Otto, Walker and Ziegler (eds), Capability-promoting Policies

Hans-Uwe Otto, Melanie Walker and Holger Ziegler (eds), Capability-promoting Policies: Enhancing individual and social development, Policy Press, xiii + 317 pp, 1 4473 3431 6, hbk, £90

‘Opportunities to flourish’ is what the Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities’ approach to human development is all about. So, the question that this book sets out to answer is this: What are the policies that will facilitate multidimensional flourishing?

The book’s introduction recognises that human development requires an income and various public services: but, also, that these are not sufficient conditions for human flourishing, and that enhancing people’s opportunities is the end in view. (Economic growth is also assumed to be a requirement, which of course it isn’t.) So, the book aims

to outline a new approach towards more socially balanced and innovative capability-promoting policy activities, models and programmes that reduce social and human suffering and have the potential to lead to more inclusive societies that make life worthwhile, and thus to their more emancipatory transformation. (p. 7)

The criterion by which public policy should be judged is whether or not it enhances people’s capabilities and therefore their freedom.

The first part of the book tackles conceptual challenges. Reiko Gotoh suggests that Sen’s capabilities approach and Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ theory of justice between them require that equality should be a normative criterion when public policy is designed. Klein and Ballon insist that the individual’s ability to make decisions is an essential element of the capabilities approach, and that the means by which policy is made and carried out are as important as the ends. And Indira Mahendravada includes community empowerment, and especially the empowerment of women, as policy goals. The final chapter of the section is a case study of central American development plans evaluated in the light of a capabilities approach.

The second part of the book employs case studies to ask how institutional structures and civil society might serve a capabilities human development approach. A study of Buenos Aires finds that culture and religion enable residents of informal settlements to be active agents in making their lives more fulfilling; research on New York finds that the diverse cultural characteristics of different neighbourhoods can be as important as public policy; research in Italy discovers persistent inequality, and young people to be particularly vulnerable; and research in South Africa finds informal workers to be lacking in opportunities and capabilities. A common theme is the importance of policy that enhances people’s ability to ‘make choices that will improve their social and economic status, and that … the choices that disadvantaged participants are able to make will help them to live lives of value’ (p. 175).

The third section of the book is all about children, young people, and education. In the context of child protection in the UK, ‘what is required is a paradigm shift from a narrow focus on risk … to one that fundamentally aims to promote the wellbeing of children and their families’ (p. 195). In Australia, a concentration on adult employment market participation is found to restrict children’s capabilities. A chapter on educational institutions asks that education should be focused on enhancing pupils’ capabilities, and that schooling should be inclusive rather than segregated; another chapter asks for a capability-promoting curriculum in early years education; and another asks that education for children with special needs should be capability-enhancing in practice and not just in theory. The final chapter in this section emphasises education’s independent moral relevance, apart from any connections with other dimensions of human development.

No book can do everything, and it would be unfair to suggest that this book should have included explorations of how a capabilities approach to development might relate to housing policy, social security systems, healthcare, and so on. A concentration on one particular policy field – in this case education – can be useful. However, it does raise the question as to what this book would have looked like if the policy field chosen had been income maintenance. What would a capabilities approach to human development require of tax and benefits systems? What kinds of social security benefits would most enhance individuals’ and communities’ capabilities, and their ability to make choices? Probably unconditional benefits rather than means-tested or social insurance benefits: but we would need to see the book before we could draw that conclusion. In the meantime, this well-researched volume can function as a model for any author who might wish to research capabilities-enhancing policies in other social policy fields.