Poverty is more than lack of money, it’s lack of freedom

Written by Katharina Hammler, Methodology and Investigations

For a long time, poverty was mostly seen as a lack of money. Amartya Sen, an Indian philosopher and economist, and Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, started challenging this idea in the 1980s. They argued that we should be concerned with capabilities instead, that is, whether or not a person has the freedom to do the things she values. Their ideas have set the stage for a fertile new way of thinking about poverty, a perspective that has become known as the Capabilities Approach.

In a paper that was recently presented at the Human Development and Capabilities Association Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Juan Carlos Pane Solis, a doctoral researcher from the IDS, and I argue that the Capabilities Approach offers a rich basis for understanding how the Poverty Stoplight supports families in eliminating poverty.

The Capabilities Approach is at its core a people-centered approach for development. In the words of Robeyns, a prominent Capabilities scholar, it is “focused on what people can do and be (their capabilities) and on what they are actually achieving in terms of being and doing (their functionings)”.

What distinguishes this approach from other development theories is its inherently multidimensional perspective on poverty, and its focus on people’s abilities to do the things that they actually value. It does not focus on specific life choices (ex-post observed) or on the level of economic well-being that a person has. Specific life choices are a deficient way to judge someone’s well-being, as the circumstances under which those choices were made remain unknown even though the observable outcomes might be the same. For example, a devout Buddhist from a well-off family who decides to live on a sparse diet in a simple hut surely should be seen differently from a poor farmer in an equally simple hut on an equally sparse diet. The difference lies in the freedom and agency of the Buddhist to choose the life she values.

This implies that poverty can only be eliminated if families gain the agency to define what they value and to take the necessary steps to get there. While income poverty might be alleviated through cash transfer programs, eliminating capability poverty, or the lack of real freedom to live the life that someone might value, requires the empowerment of those living in poverty.

This will sound familiar to anyone who knows the Poverty Stoplight; the tool helps families analyze their multidimensional poverty, pick priorities for what they want to improve in their lives, and implement specific strategies to resolve the problems they have identified. Each one of these steps is essential for overcoming poverty from the perspective of the Capabilities Approach.

First, families have to gain consciousness of their situation; they have to able to see their reality not as the only possible way of life available to them. The Poverty Stoplight provides critical agency in the sense that it gives participants an opportunity to reflect, question, and assess their own situations as a prerequisite to act upon them to improve their lives. The “green” indicators of the Poverty Stoplight, designed to be locally relevant and relatable, help families change their frame of reference and aspire to a life out of poverty.

Second, the Poverty Stoplight helps participants define the priorities for their own lives based on what they value and have reason to value. Families are supported in the process of reflecting on their situation and determining life goals to aspire to. And third, as all indicators of the Poverty Stoplight are designed to be relatable, actionable and achievable, families can, indeed, become agents of change of their own lives; with the help of mentors, they work on strategies to mobilize resources or demand support to reach their goals. They are supported in making their voices heard.

This empowerment process is not merely an instrument to achieve increased income, or better education, or higher self-esteem. It is an indispensable prerequisite to truly and sustainably eliminate multidimensional poverty by increasing people’s capabilities to manifest better lives.