The author is a candidate of PhD for economics of the University of the Philippines. She developed this two-part article for the Asia Gender and Trade Network Literacy Packet.

” Women all over the world have lacked support for central human
functions, and that lack of support is to some extent caused by their
being women. But women, like men – and unlike rocks and trees and even
horses and dogs – have the potential to become capable of these human
functions given sufficient nutrition, education and other support. That
is why their unequal failure in capability is a problem of justice. It
is up to all human beings to solve this problem.” – Martha Nussbaum,

All over the world, women and men continue to be treated differently at
home, at work, and in society at large. Gender inequalities continue to
exist and are strongly correlated with poverty in developing countries.
As Martha Nussbaum puts it, “When poverty combines with gender
inequality, the result is acute failure of central human capabilities.”
This picture darkens further when we incorporate vulnerabilities. Poor
women with little or no access to social protection are helpless in the
face of health crises, economic crises and other risks. The belief that
development is a right to which all human beings are entitled makes
this failure unacceptable.

The capabilities approach, pioneered in economics by Nobel laureate
Amartya Sen and put into practice in the UNDP Human Development
Reports, is the core of Nussbaum’s theory of social justice and human
rights. Here we examine her version of capabilities, and determine how
this approach can inform policy issues in social protection.

Why do capabilities matter?

Human capabilities are what people are actually able “to do” and “to
be.” Also referred to as “substantial freedom” by Sen, capability is
the freedom “to choose a life one has reason to value.”

The capabilities approach is especially useful because it identifies
the dimension within which meaningful comparisons on quality of life
can be made among nations. Capabilities matter because ultimately,
income or resources (i.e. land and other assets) are worthless unless
they are used to promote human functioning – what individuals actually
do and are.

The UNDP uses this approach in constructing the Human Development
Index, a composite of indicators for longevity, health, knowledge and
standard of living. This idea departs from the traditional focus on
income as the primary indicator of deprivation. While income and
resources certainly have an effect on people’s capabilities, many other
factors (e.g. laws, gender relations, etc.) previously ignored are now

Another crucial divergence in this approach is the consideration of
persons individually, rather than collectively as families or
households. This feature is vital for women, because taking the
household as one often masks the dynamics within. This exposes
deprivations within the household arising from unequal distribution of
resources, opportunities and responsibilities among family members.

However, Nussbaum goes beyond the mere comparative use of capabilities.
She emphasizes that human abilities exert a moral claim to be
developed. These claims give rise to corresponding social and political
duties. She lists the central elements of truly human functioning – a
result of cross-cultural discussion and consensus. A minimum level of
each capability is defined, beneath which human functioning is not
available to citizens. Thus, the social goal may be understood in terms
of keeping citizens above this capacity threshold.

Also, the idea of a capability threshold provides a new appreciation
for care in society. Not only should society “arrange to provide care
for those in a condition of extreme dependency,” they must do so
“without exploiting women as they have traditionally been exploited,
and thus depriving them of basic capabilities.”

Nussbaum classifies capabilities into three types:

  1. Basic capabilities are the innate equipment of
    individuals that are the necessary basis for developing more advanced
    capabilities. For example, most infants have the basic capability for
    practical reason and imagination, though without a good deal more
    development and education they cannot use it.
  2. Internal capabilities are states of persons that are
    sufficient conditions for the exercise of the corresponding function.
    For example, most adult human beings have the internal capability for
    religious freedom and the freedom of speech.
  3. Combined capabilities are defined as internal
    capabilities plus the external conditions that make the exercise of a
    function a live option. For example, citizens of repressive
    nondemocratic regimes have the internal but not the combined capability
    to exercise thought and speech in accordance with their consciences.

Thus, the aim of public policy is the promotion of combined
capabilities. This requires both (1) the promotion of internal
capabilities (e.g. by education or training) and (2) the making
available of the external institutional and material conditions.

How does the “capabilities approach” change how we thing about social protection?

Social protection has been traditionally equated with income security.
It follows from the observation that various risks threaten incomes,
livelihoods, and by extension, threaten quality of lives. This is
primarily why social insurance or social security schemes have been the
general response of public policy. These schemes protect beneficiaries
against health risks, old age, disability, death and others.

On the other hand, the concept of social safety nets was developed much
later, when it was recognized that policy shifts in industrial policies
and trade policies displaced workers. Social safety nets are also
relevant in the context of natural calamities. Compared to the
mandatory nature of social security, social safety nets are short-term
measures intended only to assist during periods of adjustment.

What an individual is actually able to do or be, remains relevant in an
uncertain environment with risks. Our question may then be: “What is an
individual actually able to do or be in the face of such risks?”
Using the capabilities approach changes the traditional view towards
social protection in two significant ways. First, it changes the aim of
social protection. Risks threaten capabilities – not income or
resources. When income is insecure, this translates to insecurity in
capabilities. Insecurity in capabilities means that not all choices are
available to individuals when shocks occur.

By recognizing that capabilities rather than income ultimately matter,
it becomes clear that social protection must secure capabilities – not
merely incomes. The realm for social protection interventions is

Second, focusing on capabilities makes visible the capability
deprivation that accompanies the “household-coping mechanisms” that the
poor often resort to in the event of shocks. Often, risk reduction
measures are presented as substitutes – each is as good as another as
long as the purpose of mitigating the impact of the risk when it occurs
is served. While it is often implied that public or private provision
of social protection measures are preferred over household or informal
measures, it is not clear why. The capabilities approach lends clarity
to this bias.

What a person is able to do changes when faced with a crisis. Consider
a woman whose husband falls seriously ill and can no longer work.
Suppose this is a family where each member is at the threshold of
minimum capabilities. What would it take to keep each family member at
that threshold even after the crisis has occurred? If it exists, that
option would perfectly “insure” their capabilities.

Suppose that he is adequately covered by social security. His wife is
able to claim benefits to pay for his medical treatment as well as a
partial disability benefit to replace his income while he is unable to
work. When he recovers, all is well.

But what if there was no social security to fall back on? The family
will have to use up its savings, sell its assets, or borrow from
relatives, friends and neighbors to pay for the medical expense and
replace the lost income. The wife will look for better work
opportunities. She may migrate if there are no opportunities in her
locality. The children might stop schooling and work as well. The
entire family would reduce their consumption to the barest minimum.

Note, however, that the woman also remains the keeper of the house. She
continues with the chores, taking care of the children and her sick
husband. She acts as the default provider of social protection for her
husband and her children, assuming there are no health care or
unemployment benefits elsewhere. When her husband recovers, all may be
well again, but at what cost and whose expense? Clearly, from the
capabilities perspective, this woman is deprived of certain freedoms
because of her socially ascribed role as the family’s default provider
of social protection.

Capabilities perspective

The presence of risks and shocks should not prevent women and men from
living lives they value. Ideally, social protection should work such
that the minimum level of capabilities remains intact with or without
any shock. While people may have internal capabilities “to do” and “to
be,” they may not be free to use them when faced with a crisis. The
availability and accessibility of social protection programs may then
be seen as part of the institutional environment, which public policy
must promote, to create combined capabilities.

Social protection systems exist in both developed and developing
countries. However, existing programs are deficient on two important
points: First, existing social protection schemes are inaccessible to
most women. The most common form of social protection is
employment-based, mandatory social security. Women working in the
informal sector are automatically excluded from this scheme. In
contributory schemes where benefits are tied to wages, women who
receive lower wages compared to their male counterparts are likewise
entitled to lower benefits.

Second, inadequate attention has been given to policy-induced risks
such as trade reform or structural adjustment policies. Policy shifts
as a source of risks are unique because governments have the advantage
of knowing what changes will occur, who the affected sectors are, and
when this change will take place. In Asia, however, hardly any social
safety nets were put in place for trade adjustment. Even where safety
nets were introduced, most of the beneficiaries were men.

The capabilities approach has shown how women typically bear more than
their share of risks in the household. At the same time, gender biases
limit their access to alternative means of social protection. The
capabilities perspective in designing social protection policy demands
that women be central to any intervention.

However, this is not as simple as merely targeting vulnerable women.
One practical drawback in using the capabilities approach is the
challenge of measuring capabilities. To effectively target the most
vulnerable members of society, one must determine their capability
level. Household summary information is insufficient because it can
mask intra-household deprivations. Other information problems exist,
such as the difficulty of tracking down women in the informal sector.
Information search can be costly, especially when social capital is
weak. Also, as default providers of social protection, women’s
capabilities are rendered insecure not only by risks they themselves
are exposed to, but also by those risks their families face. Targeting
women alone cannot completely address those insecurities.

Ironically, women stand to benefit most from universal social
protection programs, rather than narrow targeted schemes. For the
Philippines, this poses a fiscal dilemma. However, it must be
emphasized that if the goal of society is to guarantee a minimum level
of human functioning for each individual, ensuring that social
protection programs are available to all who need them is not an
option, but an obligation.