Empowerment and capacity building – refreshing insights

It is refreshing to read Christine Lagarde’s recent speech to the London School of Economics – the Amartya Sen lecture as a counter to the unending negative assessments which have emerged since the 2014 Federal Budget.

What a different mindset this represents to that of the Australian government’s constricted outlook and discourse – as reflected in its public policies – and the budget.

Lagarde engages with some of Amartya  Sen’s fundamental ideas about the potential for human life. Sen’s original blunt question about equality was: equality of what?  Notions of social disadvantage are heavily influenced by anxieties about economic inequalities, but Sen suggests that there is such immense diversity amongst human beings that chartering a mission to achieve economic equality will still result in inequalities between people.  A better approach to equality, he argues :

  • involves judging individual advantage by the freedom to achieve, incorporating (but going beyond) actual achievements…The ‘capability approach’ builds on a general concern with freedoms to achieve (Sen, 1992, p. 129)

The capability approach is characterised in Martha Nussbaum’s account of Sen’s ideas  as focussing on what people are actually able to do and to be. These ideas are captured in the United Nations statement about human development:

  • People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means —if a very important one —of enlarging people’s choices. Fundamental to enlarging these choices is building human capabilities —the range of things that people can do or be in life (United Nations, 2010).

Lagarde however believes that economic inequality profoundly affects capability – and the freedom to achieve. So in effect she marries Sen’s concept of capability to solid arguments for the need to reduce inequality.

She calls for three levels of empowerment that are needed to foster both higher levels of human capability and to create greater equality.

1. Empowerment of individuals  –  the need to tackle income disparities and gender disparities.

2. Empowerment of institutions –  the need to build institutions founded on the principles of accountability, transparency, and impartiality.

3. Empowerment of multilateralism – working together at a global level for the common good of all humanity.

The speech represents a bold and inspiring vision for human development.



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