticize its treatment of power and institutions precisely because these contributors also share with the capability approach a certain sense of urgency. This urgency stems from the fact that problems and dilemmas faced by poor countries and the poor residents of richer countries are not theirs alone. Whether we call it globalization or neoliberal globalization, we increasingly share a common fate and should not remain “coolly accustomed” to these problems and dilemmas. This is as true for the effects of poverty and civil war on regional stability as it is for the effects of transgenic crops on biodiversity. These are not problems and dilemmas that can be exported, quarantined, or ignored with impunity.

Another way to think of this sense of urgency is to recognize, as Nigel Dower argues in the final contribution to this volume, that ethics itself is becoming a global necessity, if not yet a global reality. Not only are the ethical problems and issues of today global in structure and scope, but also the development of principles of ethical reasoning and the norms of ethical life are becoming more widely debated. According to Dower (in this volume), the globalization of ethics is a “process whereby certain values come to be accepted by all or almost all people across the world.” This may overstate how far along this process has moved, but not how widely shared the sense of urgency is that such an ethic be found. It is with this sense of urgency that our contributors take on the promise as well as the limitations of the capability approach.

The Fragmentary Development of Development Ethics

How, beyond their shared sense of urgency, should we describe ethical theories of development in general? One way is to try to piece together the problems and dilemmas that have been discussed. Development ethics has struggled with issues such as cultural relativism, technological determinism, and the meaning of human flourishing in the context of globalization (Gasper 2004). These theories have only begun to come to terms with the question of who is responsible for the uneven and sometimes paradoxical developments wrought by the policies of privatization, liberalization, and deregulation that have steered globalization. Further, the theoretical picture is quite fragmentary because of the uneven effect of globalization around the world.

Globalization has created hierarchies within developed countries as well as hierarchical relationships between developed and less developed countries (Sharma 2008). Neoliberal globalization also has not touched down uniformly around the world. Global transactions, campaigns, and investments occur intensely in some locales with a variety of results, and hardly at all in others. To use James Ferguson’s apt metaphor, neoliberal globalization hops from place to place, sometimes leaving the poorest countries worse off than they were before, sometimes skipping over them entirely. Where it has touched down in Africa, for example, globalization often has meant the extraction of natural resources without a significant investment in local human capital, or it has meant the establishment of armed enclaves and private security forces at the expense of local popular governance (Ferguson 2006).

Despite this mixed record, many advocates of neoliberal development policies remain optimistic about the future of globalization. They continue to believe that market-oriented development policies and strategies, “humanely augmented,” will rid the world of hunger, poverty, and war once and for all. They tell us that we just have to get the development technology right (Easterly 2001; Lipton 1998; but see Rodrik 2001).

Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist, Nobel laureate, special adviser to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, and a surprising critic of some market strategies to solve the problems of extreme poverty, still shares this basic article of faith with his trade liberalization opponents. For Sachs, the single most important reason why prosperity has spread in some regions such as India, and why it has begun to spread in others such as China and Brazil, is “the transmission of technologies and the ideas underlying them” (2005, 41). To end poverty, he argues, basic appropriate technologies must be brought on a country-by-country, “clinical” basis to the one billion people, or almost one-sixth of humanity, who live in extreme poverty. The causes of extreme poverty vary because physical geographies vary, but the solutions have a common characteristic: the poor are trapped in extreme poverty and cannot extricate themselves from it without help, primarily in the form of technological know-how (56–57).

Are the poor getting this kind of help through neoliberal globalization policies? Another Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph E. Stiglitz, worries that they are not: “Globalization today is not working for many of the world’s poor. It is not working for much of the environment. It is not working for the stability of the global economy. The transition from communism to a market economy has been so badly managed that, with the exception of China, Vietnam, and a few Eastern European countries, poverty has soared as incomes have plummeted” (2002, 214). Sachs and Stiglitz are not alone in criticizing the current direction of neoliberal globalization. Platitudes such as the inevitable trade-off between growth and equity are being shelved by the United Nations, which recognizes that increasing levels of inequality within and across national boundaries are not just intrinsically abhorrent, but are also obstacles to economic growth.

There are many competing reasons why inequality is increasing, undercutting growth, and thereby leaving the fruits of globalization beyond the reach of so many. According to the United Nations, the poorest countries are moving away from, not toward, the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (halving poverty, hunger, and human suffering) because public-sector domestic investment and foreign aid have failed to provide the foundations and infrastructure for private investment and growth in the poorest parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Others also recognize the link between poverty and inequality but argue that in some cases the absence of institutional infrastructure itself may be the product of certain kinds of foreign aid. Just as some forms of economic aid have had unintended negative economic consequences (for example, the so-called “Dutch disease” in which some forms of aid negatively affect exchange rates), other forms of aid have also weakened rather than strengthened political institutions by replacing the connections between tax-paying citizens and the tax-collecting government with a government-donor relationship (Moss, Pettersson, and Van de Walle 2006).

Despite these reservations and concerns, optimists like Sachs and Stiglitz still believe that carefully targeted foreign aid is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for escaping the traps of extreme poverty. Economic skeptics reject Sachs’s program for reaching the Millennium Development Goals as just a remake of earlier “Big Push” approaches of the 1950s and 1960s. These critics warn that large amounts of aid, even emergency food aid, can adversely affect local markets, driving local producers off their land and creating a larger urban poor population with no means to purchase food. While the supply of food goes up, the effective demand for it declines and people go hungry. Famines, they argue, have not been the result of food shortages but of lost wages leading to declining purchasing power, especially among the urban poor. William Easterly has argued that Sachs, despite his claims to the contrary, substitutes administrative top-down initiatives for better information and stronger incentives to promote piecemeal and bottom-up reforms that avoid these unwanted, unintended consequences (Easterly 2006a, 2006b).

Political skeptics have been more stridently opposed to both small, bottom-up pulls as well as big, top-down pushes. They argue that richer and more democratic industrialized countries cannot afford economic development that is not tied directly to their military-security interests. The metaphors and symbols these political skeptics have used (“clash of civilizations” and “ethnic pandemonium,” for example) have lent support to politicians willing to exploit a politics of fear rather than a politics of humanitarian aid and development (Pieterse 2004). The resulting shifts in policy and spending priorities have been significant. Most notably, U.S. development policies have been dramatically affected by the perception that the war in Iraq is only one part of a larger, longer worldwide war against terrorism. According to Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes (2008), as of March 2008 cost estimates for the United States for the war in Iraq were at three trillion dollars.

Under attack by economic and political skeptics and benignly ignored by optimists, development ethics has emerged in fragments. Against these skeptics anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and philosophers have joined institutional economists in trying to piece together a body of development ethics literature, and while there are signs of fruitful communication across these academic disciplinary lines, there is still nothing like a “holistic” theory of development ethics or even agreement on which problems facing development ethics are the most important.

Instead, what we have is ethical fragmentation to match the fragmentation at the policy level. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, globalization was characterized as a complex system or network of high-speed communication. Some commentators were more effusive than others, but all shared a common belief in the integrated nature of this emerging network. Ethics was a matter of keeping things in balance and distributing development’s bounty humanely and fairly.

As particular ethical arguments have been introduced to cope with problems such as the use of transgenic crops in agriculture, intellectual property rights, and the use of stem cells for medical research, development ethics has become more fragmented. As case law and rules of thumb are produced to deal with such problems, the model of a global network or system seems more simplistic, and metaphors that permit more local variations (“landscapes,” “plateaus”) have come into play. In the somewhat elusive words of one critic of global metanarratives, “Particular assemblages of technology and politics not only create their own spaces, but also give diverse values to the practices and actors thus connected to each other” (Ong 2005, 338). Development ethics has become an array of different technology-specific language games, not a single discourse.

What are the fragments of development ethics that are now in play? (Gasper 2007).

1. Basic Needs. For some who think of development in terms of meeting basic human needs, security—whether military and political security or food and water security—must come first. For them, human rights are primarily the rights to have these basic needs met. To meet these needs, transportation, communication, and financial institutions must be built. That means roads, dams, airports, and high-speed Internet connections. Only then, they believe, will people have the opportunities and the wherewithal to bring their goods to market, participate in development decisions, send their children to school, work more productively, and save for the future. Basic needs require the creation of a sustainable development path, and this requires food and water security and health security, not just military security (Reader 2006).

2. Capabilities. Others, who recognize the goal of meeting basic human needs, argue that there is a danger of universalizing this concept. Needs vary considerably from culture to culture. Instead, these authors stress capacity building and human capabilities, especially in the areas of health and education. Capabilities can be measured in terms of skills and abilities, opportunities and control over resources, and even moral virtues like care and concern for others. These are the critical levers for development and security (Sen 1999; and Nussbaum 2000).

3. Participation. Still others stress participatory development in local political institutions as well as participation in economic institutions like growers’ cooperatives and community schools. They believe that the most important human right is the right to participate in development decisions. This is how we learn about our capabilities and choose among them. This is how needs become more concrete. Development decisions will be better if more stakeholders participate, and development policies will be more effective with this kind of buy-in (Crocker 2008).

The essays in this volume place capabilities at the center of development ethics, closely flanked by basic needs on one side and informed participation on the other. At the same time, many of the authors raise critical questions from the perspectives of human needs and participation about the adequacy of the capability approach to come to terms with both the exercise of power and the weight of institutions.

Locating Capabilities Within Development Ethics

Almost all scholars and practitioners in the field of development are now familiar with the work of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and other social scientists and philosophers identified with the capability approach. Journals that relish breaking new interdisciplinary ground have opened their pages to vigorous debate over this line of thought. Even philosophers, relatively slow to get their views out in print, have entered the fray (Symposium 2006).

Sen and Nussbaum, more than anyone, have forced social scientists and policymakers to take seriously the ethical issues and questions embedded in the study and processes of development. One might even say that Sen and Nussbaum, sometimes in tandem and sometimes separately, have been the catalysts for this new, albeit still fragmentary, interdisciplinary field of development ethics.

Any attempt to characterize the capability approach in general is bound to be misleading to some degree. The command of ancient and modern literary texts, Western and Eastern, that Sen and Nussbaum enjoy, as well as their knowledge of law and social science, inform and enrich their philosophical work. Having said this, it is unavoidable that we begin this volume, so much of which is indebted to their thought, with a brief statement of just what we take to be the main ideas behind the capability approach and its place within development ethics.

At one level, the capability approach offers an alternative to the dominant indices such as per capita income for measuring the success of development policies. In their introduction to the contemporary normative ferment in social science, David B. Grusky and Ravi Kanbur say that “there is a growing consensus among academics, policy makers, and even politicians that poverty and inequality should no longer be treated as soft social issues that can safely be subordinated to more important and fundamental interests in maximizing total economic output” (2006, 1). They primarily have Sen’s and Nussbaum’s work in mind. Rather than merely replacing one yardstick with another, the capability approach has sought to expand our understanding of what should count as good development, not just how to measure it. It incorporates a range of indices and measures of development rather than reducing development to one measure, however robust it may be in some cases.

One theoretical point of comparison is between the capability approach and contractualist approaches such as John Rawls’s theory of justice, which focuses on the distribution of resources (in Rawls, “primary goods”) as the lever for development. The advantage contractualism has over the capability approach, at least thus far, is that it offers a justification for explicit public principles of justice. That is, if we think about contractualism from the point of view of actual parties rather than the agents in a Rawlsian hypothetical original position, contractualism enables us to talk about how reasonable persons might debate and reach compromises on development priorities. This is what is meant by public reason and deliberative democracy. On the other hand, contractualism falters in extending its deliberative principles globally, whereas the capability approach strives to reach across national borders.

A more common way to think about the relative theoretical virtues of the capability approach is to compare it to utilitarianism. While classical utilitarianism is easily ridiculed for substituting revealed preferences for real human needs, economists today are well aware of the difference and therefore stress the fundamental importance of basic needs. For example, Sachs does not hesitate; on his count there are six basic needs: primary education, nutrition, access to antimalarial bed nets, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, one-half kilometer of paved roads for every thousand of population, and access to safe cooking fuels and stoves (2005, 292–93). One might object to the vagueness of the term “access,” but Sachs believes unconditionally that these needs can be met: “The single most important reason why prosperity spread, and why it continues to spread, is the transmission of technologies and the ideas underlying them” (41). Institutional explanations, he contends, are overrated (Sachs 2003, 38–41).

How do we measure this poverty? For Sachs it is a matter of determining how far short people fall from satisfying their fundamental needs for food, clean water, reading and writing skills adequate for employment, comparable technical skills, and generally a reasonably long life expectancy in good health. Sachs’s need-based utilitarianism has very little room for moral concepts such as human rights, dignity, or flourishing. To the extent that morality may play a role in development, he suggests, it will be to motivate people to contribute to the satisfaction of the needs of those who are trapped, through no fault of their own, in poverty. Rights talk may not be nonsense on stilts, as Bentham put it, but it is only rhetoric—useful rhetoric, to be sure, but rhetoric nonetheless.

In contrast, exponents of the capability approach have sought to give their theory a stronger moral foundation without dismissing the utilitarian emphasis on the satisfaction of basic needs. While also critical of “revealed preferences,” the capability approach still takes seriously—perhaps above all else—that development should be about giving people more choices to realize those things that they believe make them human—their material needs and also their higher aspirations. In an essay originally presented at a training course preceding the Third International Conference on the Capabilities Approach in Pavia, Italy, on September 6, 2004, Ingrid Robeyns made this point: “Well-being and development should be discussed in terms of people’s capabilities to function, that is, on their effective opportunities to undertake the actions and activities that they want to engage in, and be whom they want to be.”

Freedom to choose how we wish to live our lives among a large set of human capabilities, according to Sen, is the key moral value of the capability approach; it is the essence of justice (Sen 2008). For Nussbaum, human capabilities, in the plural, constitute human flourishing as forms of acting and being in the world, not just possessing or wanting certain things. Denied access to these ways of being, a person is in effect denied her or his human dignity. In this sense, respect for human dignity, not the pursuit of mutual advantage, is what is needed for everyone, not just family, friends, and compatriots, to have an effective opportunity to flourish (Nussbaum 2006, 68–85). Nussbaum concludes that the capability approach is therefore one species of a human rights approach. Without endorsing any one particular list of human capabilities, Sen fleshes this out by describing human rights as ethical demands for certain freedoms that are important and socially determinable. He argues that freedom to choose our capabilities in an informed and uncoerced way describes, at least in large part, what it means to possess human rights. He admits, however, that human rights cannot be reduced to capabilities. The qualification is worth quoting at length because it reflects both the open-minded way the advocates of the capability approach have proceeded and their wariness of reductionism: “Although the idea of capability has considerable merit in the assessment of the opportunity aspect of freedom, it cannot possibly deal adequately with the process aspect of freedom, since capabilities are characteristics of individual advantages, and they fall short of telling us enough about the fairness or equality of the processes involved, or about the freedom of citizens to invoke and utilize procedures that are equitable” (Sen 2004a, 336). It is this theoretical limit of the capability approach that has led Sen and others such as David A. Crocker to ask what a democratic and participatory development process that respects human capabilities would be like. In their revised 2002 edition of India: Development and Participation, Jean Drèze and Sen stress several ways in which democratic participation has been and could be more effective as a means to avoid famine and long-term hunger.

Matters of process, our authors argue, are inherently tied to power and institutional structure, and many of the arguments that Drèze and Sen make are also about institutions. Is there a difference between what capabilities theorists have outlined and what the authors of this collection mean by power and institutions? Sen has been concerned about effective opportunities to choose the capabilities we wish to develop and how they depend on forms of property, the rules of contract, and fixed political boundaries. He has been concerned that institutional structures not be imposed through top-down development, although they often are. Since its adoption as a central, if not the dominant normative framework for the United Nations Human Development Reports since 1990, it has been clear that the capability approach is a theory that can make a difference in practice. Where, then, does the difference lie?

Criticizing the Capability Approach

All ethical theories are about how human beings should live their lives. One answer to this question is that they should live their lives freely because freedoms are good things to have in themselves, and because they are important instruments for achieving other moral ends. That is, freedoms are means to other good things that people value and ought to value. But it is not always easy to put this idea of instrumental freedom into practice. Sabina Alkire (2005), who has applied the capability approach to particular local cases, asks how we decide what instrumental freedoms to cultivate. What trade-offs do they force? What capabilities do they expand? These are difficult empirical and normative questions, but perhaps even they may underestimate the ethical issues that development confronts. Are they at the heart of the matter when we ask what should be the purpose of an ethical theory of development, or is ethics about even more disturbing matters than how we should operationalize instrumental values such as freedom? Should an ethical theory of development make those in more developed countries uncomfortable—really squirm, as Allan Schmid phrases it—and not just puzzled by problems of implementation? Where would this squirm come from? As Schmid has discussed elsewhere, it comes with the recognition that to realize human capabilities for the many poor, basic institutional changes must occur and the poor must have a say in them.

Another challenge for any ethical theory of development, but especially the capability approach, is the matter of geography. Even if the capability approach can make us squirm, are we really in any position to overcome the enormous differences in endowments provided by the environmental natural lottery? Is it really possible for those who have been left out to achieve the kind of development that they would like to have? One answer is that it may depend quite a bit on where you happen to be, as Jared Diamond (1999) and Sachs (2005) have argued. Or, as Schmid asks, are there institutional preconditions to development just as important as any natural lottery? Consistent with Schmid’s perspective, Daniel Little maintains that among the most important factors are the systems of landholding and political power sharing, which usually do not depend on geography. According to Little, an approach to development sensitive to the ways in which institutions such as these shape capabilities and meet human needs is much more likely to succeed.

Yet another challenge to the capability approach is that it does not go deep enough—that is, it fails to challenge conventional views about human nature. This is most evident in debates over the meaning of human security. The capability approach most recently has had to address whether welfare, well-being, and security can and should be integrated within a single comprehensive ethical theory. In his Report to the United Nations General Assembly on March 21, 2005, Secretary-General Annan summarized this interdependency, or “larger freedom”: “Not only are development, security and human rights all imperative; they also reinforce each other. This relationship has only been strengthened in our era of rapid technological advances, increasing economic interdependence, globalization, and dramatic geopolitical change. While poverty and denial of human rights may not be said to ‘cause’ civil war, terrorism, or organized crime, they all greatly increase the risk of instability and violence.” What is the most appropriate conception of moral identity that should ground theories of vulnerability (security) and capability? Here one should be open to non-Western theories of the self and also to feminist theories of care that, according to Des Gasper and Thanh-Dam Truong, connect vulnerability and capability, rather than presenting these as competing alternative moral values in the way that some postdevelopment theorists have suggested (Rahnema 1997, 400).

Nussbaum has argued that there are compelling arguments in favor of moral universalism, especially as they apply to the well-being of women. Listening to these myriad and sometimes dissonant voices to identify their common humanity is a central task of the capability approach. But the more abstract the idea of the person, Shelley Feldman argues, the greater the danger that persons are caught up in and constituted by structures of power that differentially shape their room to maneuver. She argues that neoliberal development policies and institutional reforms represent one such structure of power that is not adequately addressed by the capability approach. According to Feldman, the capability approach has taken for granted the nation-state system characterized by uneven development within a global structure of capitalism. This bias of the capability approach, argues Asunción St. Clair, goes beyond the issues of moral and cultural relativism. It involves how we think about the relationship between development and the multidimensional process of globalization. The capability approach tacitly assumes an international normative order conforming to what Sen (2001) has called the “Ten Truths of Globalization,” and that Nigel Dower worries has silently guided debates over ethics and development.

There are alternative, existing normative orders, argues David Barkin. In particular, we ought to be mindful of the epistemologies of indigenous peoples when critically considering the reach and purchase of any theory of development ethics. Capabilities are indeed important, but their locus of development can also be situated through the inherited knowledge of developing communities. In response to these strong criticisms by Feldman, St. Clair, and Barkin, Paul B. Thompson asks us to be patient despite the urgent need for ethical development and the attractiveness of indigenous perspectives. Development is too serious a business to be driven by unreflective value judgments, regardless of how intuitively appealing they may be. Thompson argues that the philosophical basis for our sense of urgency—its faith in a consequence-driven conception of ethical justification—ought to be called into question. The development of human capabilities, whether they are grounded locally in indigenous values or universally in global values, must eventually be justified pragmatically. What would this mean in practice?

Participation and Experimentation

Twentieth-century development theories began with a focus on economic growth, and much of the work in ethics and development, including the capability approach, has been organized to expand this focus without neglecting the important contributions that economic analysis can still make. Development, we know all too well, must proceed on several tracks. Strategies for economic growth, however they are organized, will fail unless they are connected to social, educational, and political institutions. This involves the level of control that civil society groups as well as local city and village governments have in development planning and implementation. No one openly advocates top-down development anymore, not even Sachs, but getting things right from the bottom up and from side to side means understanding, as Crocker (2008) and David Ellerman (2005) have forcefully argued elsewhere, the interaction of local and global networks of power in a process of participatory development. Perhaps what is needed is a “globalization of ethics” that values local institutional experimentation.

A global commitment to economically subsidizing and politically supporting local experimentation in developing countries inevitably will cut across existing political boundaries and jeopardize existing relative comparative advantages in trade. This is what Roberto Mangiabera Unger calls “radical pragmatism.” It is consistent with the goals of the capability approach but much more cognizant of the inertia of existing institutions and the power of new local institutions to contest this inertial force.

Experimentation can begin with economic processes of production, but it must reach the political level if it is to be effective in practice. Experiments in regional government and forms of federalism will be necessary if the false necessities of existing trade and strategic advantages that block human development are to be dislodged. But the most basic change, according to Unger, may involve our ability to distinguish between urgency and crisis. Economic and political institutional experiments can be driven by a sense of urgency—I would argue that they have to be. They will not occur, however, in an atmosphere of crisis such as the current financial meltdown or as a response to an unforeseen calamity, as opportune as this may first appear. In Unger’s words: “A calamity—often in the form of an economic collapse or armed conflict—can break any order. . . . To render politics experimental is to dispense with the need for this ally” (2007b, 42–43). The essays in this volume reflect this sense of urgency in their call for participatory development and pragmatic experimentation across existing political boundaries.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.