Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Human Development and Capability Association, 2012 Annual Conference in Jakarta

I end my long hiatus with the following brief description of this year’s HDCA conference.

Development studies have come a long way since the decades of overt paternalism and condescension toward developing countries (or at least I’d like to think they have).  Particularly after decades of watching millions of dollars in aid money siphoned off to corrupt leaders and their cronies, many would-be altruists have re-aligned their partnerships with grassroots organizations and community activists.  Development is not solely conceived in economic or healthcare terms now, but instead evokes a range of capacities under the umbrella of human empowerment.

The Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) is dedicated to formulating a new philosophical, methodological, and political framework for conducting development work and study.  Whereas the human rights approach, for example, emphasizes the necessity of maintaining the basic infrastructure of life (i.e. education, employment, healthcare), the Capabilities Approach focuses on the human functioning that this infrastructure enables (i.e. autonomous decision-making and problem-solving, a meaningful livelihood, etc.).

Amartya Sen in his groundbreaking 1999 book Development as Freedom conceived of a capability-oriented approach in which successful development initiatives serve to increase the variety of wholesome lifestyle possibilities of individuals in society.  By contrast, underdeveloped societies have only a narrow range of possibilities available to people, and most are narrowly concerned with the day-to-day struggle for survival.

Martha Nussbaum, through successive publications of increasingly refined argumentation, has set herself the philosopher’s task of defining the essential components of human functioning, or human capabilities.  Without any explication, I will list her 10 capabilities below; I suggest those interested consult her 2011 book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach.

1. Life

2. Bodily Health

3. Bodily Integrity

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought

5. Emotions

6. Practical Reason

7. Affiliation

8. Other Species

9. Play

10. Control Over One’s Environment

With this in mind, I could identify at least three different strains of activity and thought present at the 2012 HDCA conference.  Some presentations centered around philosophical issues of the Capability Approach, others around quantitative studies of indicators related to human functioning, and still others about policy initiatives in different countries (e.g. Indonesia and Colombia).

I don’t really feel qualified to evaluate most of the social scientific presentations I witnessed at the conference.  Suffice it to say, the “structural equation model” was a running methodological theme throughout, and a few scholars present identified this technique as important in bridging the gap between traditional welfare economics/econometrics and the Capabilities Approach.

Philosophical thinking doesn’t come easily to many, and indeed quite a few presentations I witnessed degenerated into empty platitudes.  “Democracy may be an intrinsic good, but people need to engage with it,” and “A free press is important for developing societies,” are among numerous examples of such empty talk.  Sure, 200 years ago I would have been on the edge of my seat…

Among the highlights of the philosophical crowd at HDCA 2012, Martha Nussbaum depicted the utopian and education-oriented views of Auguste Comte, Rabindranath Tagore, and Amita Sen.  First, Comte‘s work dealt with the problem of selfishness by erecting a philosopher’s kingdom of compulsory worship in a religion of humanity.  Tagore revisited this humanistic religious ideal, but dispatched with the hierarchical and discriminatory aspects of Comte’s 19th century sensibilities.  The result culminates in the Bengali scholar’s progressive schools, of which Amita Sen was a product and champion.

I also witnessed an impressive talk by Dr. Sridhar Venkatapuram regarding his work to re-conceptualize the meaning of health and healthcare to something of positive value, rather than merely the absence of disease and its pursuit.  In the question and answer portion of this discussion, a conference attendee studying in Japan raised the question of who is ultimately responsible for human health, nations or individuals themselves?  In Japan, he said, individuals take on the responsibility for their physical well-being; individuals, it might be argued, have a personal duty in this respect.  Venkatapuram responded with polite but categorical disagreement.  I invite you to consider his points: Personal responsibility for physical wellbeing may be a luxury of the rich with plentiful access to good information.  Can we expect a starving family to bear the responsibility of their health?  A trafficked refugee?

Finally, Frances Stewart of Oxford University also gave a powerful presentation regarding the unsuitability of happiness as an indicator of human development.  Indeed, the subjective, adaptive, and differentiated (e.g. hedonistic happiness versus meaningful, or evaluative happiness) nature of happiness makes it a cumbersome unit of analysis.  Even Bhutan’s famous “gross national happiness” index calculates this figure amidst a complex of other, more quantifiable indicators that ultimately lessens the importance of this emotion in the country’s development practice.

Thus concludes some of my notes on this year’s conference.  Your comments and questions are much appreciated.

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