Equality for what?

  • Purna Loksom

World leaders, in adopting the Millennium Declaration in 2000, pledged to create a more equitable world. Yet, economic inequality has increased in many countries over the last few decades, as the wealthiest individuals have become wealthier whereas the relative situation of people living in poverty has improved little. Disparities in various economic as social indicators Eg:  education, health, quality of life, income and other dimensions of human development remain large despite marked progress in reducing the gaps. Various social groups, especially indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and rural populations, suffer disproportionately from income poverty and inadequate access to quality services and, generally, disparities between these groups and the rest of the population have increased over time.

Purna Loksom

Every normative theory of social arrangement has raised the voice of equality from different corner. Though monetary indicators of equality are widespread, the nonmonetary dimension of inequality also taking place regarding human development and wellbeing. While concerning about the public prosperity, progress and development of human beings; general focused would be with the financial mater. The GDP, per capital income, GNI, Trade balance, Export, Import became the leading financial indicators of the world. However, the fare distribution, social justice, Inequality issues also taking adequate space in the global economy. Generally, the voice equality and measurement could be found on social development process of input, opportunity and output.

The critique of equality on normative grounds needs to begin by defining equality of what feature or equality in what space; for instance:  income, wealth, opportunity, rights, or well-being. Among the notable schooler perceived as favouring equality; John Rawls (Rawls, 1971) emphasised on primary goods, Ronald Dworkin (Dworkin, 1981)  on resources, Thomas Nagel (Nagel, 1986) on economic equality, and so on. The same is true of those perceived as being against equality. Robert Nozick (Nozick, 1974) , for example, instead of equality of well-being advocated for equality of libertarian rights. Because the differences are substantive, demands by one theory for equality along a dimension amount to a justify cation of inequality along some other dimension (A. Sen, 1992a).

(Rawls, 1971) Rawls has advocated the equality on the opportunities as well as outcomes.  In addition, further argues that distributional justice requires two principles to be met as “an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty.” And the social arrangements “to everyone’s advantage” and “attached to positions and offices open to all.” “Open to all” can be interpreted as relating to opportunities, whereas “everyone’s advantage” refers to outcomes. Clearly, in Rawls’s eyes, both are important, and equality of opportunities alone is not sufficient.

However, in contrast, Roemer  (Roemer, 1998) has focused more on the opportunities whereas recommended the case of compensating people for the disadvantages related to circumstances but tolerating the remaining inequality of outcomes.  Further conceptualised the attention of development economics toward equality of opportunities as often defined regarding access to basic services.

Equality may have an intrinsic value which very from one to another society, also would have instrumental value as well. Because of its effects on social organization and economic performance, inequality has tangible costs and benefits. On the benefits side, some degree of inequality in outcomes is needed to encourage people to be proactive as study, work, and save. On the costs side, entrenched inequality can undermine aspirations and lead to a psychological state of helplessness, so that incentives do not translate into behaviours. Excessive inequality can also get in the way of access to finance for the most deprived and result in missed investment opportunities. Deprivation can undermine social cohesion, nurturing violence and fostering conflict. The goal is not necessarily to reduce (or increase) inequality but to focus efforts on reducing bad forms of inequality. And even in this respect, the cost-benefit logic inherent to the positive approach needs to be kept in mind. Reducing bad forms of inequality, such as rent-seeking and discrimination, should be a government priority. But the overall cost of the instruments used to reduce inequality should not be higher than the expected benefits (Rama, Bteille, Li, Mitra, & Newman, 2014).

Capability theoretical framework

The capability approach is, and economic theory introduced by Prof Amartya Sen in 1980 as an alternative approach to welfare economic approach. It brings together a range of ideas that were previously excluded from (or inadequately formulated in) traditional approaches to the economics of welfare. The core focus of the capability approach is on the individuality as what individuals can do or capable of being. Sen brought on the discourse about the components in assessing capability as: the importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage, Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities. The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness, a balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare and concern for the distribution of opportunities within society. The idea of measuring well-being has been deeply rooted in measuring of utility and resources, but  (A. Sen, 1985) has taken as a misleading term. Rather well-being must be understood regarding peoples’ freedom and the choices that they make.

Aristotle’s understanding of human flourishing has been taken as the initial foundation of the capability approach especially from the corner of Nussbaum’s ideology. Aristotelian eudaimonia as a prototype to construct two criteria for the concept of human flourishing: (1) human flourishing is regarded as essentially worthwhile and (2) flourishing means ‘actualisation of human potential’. The second criterion has three sub-criteria: (2a) flourishing is about whole life, (2b) it is a ‘dynamic state’ and (2c) flourishing presupposes there being objective goods (Wolbert, De Ruyter, & Schinkel, 2015).

Economic inequality distorts people’s sympathies, leading them to admire and emulate the very rich and to neglect and even scorn the poor. Also, money can’t buy happiness but also that the pursuit of riches generally detracts from one’s happiness were some of them of the wealth of Nation written by Adam Smith (RASMUSSEN D.C., 2006). Accordingly, the initiator of the capability approach, Sen often cites Smith’s analysis of relative poverty in The Wealth of Nation regarding how a country’s wealth and different cultural norms affected which material goods were understood to be a ‘necessity’.

Also, Karl Marx has discussed the importance of functionings and capability for human well-being in his literature. Whereas, Sen cites Marx’s foundational concern with “replacing the domination of circumstances and chance over individuals by the domination of individuals over chance and circumstances”. Among the classical political economists, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx explicitly discussed the importance of functionings and the capability to function as determinants of well-being. Marx’s approach to the question was closely related to the Aristotelian analysis (and indeed was directly influenced by it. Indeed, an important part of Marx’s programme of reformulation of the foundations of political economy is related to seeing the success of human life regarding fulfilling the needed human activities (A. Sen, 2003).

The capabilities approach predominantly as a paradigm for policy debate which enables the new discourse in social justice, equality, discrimination. It influenced to develop the human development index (HDI) to economist Mahbub ul Haq for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The widespread HDI has given new horizon regarding human development which has given way to take into account health and education as well in addition to income. Furthermore, since the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association in the early 2000s, the approach has been much discussed by political theorists, philosophers, and a range of social scientists, including those with interest in human health.

The approach emphasizes functional capabilities (“substantive freedoms”, such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfilment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how humans function but also on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, “to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value”.[4] Everyone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.

This approach to human well-being emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional microeconomics consumer theory, although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility-based claims (see Sen 1979).


Resources Capabilities Functioning Utility
Bike Able to Ride Ride Around Being Happy
Food Able to Neutralize Food Neutralized Being Happy

Every Individual would have different abilities to change similar resources into the valuable functioning.  Sen’s Capability Approach recognises the fact that, people have different capabilities to translate goods and services for valuable achievements because of personal, social and locational arrangement in their lives. Every individual may not be able to convert the resources into valuable functioning.

Individuals can internalize the deprivation sometimes as they never expect to achieve the relevant sources. Simply adopt the deprivation as a given and a fact of life and may not take up the available option that they possess, while they have valuable options. There are many countries in the world whereas women are ground up on the concept of the household handler or just trained for being good housewife whereas the nearby school education may not motivate them. So, to persuade for the choices or resources, the certain conducive environment should be created via policy framework.

Every individual’s reality is complex and multidimensional hence every evaluation should acknowledge such complexity and consider its multidimensional aspect into its parameters. As per the one’s ground of reality person the level of thinking, choices and decision would be diverse. According to Sen, it is important to understand what people can be and do.  Despite high qualification, the person may not involve to the relevant task due to interest and certain situation and would be in lack of functioning. Such as some of the wealthy people may not be interested to use the engineer’s qualification for career and rather involve in parents’ business.

The Capability approach on the corner of quality of life and justice of social arrangements, the identification of the choices or capabilities are required for adequate life quality. Some one may evaluate the life as unhappy in the absence of Ferrari car whereas others would have a choice of family home or various other circumstances. The people are unable to spend time with their families because they have to work  many hours to get money for food would seem to have a first cause to complain of injustice.

The overall Capability of everyone is a product of the resources available to people plus their ability to convert the resource into a functioning, such as the ability to convert a bicycle into a means of transport or wages into adequate pension provision. Some authors denote this ability a conversion factor. Generally, the Conversion factors have three elements: personal, environmental and social. Thus, for a woman to convert food into adequate nutrition she needs to be: i) Personally well enough to absorb the nutrition; ii) Environmentally placed such that she can obtain the food without, say, having to cross a dangerous desert; and iii) In a social position where such things as norms, laws and power relations permit her to obtain and eat the food.

The complete Capability of the person is availability or resources and also the ability to convert the resources to the functioning. Such as the bicycle is a resource but required the ability to use as a mean of transport. The ability is described as a conversion factor as well. The chain of the conversion factor is generally classified as personal; environmental and social. Thus, in order, the women need enough absorption power to convert the food to adequate nutrition is the personal conversion factor.  Without any dangers of cross-desert or access to obtain the food is the matter of environmental conversion factor whereas the norms, law, permit and power to obtain the food is the concern of social conversion factor (Allmark & Machaczek, 2015).


To enable the Capability approach regarding the quality of life, justice of social arrangement; identify the choices or capabilities are important factors. The capability is the normative proposition whereas social arrangements should be addressed and evaluate via depth of freedom and the functioning on once value.  The progress, development or poverty reduction or equality of the person or society depends on the span of granted freedom, expanded capabilities (Alkire, 2003). A person’s capability to achieve functionings that he or she has reason to value provides a general approach to the evaluation of social arrangements, and this yields a particular way of viewing the assessment of equality and inequality (Sen, 1992). Also, Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy (A. (. K. Sen, 1999)

This proposition is fundamental to Sen’s capability approach as it is developed in both Inequality Re-examined and Development as Freedom which describes the objective of public action.

The capability approach is an alternate standpoint that of the others have proposed. Sen usually offers criticisms of these to clarify the noble contribution of the capability approach. For example, commonly held alternatives propose that the purpose of economic development is to generate economic growth, or to increase income per capita, or to maximize utility or psychic happiness. However, the capability approach addresses shortcomings of each of these approaches by focusing not on feelings which may diverge from an objective situation nor on means such as growth and income, which have varying ability to create valuable ends for different people.

The notable and prominent researchers such as Sen, Robeyns, Alkire and others have widely concluded the note as what people can do and to be is the Capability approach (M. C. Nussbaum, 2001a).  The various combinations of functioning (beings and doings) that the person can achieve.  [It] is, thus, a set of vectors of functioning, reflecting the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another…to to choose from possible livings (A. Sen, 2001). In general, the capability has classified on to the functioning (Valuable being or doing) and the freedom of opportunity, Capability.


Functioning is actions and states of being and doing, such as being healthy, nourished, safe or taking part in the group decision. ‘Functionings’ is a general term for the activities and states or situations people spontaneously recognise to be important; such as poise, knowledge, a warm friendship, an educated mind, a meaningful job. People have diverse values and experiences, so there is no rigid and inflexible set of high-priority functionings. The priorities must be set and re-set again and again in different ways whereas list could be outlined on the base of heterogenic circumstances of diversified people.

Freedom / Opportunity /Capability

Capabilities denote a person’s opportunity and ability to generate valuable outcomes, considering relevant personal characteristics and external factors. It sets outlined by this approach is not merely concerned with achievements; rather, freedom of choice, in and of itself, is of direct importance to a person’s quality of life. The various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the person can achieve. It is a set of vectors of functionings, reflecting the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another to choose from possible livings (A. Sen, 1992b). Person’s capability represents the effective freedom of an individual to choose between different functioning combinations – between different kinds of life – that she has reason to value. In later work, Sen refers to ‘capabilities’ in the plural (or even ‘freedoms’) instead of a single capability set, and this is also common in the wider capability literature. This allows analysis to focus on sets of functioning related to aspects of life, for example, the capabilities of literacy, health, or political freedom.

Capability approach and HDI in Nepal

On the base of the Capability approach, the 2016 Human Development Report (HDR) has given central concern to ensure the specific level of human development. It starts with an account of the hopes and challenges of today’s world, envisioning the destination of humanity. Vision for 2030 agenda with the 17 Goals, 169 Targets, 400 Indicators Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) been declared within 193-members states of the United Nations endorsed in 2015.

Human development progress over the past 25 years in Nepal has been impressive on many fronts. But the gains have not been universal. There are imbalances across countries; socioeconomic, ethnic and racial groups; urban and rural areas; and women and men. Millions of people are unable to reach their full potential in life because they suffer deprivations in multiple dimensions of human development.

Nepal’s HDI value for 2015 is 0.558 which put the country in the medium human development category positioning it at 144 out of 188 countries and territories. However, when the value is discounted for inequality, the HDI falls to 0.407, a loss of 27.0 per cent due to inequality in the distribution of the HDI dimension indices. Afghanistan and Sri Lanka show losses due to inequality of 31.8 per cent and 11.6 per cent respectively. The average loss due to inequality for medium HDI countries is 25.7 per cent, and for South Asia, it is 27.7 per cent. The Human inequality coefficient for Nepal is equal to 25.8 per cent.

Also, Nepal is below the average of 0.631 for countries in the medium human development group and below the average of 0.621 for countries in South Asia (UNDP, 2016).

The data shows that 28.6% of Nepal’s population is in multidimensionally poor which is in the path of gradual progress on the graph of history. Looking backwards, we find that ground-breaking and continuous progress has been made in reducing multidimensional poverty. According to strictly harmonised data, Nepal halved its MPI 2006–2014. The incidence of multidimensional poverty has gone down (using harmonised datasets) from 59% in 2006 to 39% in 2011 and 29% in 2014 (NPC – Nepal, 2018).


Conceptually, the MPI may reflect the concept of capability. Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen has argued that social evaluation should be based on the extent of the freedoms that people have to further the objectives that they value things like education, housing, health, and nutrition. Poverty in this framework becomes ‘capability failure’ people’s lack of the capabilities to enjoy key ‘beings and doings’ that are basic to human life. The concept is inherently multidimensional.

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