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Why Poverty? Let's Talk People's Development!

Updated on March 25, 2015

Development that perpetuates today’s inequalities is neither sustainable nor worth sustaining. - Human Development Report, 1996

What is Development?

“Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”Principle 1 of Stockholm Conference 1972

“People are the real wealth of nations. Indeed, the basic purpose of development is to enlarge human freedoms. The process of development can expand human capabilities by expanding the choices that people have to live full and creative lives. And people are both the beneficiaries of such development and the agents of the progress and change that bring it about.” – Human Development Report 2004 p 127

“The purpose of development is to enrich human lives, not richness of economy which is only a part of it.” – Amartya Sen, Nobel winner economist

People are both the means and the end of development. Therefore, development cannot be merely economic development (or GDP growth), no matter how important that may be. It must necessarily include all the activities that enhance people’s abilities and capabilities.

The Development Puzzle!
The Development Puzzle! | Source

The imbalances in economic growth if allowed to continue, will produce a world gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its human and economic inequalities. - Human Development Report, 1996

Development is Inherently Multidimensional

Seen in this context development becomes a multidimensional process because many things affect people, such as family, society, culture, politics, spirituality, and religion. People also value many things other than money such as justice, fairness, honesty, love, self-confidence, leisure time and a stress-free life.

Therefore, development is about education facilities as much as it is about health centers. It is about culture as much as it is about social and political participation. It deals with foreign policy as much as gender, environmental, industrial, agriculture or technological policies. It concerns with fiscal policy as much as health policy – so that even the poorest people have access to quality medical care.

In nutshell, development is as much a process of providing services as of removing obstacles and giving freedom from all sorts of deprivations, discriminations and exclusions. As Amartya Sen puts it in his book, Development as Freedom, “Development can be seen… as a process of expanding the real freedom that people enjoy.”

How can a multifaceted development be measured? Certainly, a single dimensional measure, say of economic growth, is not sufficient to capture so many diverse processes. It will involve a systematic examination of a wealth of information related to people’s state of well-being (including education and health, among other variables). It brings an inescapably pluralist conception of progress.

What is Poverty?

Poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely the lowness of incomes. – Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Winner, 1998

In Development as Freedom (1999), Amartya Sen defines poverty as a situation that severely decreases a person’s capabilities. Thus, an individual is poor if he lacks basic capabilities. Well-being of people ultimately depends upon what they can or cannot do. Thus, the standard of living enjoyed by people must be seen in terms of people’s capabilities.

The GDP per capita or income alone can’t map the whole landscape of multidimensional poverty. For example, in India over 50% of all malnourished children come from families not under the official poverty line. If the Indian government claims that the poverty is down to 29% it tells nothing about the state of health, education, sanitation or say, women empowerment.

Prof. Amartya Sen
Prof. Amartya Sen | Source
Capability expansion of people
Capability expansion of people | Source

Moving From Income to Capabilities

Money, goods and services are important means of enhancing people’s capabilities. How material possessions and facilities are converted into capabilities depend on individuals through factors such as age, sex, education, health, disability or even physiological factors like metabolic rate. People can’t be equalized in terms of income or resource because their requirements differ in order to achieve similar capabilities. For example, an elderly man would need additional resources to achieve the kind of mobility a young healthy man. He may also value medical care and rest more than the young man. The kind of life they value will also differ.

Since the focus is on individuals, issues such as gender inequality become more easily visible. Such differences get levelled out in the income perspective. It also recognizes that for people the “freedom to make choices about what they want to be and do with the resources available to them” is of fundamental importance.

It can be seen that the capability theory approaches life from a positive perspective – the kind of life we want to live or value. This integrates poverty into the wider issue of development, rather than ghettoizing it behind some arbitrary poverty line. This is reflected in the ideas of ‘human development’ and ‘well-being’ of the Human Development Reports of the UNDP. In the capability’s framework the notions of ‘well-being’ and ‘the quality of life’ are seen in terms of the capabilities. It is more concerned with people using their resources (material and non-material) to control and direct their lives.

Policies guided by the capability approach would ‘require a change in public policy focus from the reduction of monetary inequalities to reduction in capabilities inequalities. However, it must be kept in mind that the capabilities are not created in isolation, but are shaped by social structure and institutions.

Advantages of People Centered Development

People centred development stresses on increasing the freedoms, abilities and capabilities of people. They themselves decide what kind of life they want to live. It is different from the top-down development model where an outside development agency tells people what to do. Therefore, “freedom of choices” is an important characteristic of this approach. Since people are the focus of development their exclusion and suppression are automatically spotted, poverty doesn’t get a chance to sustain for long.

People become “Agents” of Change

Amartya Sen and also Muhammad Yunus see people as “Agents” of Change, rather than passive beneficiaries of expert created policies. In the development process “people have to be seen … as being actively involved – given the opportunity – in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive targets of development programs.” So the central theme of development should be to empower people to become agents of change in their own lives. Once recognized as agents people (individually or in groups) can define their goals and select suitable means to achieve them.

Additionally, once people fit in the role of “agents of change” they can themselves build the environment in which they are empowered with education, health, ability to speak freely and participate, etc. That’s the path of sustainable development.

Empowering the Poor through Micro-Credit

Father of Micro-Credit
Father of Micro-Credit | Source

Banker of the Poorest of the Poor!

“The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world... all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.” Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi Nobel laureate of 2006 and founder of the Grameen Bank to eliminate poverty through micro-credits

Influence of Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory

Sen’s work has been highly influential in the context of international development. It led to a paradigm shift in the understanding of “development” away from the narrow confines of economic growth (measured in GDP terms) to a focus of “poverty as a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life.”

His ideas provided the foundation for the human poverty and development indices published in the UNDP's annual Human Development Reports (HDR) since 1990. He goes beyond both income and living standard. He reflects on their importance and argues that they don’t matter on their own right but are important tools for something that really matters to people, namely “to lead kind of life people value.”

Expanding Capabilities
Expanding Capabilities
Honey Bee farming
Honey Bee farming

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How Capability Theory Relates to Human Development (HD) Approach

The Human Development (HD) approach is conceptually founded on the capability approach, and is geared towards application. The HD approach used Sen’s phrase – the objective of development is to expand capabilities – and simplified it to “expand people’s choices.” The language has changed; the objective has not. Look at the evolution of the definition of human development:

The HDR 1990: Human development is a process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical ones are to lead a long and healthy life, to be educated and to enjoy a decent standard of living. Additional choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and self-respect – what Adam Smith called the ability to mix with others without being “ashamed to appear in public.”

The HDR 2010: Human development is the expansion of people’s freedoms to live long, healthy and creative lives; to advance other goals they have reason to value; and to engage actively in shaping development equitably and sustainably on a shared planet. People are both the beneficiaries and the drivers of human development, as individuals and in groups.

The HD approach denotes both the process of widening people’s choices and the level of their achieved well being. On one side, it is concerned with the formation of human capabilities, such as improved health and knowledge; on the other, it is also concerned with people using their acquired capabilities for work or leisure.

It brings together the production and distribution of commodities and the expansion and use of human capabilities. It also focuses on choices – on what people should have, be and do to be able to ensure their own livelihood. Moreover, it is concerned not only with "basic needs" satisfaction but also with human development as a participatory and dynamic process.


Human life has several dimensions – economic, social, political, psychological and cultural; all must be developed. Therefore, development is inherently multidimensional and includes all activities that enable people to lead their lives according to their own values and wisdom. Seen in this perspective poverty is a state of badly restricted capabilities necessary to live comfortably. In short, poverty is a state of gross underdevelopment.

Professor Amartya Sen


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    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 24 months ago

      Thanks Nikita, for reading and sharing.

      There are range of issue that lead to poverty - most of them are not related to money! Unjust policies (favoring the rich and powerful), social exclusion of people on 'class', 'racial' or 'caste' lines, and general backwardness among people.

      Wealth inequality is a cruse of capitalistic economies - particularly the "trickle down economy". Leaving aside its charm among many economists, it does nothing significant for the poor or even middle class.

      I am not sure why countries still chase GDP, which is unsustainable. Why not have the goal of maximum employment and least inequality. You can't remove poverty, when you are busy chasing GDP. Wars can easily pop up GDP, but can't remove poverty.

      Question: Why can't businesses have goals other than maximizing profits? Shouldn't the capital market be redesigned to eliminate poverty form the world?

    • profile image

      nikita 24 months ago

      Only poverty is not responsible for developement but currpution is also responsible

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 3 years ago

      Thanks Nadine.

      I am planning to pick up Mohammad Yunus's work for a future hub. The media controlled by the corporates is unlikely to find any glamour in Yunus's work - but that is precisely why I will write and propagate his wonderful efforts to help the poor.

      There is much more to humanity than what mere "money makers" can ever comprehend.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      I absolutely loved your hub and I'm a great favorite and admirer of Laureat Mohammad Yunus I must read more of your hubs later. It's now bedtime in South Africa

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 3 years ago

      Thanks sowk.

      The concept of development has gone through serious distortions particularly in last 40 years. People have been reduced to the status of robots to keep the economic machine running in order to continue increasing the magic GDP numbers endlessly - and simultaneously keep consuming in bigger amounts year after year.

      Money and greed for it has replaced everything any mature and thinking person values - relationships, ethics, morality, spirituality, wisdom, peace of mind, love and compassion. When people talk about global warming, climate change and depleting global resources, this greed of the rich is the root cause.

      However, a lot of thinking people across the world are not happy with the current business-as-usual attitude of those ruling the world - rich people and corporate houses. I am sure a people-centric development model will soon emerge that will allow people to live with more dignity, health and job securities, crime and drug free society and a world free of injustice, terror and foul play of greedy money makers.

      We all deserve a much better treatment and more dignified life as human beings than the present business order can offer. Let's keep talking about it until everyone joins the debate!

      I am sorry but don't know why the youtube video would not play at your end. Someone else might help.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 3 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Couldn't agree more!

      I live in America where money seems to be more Important than people to a large portion of society.

      For some reason the video will not play.It,says video not available in my country.

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