Excerpted from Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, by Martha C. Nussbaum, published in March 2011 by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2011 by Martha C. Nussbaum. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All over the world people are struggling for lives that are worthy of their human dignity. Leaders of countries often focus on national economic growth alone, but their people, meanwhile, are striving for something different: meaningful lives for themselves. Increased GDP has not always made a difference in the quality of people’s lives, and reports of national prosperity are not likely to console those whose existence is marked by inequality and deprivation. As the late Mahbub ul Haq, the Pakistani economist who inaugurated the Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Programme, wrote in the first of those reports, in 1990: “The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” According to Haq, development economics needs a new theoretical approach if it is to respond to people’s most urgent problems.
Consider Vasanti, a small woman in her early 30s who lives in Ahmedabad, a large city in the state of Gujarat, in northwestern India. Vasanti’s husband was a gambler and an alcoholic. He used the household money to get drunk. When that money was gone, he got a vasectomy to take advantage of the cash incentive that Gujarat’s government offered to encourage sterilization. So Vasanti had no children, a huge liability given that a childless woman is more vulnerable to domestic violence. Eventually, as her husband became more abusive, she left him and returned to her own family.
Poor parents (or siblings, if the parents have died) are often unwilling to take back a child who has been married, especially a woman who took a dowry with her. Many women in Vasanti’s position end up on the street, with no alternative but sex work. But it was her good fortune that her family was willing to help her. Vasanti’s father, who used to make Singer sewing machine parts, had died, but her brothers were running an auto parts business in what was once his shop. Using one of his old machines, and living in the shop, Vasanti earned a small income making eyeholes for the hooks on sari tops. Meanwhile, her brothers gave her a loan to get another machine, one that rolls the edges of the sari. She took the money, but she didn’t like being dependent on her siblings.
Vasanti then discovered the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a pathbreaking organization in Ahmedabad that works with poor women. Founded by internationally acclaimed activist Ela Bhatt, SEWA had by that time helped more than 50,000 members, with programs including microcredit, education, healthcare and a labor union.
With the help of the group, Vasanti got a bank loan and paid back her brothers. (SEWA now operates a bank in an office building in downtown Ahmedabad. All the officers and employees of the bank are women, many of them former beneficiaries of SEWA’s programs.) By the time I met Vasanti, several years later, she had paid back almost all the SEWA loan. She was also eligible to enroll in SEWA’s educational programs, where she was planning to learn to read and write. With the help of her friend Kokila, she was actively involved in combating domestic violence in her community. This friendship would have been very unlikely but for SEWA; Vasanti, though poor, is from the high Brahmin caste, and Kokila is from one of the lower castes. Though still all too evident in society in general, divisions along lines of caste and religion are anathema in the Indian women’s movement.
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What theoretical approach could direct attention to the most significant features of Vasanti’s situation, promote an adequate analysis of it and make pertinent recommendations for action? Suppose for a moment that we were interested not in economic or political theory but just in people: what would we notice and consider salient about Vasanti’s story?