Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach To Poverty

Traditionally, poverty has been defined by an individual’s level of income. For instance, poverty is measured on a scale, with the most extreme form of poverty being measured as those who live on $1.25 per day or less. In response to this, development programs have always been centred on job creation, GDP growth and other economic policies that could be measured through changes in income. 

There are many disadvantages in viewing poverty purely as an issue of economic development. One only needs to look at many authoritarian states around the world. Singapore boasts a GDP per capita of $52, 052 but there are still many in the country who struggle to make a living, and those who live in poverty. Not all in the country can enjoy the opportunities of our sterling education system – meritocracy only works to favour those whose parents are well connected and rich enough to send their children to elite schools like Raffles, Anglo-Chinese School or other Methodist schools. Others are left behind and unable to climb up the socio-economic ladder as they are unable to fund for their children to go for extra tuition after schools or to afford textbooks to keep pace with those who can afford them.

In today’s world of grave inequalities even in the most richest of nations, there is a strong need to see poverty as not merely an issue of access to income, education, health and other aspects of life which those in the developed world are fortunate enough to have. A better approach is to see poverty as what Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen describes as the deprivation of a person’s capabilities to live the life they have reason to value. 

Accoriding to Sen’s capabilities approach, development should focus on maximising what an individual can choose to achieve in life such as the ability to choose the many different cultural values and practices to adopt etc. This will ultimately affect the individual’s well-being which is defined as the actual enjoyment of the individual’s choices deriving from the range of options available to them. Therefore, unlike utilitarianism and libertarianism, the capability and well-being approach look at the range of options available for the individual to choose from and the freedom to exercise that choice. 

Once looked in this way, our approach to poverty will be holistic and far-ranging. It will look at not just economic measures but measures of human rights and access. As a guidance, Amartya Sen proposed that there are five general freedoms which underpinscapabilities, the derogation of which will give rise to deprivation or poverty:

  1. Political freedom including civil rights;
  2. Economic facilities which includes access to credit;
  3. Social opportunities which include arrangements for access to health care, education and other social services;
  4. Transparency in relations between people and between people and governments; and
  5. Protective security which includes social and economic safety nets such as unemployment benefits and famine and emergency relief.

Through this lens, poverty is no longer confined to the issue of income and education but rather looks at the idea of whether an individual is able to enjoy the full range of choices and then have the actual ability to realise the choice that the individual has made. In this lens, poverty is now seen as deprivation of choices available for an individual to live the life they have reason to value and also the deprivation of the individual’s abilities to exercise that choice.




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