The Right to Development _ Focusing on Capabilities to Function and Essential Needs

Mohammad Ali Farzin (Ph.D.) - Development Economist


Global complications over the last thirty years – socio-economic and environmental, including climate change and COVID-19 – have now had significant consequences for peoples’ abilities to achieve what they value, and also the way they function, work and interact together. New drivers and new constraints of development processes have appeared: including technology change and improvement, significant GDP gains but accompanied by problems in productivity, distribution and income inequality and, of course, continued poverty for many. Along with distortionary outcomes in the way we generally invest and do things. The United Nations – now 75 years old – initiated many processes to support the alleviation of such problems, including the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) and the Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030), which provide positive-normative frameworks for stability and continuity.


The global crisis has highlighted many dualities, and the difficulties in achieving balance; along with differences in the conservative and reformist agenda’s. It has made us realise the weakness in our thinking and working frameworks: the excessive focus on sector-based and linear approaches to assessing, planning and doing have proven problematic; while the importance of multi-dimensional and integrated approaches to programming and action have been little understood as a better means to problem realization and problem solving, and progress. The importance of adopting such wholistic frameworks and mind-sets – as the international development goals indicate – has now, fortunately, come to the fore. The linking together of legal, ethical, humanitarian, economic, social and environmental dimensions, frameworks and approaches are required. Difficult, but necessary – and a real human and social responsibility. Development policies should create an environment for people to live long, healthy and creative lives (here).


The right to sustainable human development is one such approach. It is an attempt to link up the material dimensions with the non-material; focusing on the basic, essentially humane and natural; highlighting the inter-active linkages between material resources, human functioning and work processes, and their final outcomes. It has many aspects, including giving value and weight to the capabilities approach to development thinking and valuation. These ideas have now become ingrained in many institutional frameworks, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

One perspective focuses on a core development concept, the capability to function: encompassing together the enabling legal and development frameworks; those which support human opportunities, choices and substantive freedoms to act and function in order to achieve real values and good social outcomes. An approach that goes beyond the positive and objective, and includes entitlements, rights, ethics, morals and normative frames of reference. Emphasising how human beings can actually function, within their capability to do so (in their socio-economic context and their development setting). Examples of functioning that are a direct requirement for capabilities are minimum standard of nourishment, standard mental and physical health, and appropriate education.


In the increasingly multi-dimensional, complex and integrated settings that modern humans live and work, this requires multi-objective and multi-constraint understanding, skills and actions, along with their enabling frameworks; focus on structures and structural change; overcoming the short term gains fetish, so as and to ensuring inter-generational stability, efficiency, equity and effectiveness in outcomes over the long term.


The capability to function is, therefore, the ability to achieve outcomes that human being’s value, including: good health and living to an old age; having access to minimum social protection; engaging in appropriate livelihoods and economic transactions -and having a decent job; enabling solidarity in family and community; participating in community political and planning activities; being secure and not subject to high risk; being safe, happy and having dignity; being empowered; having a good environment; etc. An approach that goes beyond i) just material usefulness and desire-fulfillment, and/or ii) sole materialistic development and access to resources (including income, commodities, assets). The need to value and reallocate our resources and activities towards production of essentials – rather than luxuries and unnecessary items (something that COVID-19 has well made all of us realise). The necessary adjustments required to be made to conventional targets, activities and solutions -so as to ensure minimum stability– are not easy. The obvious need to combine economic development with social protection: the concepts of universal basic income and minimum guaranteed income being well indicative of new development attitudes that go beyond material growth (and sole money making values).


Conversely, deprivation – in any form – may be considered as a lack in the capability to function. The deprivation in capabilities and functioning is, of course, apparent all over the world and in all areas of life (here). Lack of human capital (health and education), lack of access to information and rights, insufficient livelihoods, etc. The Nobel Laurate Amartya Sen – the main proponent of the new development approach – well indicates the need to overcome main deficiencies in the capability to function as: distributional indifference, the neglect of rights, freedoms and other non-utility type concerns, and the adaptation and adjustment in social conditioning (e.g. Rationality and Freedom).


The new rights approach to development requires a framework to enable functioning and to appropriately assess adjustment, and to evaluate requirements for change, in the following:

  • the structure and inter-action of materialistic and non-materialistic frameworks, factors and drivers – in evaluating development processes and human welfare outcome’s;
  • the logical relationship between normative and positive frameworks (legal and developmental) -and the personal and social advantage and opportunity they provide including in the distribution of opportunities within society;
  • the differences in the capability to transform resources into valuable activities and outputs -and the multi-variate nature of such activities leading to differential satisfactions for different strata in society;
  • the rights and entitlements involved for society and its strata, especially from a Rawlsian, bottom-up, perspective  - the basis of “essential” requirements (rather than luxuries);
  • the basic linkages between macro-economics, health, social protection, livelihoods, community solidarity and risk management;
  • enabling processes for individual human dignity to: have a normal lengthy life and with good health, with adequate nourishment, have adequate shelter, have freedom of movement for work, be secure against violence, have adequate education, have ability to care, have no fear and anxiety, engage in critical reflection, have social interaction, have self-respect, have non-discrimination contexts;
  • being able to participate effectively in community political and planning processes and participation; and
  • being able to hold property and having property rights on an equal basis with others (here).

Capabilities are, therefore, alternative combinations of functioning and doing things that are feasible to achieve, given the opportunities context to do and to act, and to generate valuable outcomes. It has, nevertheless, a dual role: as both end and instrument. Such achievements would be within an intrinsic legal and moral type space of freedom of choice and opportunity. As an example, the freedom to choose between alternative combinations of functioning and doing (e.g. multiple skills and more than one job –or multiple skills and working from home) requires responsibility and freedom involved socially, economically, morally, and politically and through human actions, values and norms; and along with corresponding rights and obligations. Freedom in relation to responsibility, and the capability of people to apply moral constraints to themselves. Beyond just a positive, instrumental rationality.


In the capability to function approach, agency refers to a person's role in society, participating in economic, social, and political actions, in freedom to be educated, and for assessing what a person can do in line with conception of the social and human good. As Amartya Sen  indicates: eating, starving, and fasting are functionings, but the functioning of fasting differs significantly from that of starving because fasting, unlike starving, involves a choice and is understood as choosing to starve despite the presence of other options. So the difference between fasting and starving is, in this case, choosing not to eat: however, the capability to obtain an essential amount of food is key in evaluating well-being between people in various contexts. A person as an agent need not be guided by a pursuit of well-being; agency achievement considers a person's success in terms of their pursuit of the whole of their goals. However, Sen argues that the task of weighing various capabilities should be left to the ethical and political considerations of each society based on public reasoning.


How to measure all this? The capabilities approach specifies that people do not just value monetary income, and that development is linked to various indicators of wellbeing and life satisfaction. Hence, the importance in appropriate measurement. Monetary and non-monetary measures of well-being are used to complement each other to address issues of inequality and lags in human development. The measurement of capabilities requires indicators of what is able to be done – looking at the inter-action and integration together between constraints, solutions and objectives. Well-being has several dimensions of which monetary factors are only one. The use of GDP as an approximation of well-being and development has been criticised (e.g. Lance Taylor) because it is a sole economic and material capacity measure and not a good indicator of overall welfare. In particular, structural inequalities, representation of environmental costs, misuse of resources and inappropriate institutions are not represented; GDP ignores non-market (e.g. unpaid work) outcomes – including the domestic and care economies, and also production for the informal market; all highly useful for our living, but not valued in national accounting systems. Further, richer economies can maintain better well-being and development enhancing conditions, so the likelihood that the average person will have more education, longer and healthy life, investment will be rewarded, is automatically much higher.


The United Nations has significantly supported the new approach and attitude. The capabilities approach, for example, has led to the creation of UNDP’s many publications and indexes, including the Human Development Index which focuses on health, education and basic income – and which are equally weighted. The Inequality adjusted HDI, the Gender-related Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Measure and the Gender Inequality Index are other measures that the United Nations utilizes in its assessments and programming. The focus on human poverty, in particular, which can be interpreted as deprivations to lead a long healthy and creative life with a decent standard of living, have been supported by UNDP: in 1997, by introducing the Human Poverty Index (HPI) and in 2010 the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MDPI) - both are non-income based measures of poverty focusing on human outcomes in terms of choices and opportunities. The approach is increasingly applied in health economics too, and promoted by health systems in the United Nations – for example, the Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALY) index.


Despite all the crises and problems, on its 75th Anniversary, the United Nations can be proud of having supported sustainable human development approaches for better lives and a better planet.


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