Essays on gender issues
A wonderful compilation of Amartya Sen's work
CAPABILITIES, FREEDOM, AND EQUALITY Amartya Sen's Work from a Gender Perspective: Bina Agarwal, Jane Humphries, and Ingrid Robeyns Editors; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.
What makes Amartya Sen so unique is that to him, something unpleasant or impossible `invites engagement, rather than resignation.' He has engaged with difficult personal experiences to formulate theoretical concepts that explain these events or circumstances to the rest of us. His agony as a child, during the Bengal famine, led him to think of distributional issues and people's entitlement to goods. The tragedy of Partition led him to think about identity; and having to manage a home gave him a greater appreciation of women's work.
This book is a valuable collection of articles, based on Amartya Sen's concepts and ideas, applied mainly to gender issues. Sen and others, including Bina Agarwal, Jane Humphries, Ingrid Robeyns, and Martha Nussbaum, participated in a workshop, in September 2002, at All Souls College, Oxford, where they discussed and critiqued his work.
The book includes some of Sen's seminal writings on capability, freedom, and agency. Other contributors have written on topics such as the application of the capability approach in gender studies, programme evaluation, studying slavery, contraception, and the effect of globalisation on women's work.
Social Choice theory
Sen's major contribution to Social Choice theory is, arguably, his moving away from the utilitarianism of welfare economics, to the capability approach. This allowed for the rejection of perceived preferences as well as the Pareto criterion (where, even if a few persons were harmed by a change that could help many, the change would be considered inefficient) and acceptance of the validity of interpersonal comparisons. Thus, economists are finally free to believe that persons can be brainwashed into believing their lot is good, and that 10 rupees can mean less to a rich man than to a poor person, and depriving him of this to redistribute resources may not always be a bad idea.
Obvious as it may seem, defining development as the process of improving human lives is not something we have always done. Policy makers have, in the past, looked at aggregates of incomes and assets, ignoring the severe inter- and intra-household disparities.
Amartya Sen's capability approach looks beyond monetary measures and offers a flexible framework for recording improvements, disparities, and potentials even within a family. Capabilities are what people are able `to do and to be' in leading a life even if they are not necessarily doing it. What persons actually do are their `functionings'. Capabilities are therefore potential functionings and not achievement or outcome. The capability framework sees well-being as a combination of `functionings' that include being well nourished, healthy, and educated as well as having choices, political freedom, and the ability to participate in community life.
The approach evaluates quality of life from an assessment of the capability to function meaningfully in that life. Take the case of a housewife who has the capability to seek and get a job outside her home but may not do so possibly because of her care-giving role, or her husband's objections. It is possible that given her `socially conditioned perception of harmony' if she were asked about her preferences in this regard her response would indicate a preference for status quo, thus concealing a rational assessment of her situation.
It is not uncommon for perceived preferences to have been adapted to the existing unequal situation which is viewed as legitimate. This is where the capability approach trumps the older approaches and helps to understand why women systematically prefer options different from that of men. Reservation for women in local elections may have given them an opportunity to function in a capacity that was not previously dreamed of.
The capability approach also helps explain why providing basic needs, like the erstwhile Soviet Union did, need not be considered development. People need the freedom to make choices regarding their own lives. Agency, or the ability to set and pursue one's own goals and interests, is sometimes more important than just having needs met. A person may choose to be a starving artist rather than a well-off banker. (Gauguin is not on my mind).
But collective agency is important as well. As Fukuda-Parr says, "The fact that progress in equal rights for women has come about largely through the efforts of women has highlighted the essential role of collective agency in human progress." In the context of the recent turmoil on reservations, it is important to see how best the restrictive agency of caste can be neutralised.
One hopes that Amartya Sen's perception of `development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy' is understood by our politicians. Life in India is so bound by our unfreedoms, such as lack of educational facilities, healthcare, infrastructure, and congestion that one hopes the powers-that-be realise how our unprivileged lives are eroded, and our capabilities stymied by the system. This book is a wonderful compilation of Amartya Sen's work. A must have for every library.
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