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?

First we would probably notice how small Vasanti is, and we could initially take this as evidence of poor nutrition in childhood. Poor families are often forced to feed all their children poorly, but we would want to ask about how her brothers fared. Evidence abounds that girls are less well nourished than boys and less often taken to the doctor in childhood when ill. So Vasanti’s nutritional deficiency is a result not just of poverty but also of gender discrimination.

Unequal laws of property and inheritance contribute to the predicament of India’s daughters, and anyone thinking about Vasanti’s life must consider the role they have played in her situation. The religion-based systems of personal law in India govern property and inheritance as well as family law. All the systems institutionalize large inequalities for women. Under the Hindu property code, women attained equal shares in agricultural land only in 2005, seven years after I met Vasanti. Hers is not a land-owning family, but an analysis of her predicament would naturally lead us to notice that closely related inequity.

Thinking about such issues, we would be led to a study of the striking gender imbalance in India’s population. Demographers estimate that where similar nutrition and healthcare are present, women live, on average, slightly longer than men—so we would expect a ratio of something like 102 women to 100 men. Instead, the 1991 Indian census shows ninety-two women to 100 men. It’s well-known that these imbalances increase wherever information about the sex of the fetus is available. Amniocentesis clinics are ubiquitous throughout the nation. Because sex-selective abortion is such a widespread problem in India, it is illegal to seek information about the sex of the fetus, but these laws are rarely enforced.

Vasanti, then, has had a bit of good luck in being alive at all. Her family didn’t nourish her very well, but they did better than many poor families. When I met her she seemed to be in reasonable health, and she is fortunate to have a strong constitution, since healthcare is not easily accessible to the poor in Gujarat. The Indian Constitution makes health a state issue rather than a federal one, so there is great variation state by state in the resources available to the poor. Some Indian states—for example, Kerala—have effective healthcare systems, but most do not.

Next, we are likely to notice that a woman as intelligent and determined as Vasanti has had few employment options because she never learned to read and write. We can put this down to a failure in the Gujarati education system, since education, like health, is a state matter and literacy rates vary greatly from state to state. In Kerala, adolescent literacy for both boys and girls is close to 100 percent, whereas, according to the 2001 census, nationally 75.3 percent of men are literate, compared with only 53.7 percent of women. The factors that produce this discrepancy are related to those that produce the sex gap in basic life expectancy and health: women are thought to have fewer options in employment and politics, so from the family’s perspective it makes more sense to assign domestic labor to girls while sending boys to school. The prophecy is self-fulfilling, since illiteracy bars women from most employment and many political opportunities. Moreover, because a girl will soon leave her birth family and join another family through marriage, her parents have a smaller stake in her future.

Because education is such a crucial avenue of opportunity, the Indian Constitution was amended in 2002 to give primary and secondary education the status of an enforceable fundamental right. Recognizing that poor parents often keep children out of school because they need their labor to survive, the Supreme Court has ordered all schools to offer children a nutritious midday meal, thus giving poor parents an economic incentive that often outweighs the lost wages from their child’s labor during school hours. Vasanti missed this change, which might have made her both literate and physically bigger.

Meanwhile, at the national level, the Constitution was amended in 1992 to assign women one-third of the seats in local panchayats, or village councils. This system, like the midday meal, provides incentives for parents to educate daughters as well as sons, since one day they may well represent the interests of the family in local government. Again, this change came too late for Vasanti.

Because Vasanti has had no formal education, she is cut off from a full understanding of her nation’s history and its political and economic structure. She is also unable to enjoy poetry, novels or the many works of the imagination that would make her life richer and more fun. She is not, however, cut off from music and dance, and SEWA makes valuable use of these media in educating women like Vasanti.

A key issue in Vasanti’s story is domestic violence. That complex story, in turn, involves social and governmental choices in many areas. Her husband’s alcoholism clearly fueled his violence. Several Indian states have adopted prohibition laws for this reason. This hasn’t proved to be a very effective remedy: more helpful would have been educational programs about alcohol and drugs and high-quality treatment and therapy, none of which were provided by state government to Gujarat’s poor population. By contrast, it was state action rather than inaction that explains her husband’s vasectomy: bribing poor people to have vasectomies is not a great means of population control for many reasons, not the least of which is that it robs women of choice. As for the violence, Vasanti received no help from the police, a consequence of weak law enforcement and bad police training. So her bodily integrity and health were constantly at risk, and her dignity was violated.

When we think about domestic violence we have to think about exit options and bargaining power in the marriage. When a woman can leave, she doesn’t have to endure being beaten. And when the husband knows she can leave because she has employment opportunities or control over property, she is at least somewhat less likely to be beaten. A compassionate birth family also offers exit options. Vasanti’s family was unusual in that they gave her the chance to leave her husband with dignity, and even to take up employment. Nonetheless, the difficulty of getting a divorce—the legal system is slow and notoriously corrupt—made it hard for her to stand fully on her own.

The SEWA loan changed that picture. The organization gave Vasanti a source of support not tied to her status as a dependent; the money was hers to use even if she displeased her brothers. This independence enhanced her self-respect and capacity for choice.

The toll that domestic violence takes on physical health is enormous, but its effect on emotional health is equally devastating. Women in Vasanti’s position usually suffer greatly from fear and the inhibition of anger. They often lack any true pleasure in love and sexual expression. The conditions that made it possible for Vasanti to leave her husband also improved her emotional health, as did her good relationship with her brothers. The SEWA loan opened still more doors to happiness: Vasanti clearly enjoys her friendship with Kokila and the experience of being respected and treated as an equal within a group of women.

Vasanti is active in one area of politics, as she and Kokila work to diminish domestic violence. We might ask, though, whether she knows her rights as a citizen, whether she is a voter, whether she knows anything about how to use the legal system. The panchayat system has done a great deal to enhance women’s political engagement and knowledge, and India’s poor in general have an extremely high level of participation in elections, so Vasanti probably has at least some understanding of the political system. In the absence of literacy and formal schooling, however, her ability to inform herself further is limited. Studies of the panchayats have shown that illiterate women have a hard time participating in public affairs and gaining respect.

SEWA focuses on a very basic theme that runs through all these issues: the ability of women to control and plan their own lives. SEWA teaches women that they are not merely passive, not objects to be pushed around by others or pawns or servants of others: they can make choices; they can plan their futures. This is a heady new idea for women brought up to think of themselves as dependents with no autonomy. In Vasanti’s case, choice and independence were, indeed, the main difference between the SEWA loan and the loan from her brothers. The pleasure in this newfound status as a decision-maker seemed to pervade her relationship with Kokila (a chosen friend, perhaps her first chosen friend) as well as her dealings with the women’s group.

In thinking about play and fun, I wondered if Vasanti was interested in meeting some nice men and perhaps marrying again, once her divorce was final. One of the most striking aspects of the Indian women’s movement has been the virtual absence of Western romantic notions. Women who have endured an unhappy marriage rarely express interest in seeking another spouse. They want to be able to live without a man, and they love the fact that one of SEWA’s central ideals is the Gandhian notion of self-sufficiency. The thought is that just as India could not win self-respect and freedom without achieving self-sufficiency with regard to its colonial master, so women cannot have self-respect and freedom without extricating themselves from dependence on their colonial masters, namely, men.

We might wonder whether such women (who are often homophobic and thus unlikely to be involved in lesbian relationships) are deprived of one of life’s great pleasures. When they talk of Western notions of romance and express a preference for solidarity with a group of women, however, we are reminded that one way of life (in this case, as part of a romantic couple, whether opposite or same-sex) is not necessarily best for women everywhere.

Some of us, at least, might want to ask about Vasanti’s relationship to the environment around her. Is it polluted? Is it dangerous? Many women’s movements are ecologically oriented; SEWA is not. Nor does the state in which Vasanti lives do much on such issues. Chances are, then, that Vasanti has no opportunity to be productively involved in environmental thinking, and her health may be at risk from environmental degradation.

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These are at least some of the aspects of Vasanti’s situation that a concerned onlooker or reader, knowledgeable about her social context, would consider. Most of these issues are recognized as salient by SEWA and those close to Vasanti. A decent public policy can influence all aspects of her experience. It makes sense for an approach to “development,” which means making things better, to focus on how Vasanti’s opportunities and freedoms to choose and act are affected by the variety of policies available for consideration.

Unfortunately, the dominant theoretical approaches in development economics, approaches used all over the world, are not allies of Vasanti’s struggle. They do not “read” her situation the way a local activist or a concerned observer might. Nor, indeed, do they read it in a way that would make sense to Vasanti. They equate doing well (for a state or a nation) with an increase in GDP per capita. In other words, Gujarat is pursuing the right policies if and only if its economy is growing, and it should be compared with other Indian states simply by looking at GDP per capita.

What does that figure, however glorious, mean to Vasanti? It doesn’t reach her life, and it doesn’t solve her problems. Somewhere in Gujarat is increased wealth deriving from foreign investment, but she doesn’t have it. To her, hearing that GDP per capita has increased nicely is like being told that somewhere in Gujarat there is a beautiful painting, only she can’t look at it.

Increased wealth is a good thing in that it might have allowed the government to adopt policies that would have made a difference to Vasanti. That, however, has not happened, and we should not be surprised. In general, the benefits of increased wealth resulting from foreign investment go in the first instance to local elites, and this is not simply because GDP is an average figure, neglecting distribution: as the Sarkozy Commission report shows, profits from foreign investment frequently do not raise average household income [for more on the Sarkozy Commission, see “Beyond GDP,” by Eyal Press, page 24]. The benefits of this increased wealth do not reach the poor, unless those local elites are committed to policies of redistribution of wealth; and they particularly do not reach poor women.

The standard approach, then, does not direct our attention to the reasons for Vasanti’s inability to enjoy the fruits of her region’s general prosperity. Indeed, it distracts attention from her problems by suggesting that the right way to improve the quality of life in Gujarat is to shoot for economic growth alone.

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Most nations, operating domestically, have understood that respect for people requires a richer and more complicated account of national priorities than that provided by GDP alone. On the whole, they have offered a more adequate account in their constitutions and other founding documents. But the theories that dominate policy-making in the new global order have yet to attain the respectful complexity embodied in good constitutions; and these theories, defective as they are, have enormous power. Unfortunately, they greatly influence not just international bodies but also the domestic priorities of nations—and many nations today are pursuing economic growth in ways that shortchange other commitments they have made to their people. The use of incomplete theories is only part of the story behind this narrowness of focus, but it is a part that can be and is being resourcefully addressed.

A new theoretical paradigm known as the Capabilities Approach is evolving. Unlike the dominant approaches, it begins with a commitment to the equal dignity of all people, whatever their class, religion, caste, race or gender, and it is committed to the attainment, for all, of lives that are worthy of that equal dignity. Both a comparative account of the quality of life and a theory of basic social justice, it remedies the major deficiencies of the dominant approaches. It is sensitive to distribution, focusing particularly on the struggles of traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. It is sensitive to the complexity and the qualitative diversity of the goals that people pursue. Rather than trying to squeeze all these diverse goals into a single box, it carefully examines the relationships among them, thinking about how they support and complement one another. It also takes into account that people may need different quantities of resources if they are to come up to the same level of ability to choose and act, particularly if they begin from different social positions.

For all these reasons, the Capabilities Approach is attracting attention, all over the world, as an alternative to dominant approaches in development economics and public policy. It is also attracting attention as an approach to basic social justice, within and between nations—in some ways agreeing with other philosophical theories of social justice, in some ways departing from them—for example, by giving greater support to the struggles of people with disabilities than a social contract model seems to permit.

Our world needs more critical thinking and more respectful argument. The distressingly common practice of arguing by sound bite urgently needs to be replaced by a mode of public discourse that is more respectful of our equal human dignity. The Capabilities Approach is offered as a contribution to national and international debate, not as a dogma that must be swallowed whole. It is laid out to be pondered, digested, compared with other approaches—and then, if it stands the test of argument, to be adopted and put into practice.