Module 1: How Should Poverty Be Perceived?

Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, writes in his book Development as Freedom that despite notable advances in the economic sphere, incorporation of human rights and political liberty into “the prevailing rhetoric,” and the increasing interconnectedness of even the globe’s most disparate parts, the world still has a long way to go before poverty, in all its forms, is alleviated.(1)

“[W]e … live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violation of elementary political freedoms as well as basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and t the sustainability of our economic and social lives.”(2)

In addressing these overwhelming realities, Sen implores us to recognize “the role of freedoms of different kinds in countering these afflictions.” He goes further to say that while “individual agency is, ultimately, central to addressing these deprivations … the freedom of agency that we individually have is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us.”(3) Whenever these social influences hamper development, “unfreedoms” leave people “little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”(4) In summary, as the title of his book suggests, the “[e]xpansion of freedom is viewed … both as the primary end and as the principal means of development.”(5) But when complex local realities confine individual choice, the hope of emancipation from poverty is smothered.

Sen vehemently states in his chapter “Poverty as Capability Deprivation” that while low income “is a strong predisposing condition for an impoverished life,” poverty cannot be simply reduced to a narrow composite of welfare measures and threshold poverty lines.(6) Instead, a capability perspective—one that shifts the focus away from means (income) and toward the ends “that people have reason to pursue,” as well as “the freedoms … able to satisfy these ends”—allows for a much “more illuminating picture” of the factors that enrich and constrain local life.(7), (8)

“Empirically, the relationship between income inequality and inequality in other relevant spaces can be rather distant and contingent because of various economic influences other than income that affect inequalities in individual advantages and substantive freedoms. For example, in the higher mortality rates of African Americans vis-à-vis the much poorer Chinese, or Indians in Kerala, we see the influence of factors that run in the opposite direction to income inequality, and that involve public policy issues with strong economic components: the financing of health care and insurance, provision of public education, arrangements for local security and so on.”(9)

Martha C. Nussbaum, a colleague of Sen’s, has also contributed much to the understanding of poverty as capability deprivation. In her book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Nussbaum discusses the “acute failure of central human capabilities” that results “[w]hen poverty combines with gender inequality.”(10) She defines these central human functional capabilities as the “decent social minimum” of capability allocation.(11) The following list constitutes Nussbaum’s interpretation of the capabilities necessary to a free and fulfilling life, as well as further rationalization and clarification as to why such capabilities are so crucial.

  1. “Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.”
  2. “Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.”
  3. “Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign, i.e. being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.”
  4. “Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education … Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise.”
  5. “Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves … in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear and anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect.”
  6. “Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.
  7. “Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction … to have the capability for both justice and friendship … having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails, at a minimum, protections against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin.”
  8. “Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.”
  9. “Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.”
  10. “Control Over One’s Environment. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life … Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), not just formally but in terms of real opportunity.”(12)

Read this article from The Washington Post on child brides in Yemen and see if you can identify instances in which the girls in the mini-biographies are deprived of these central human functional capabilities. What are the social forces that contribute to such deprivations? In what ways are their choices restricted by the cultural predilections of wider society?

While Sen contends that catalyzing capability should empower the individual to choose to “lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value,” Nussbaum further analyzes this concept of “choice”—whether an individual’s preferences can ever truly be useful in determining social choice.(13) Nussbaum suggests that in articulating women’s preferences, it is imperative to understand that oftentimes women’s “desires” are not the result of conscious, deliberate, well-informed inclinations, but rather an internalization of societal injunction.(14) Women’s conceptualization of new realities involves “coming to see themselves as in a bad situation, and coming to see themselves as citizens who (have) a right to a better situation.”(15) To apply this framework to the Yemeni child bride article, consider the following questions as they relate to the case of Fathia Ahmed, the woman who is depicted as jubilant when her fertility therapy yields pregnancy.

Those involved in development work can learn much from Sen and Nussbaum’s writings on capability deprivation, and how it relates to poverty and compromised freedom. By identifying the areas where poverty of capabilities exists, one can, according to the claims of Sen and Nussbaum, develop a clearer picture of the work that needs to be done to generate more opportunity for individuals to exercise self-determination.

Go To Module 2: What Are The Contributing Factors To Poverty's Pervasiveness? >>


(1) Sen, A. Development as Freedom. (Oxford University Press, 2001): xi.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid, xi-xii.

(4) Ibid, xii.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid, 87.

(7) Ibid, 90.

(8) Ibid, 99.

(9) Ibid, 108.

(10) Nussbaum, M. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. (Cambridge University Press, 2001): 3.

(11) Ibid, 75.

(12) Ibid, 78-80.

(13) Sen (2001), 87.

(14) Nussbaum (2001), 112.

(15) Ibid, 140.