Human Capabilities and Development Conference

Human Development can be measured in economic terms but this raises important questions – who provided the data and what is being measured? More significantly, what is not being measured?
Dean Fadi Asrawi of Haigazian University’s Faculty of Business Administration and Cyra and Donald Goertzen of HU’s Center for Economic Justice (formal launching set for later this academic year) attended the annual conference of the Human Development and Capabilities Association in the Hague, the Netherland, September 5-9.
One of the characteristics of the Capabilities Approach (CA) to human development is that it measures the “freedoms” that people may exercise in any given society while recognizing that the freedoms that might be valued will vary from one individual to another.
“Considered radical or even eccentric a few decades ago, CA has become one of the dominant approaches to measuring human development,” says Donald Goertzen of the Center for Economic Justice. “It is favored by most development nongovernmental organizations and is one of the categories that even very powerful institutions such as the World Bank will use to determine the impact of the projects it funds. There is a general consensus that Gross Domestic Product and other more traditional indices simply don’t provide a very accurate picture of what is going on in a particular community or society.”
Two of the recognized pioneers of the CA approach are Martha Nussbaum and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. The latter received the Nobel Prize Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 for his contributions to Welfare Economics and Social Choice Theory. Nussbaum was one of the conference speakers and Sen was the official respondent to keynote speaker Tony Atkinson who spoke at the conference opening the evening of September 5.
The trio from Haigazian attended numerous presentations and panel discussions during the three-day event, taking in some together and some separately, depending on individual interest.
Notable presentations included one by a panel from the United Nations Development Program on the occasion of the release of its annual Human Development Report. A respondent noted from the report that there continues to be widespread lack of awareness about the challenges posed by climate change and governments – which generally are aware of the climate change threat – are painfully slow to act.
Somewhat unusual was a report at the end of the conference by a panel of World Bank researchers on the “middle class.” While “the poor” have been the subjects of millions of reports since the U.N.’s founding sixty years ago, the middle class has rarely been the subjects of research. It was suggested that the push for democratization and social change most typically comes from the middle class.
Most of the presentations were given by graduate students in development studies and other fields, while some were made by development practitioners and representatives of multilateral agencies.
“This was a unique opportunity to meet people who are really giants in their fields,” Dean Asrawi noted. “We should consider presenting at next year’s meeting.” The conference meets annually and next year it is set for Jakarta, Indonesia.
Another aspect of Capabilities Approach is that it is not a justice theory and it eschews any grand theory of justice. Rather, it emphasizes incremental approaches to increasing human freedom. Sen noted in his response to Atkinson that if a person is assured by his or her government of basic health care, he or she will be free to make a different set of life choices.
In this respect, a CA approach might be particularly appropriate to a discussion of economic justice in a country such as Lebanon where people’s expectation of government is not high, Goertzen suggests. Rather than fretting too much about what government fails to do, we can consider the smaller approaches that might make government and other stakeholders more responsive.
Funding for Asrawi and the Goertzens to attend the conference was provided by the Mennonite Central Committee’s small grant facility. The MCC is a partner with Haigazian University in the development of the Center for Economic Justice.