Capability Calculation: When people choose between vital parts of being human

A capability calculation is how people make choices when faced with limits to fulfill their capabilities. Ideally in a flourishing society people have the opprotunity to fulfill all their capabilities.  All capabilities are important.  However, sometimes fulfilling one capability can put another at risk. When fulfilling one capability puts another at risk people choose which part of their personhood will increase and which will decrease.  Because capabilities are interconnected when people are forces to choose -especially below a certain threshold- all capabilities loose.

The idea of capability calculation emerged from years working in development and observing people choose one capability over another.  Although these capability choices were observable there was no framework available to understand the underlying system that guided choices people made.  Often seemingly unrelated forces guided people to choose securing one capability over another.  The concept of capability calculation is an attempt to create a framework to give language to these choices.

Developing the initial framework. The research was conducted with people who were ethnically Yakan.  These participants were from Basilan, Mindanao, Philippines.  People who live on Basilan face a continued ebb and flow of conflict.  Within a ebb and flow conflict environment from narratives of participants best moments in life a context specific understanding of what is needed for a flourishing society was developed. Further, the flourishing domains were ranked against all other domains to show a context specific, weighted interconnection. The question ‘which domain if missing has the larger impact on your ability to have a good life?’ was asked to create the rank. The rank was used to create a the capability calculation framework that is the focus of this article.

This is what participants said creates a flourishing society in ranked order.


Choosing Allah over education a calculation example. In the 1970’s and 80s Yakan women thought they had to choose between getting an education or remaining Muslim. Their perception was if they went to school they would be converted to Christianity. “People thought that if they will study in secular, they will be converted to Christianity,” said a male respondent (in the 15–29 age group). Because of past Christian and Islamic interactions, the Yakan, particularly women, have feared conversion if they attend school. The same male respondent said his mother had expressed this fear: “Women were not given the chance to go to school all because, accordingly, ‘If you will go to school, you will be married to a soldier’ ”—that is, someone outside of Islam and the Yakan tribe. He added that his mother said that if people thought women were educated, “you will become Christian.” That, he continued, “is the one of the reasons why they were not educated.”

This perceived capability choice pushed many women to not attend school. They chose the ability to have faith in Allah over the ability to be educated.

How people’s capabilities interact internally and externally is complex. As seen in the calculation of Allah or education the idea of capability calculation provides a platform to discuss how capabilities interact with one another. Capability calculation can be used to describe the complexity of choses people made in the past as used to theorize how people will chose in the future. The understanding of capability calculation is ideal for developing theories of change, design, monitoring and evaluation.  Capability calculation is part of moving programming past a sectoral approach to seeing what is being developed within people in sectors.

Another example of capability calculation came from a project I created a learning paper from in the early 2000’s.  The project was a shelter relocation project with people from a Yakan and Tausug background (both ethnic minorities in the Philippines).  Approximately 75% of people who had originally relocated to ‘permanent houses’ moved back to informal settlements two years after the initial relocation. One of the organizations involved in the project decided to use what seemed as a failure as an opportunity to learn.  They asked me to explore why some people remained and others had moved.

Although there were various reasons the strongest reasons expressed had to do with loss of respect.  The organization facilitating the project developed a repayment scheme that used social pressure to ensure repayment. When people could not repay they lost respect from others in their community.  At the time did not have capabilities calculation language to communicate what happened.  However, on hindsight people felt forced to choose between shelter (ranked 7th) or respect (ranked 3rd).  Many chose respect.

Calculation.  The strength of domains for participants that were surveyed was discovered through using a ranking method that showed perceived strength of capabilities in a non-linear and interrelated manner.  The ranking was based from the question ‘which capability if missing has a larger impact on your ability to have a good life?’ This question can be applied to capability calculation with the assumption that people will protect domains they most value.

The below figure shows for those surveyed if there is a perceived threat within peoples ability to have faith in Allah, ability to love and help one another, or ability to practice mutual respect they will likely make a capability calculations to preserve these domains.  Further the other domains numbers represent their perceived strength.

The above calculation is helpful but should be used only with thick description of narrative data.  The original research had multiple pages of categorized narrative data that created “thick description” of each capability domain.  The above framework needs narrative data for a deeper level understanding for what concepts like “respect” or “Allah” mean.

Capability calculation in conflict. Often the capability calculation of a development organization does not align with people in a certain context. The two main reasons for misalignment are sectorial approaches to development are typically linear and the capability calculation of donors, INGO’s and governments often do not align with people who live in these same locations. These differing discourses can cause issues that lead to project failure.

Integration.  Through understanding the salience of capabilities relative to one another development organizations can integrate the weight of capabilities into development practice and policy planning. For example if a project is focused on increasing peoples involvement in governance (ranked 9th) it would be important to monitor how people perceive this same project increase mutual respect of traditional leadership (ranked 3rd) and the ability to have faith in Allah (ranked 1st). If the ability to take part in governance puts at risk higher ranked capabilities there is a high likelihood of the not being successful. If however it is perceived that the project increases respect and peoples ability to practice Islam** it will have a higher likelihood of success.  Further, understanding a capability calculation could shape strategic focus of an organization that wished to align it’s values to a local context.  As always I would love to hear your personal or organizational experience of capabilities calculation or similar ideas.

About the Author: Dr Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience in International Development and Humanitarian Aid working and living in South East Asia and the Pacific.  He worked in Mindanao for eight years which is also where he completed his doctoral research.  This article is derived from research done in partnership with Sirat (a local NGO in Mindanao) and the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

If you would like to talk to him about innovative ways for a partnering towards a flourishing society click here.   Other articles on Mindanao include Islam, Human Capabilities and Development: A perspective from the Southern Philippines, Flourishing is…? The Good Life in Conflict: A perspective from South East Asia. Mistaken Identity and the Discourse of TerrorA Tipping Point in Terror: “Those Who Tell the Stories Rule Society”The Respect Principle –Fertile or Corrosive- Key to Peace in Mindanao“If Peace is Missing we Can’t Do Anything but Hide.” Peace a Priority in Mindanao, and The Gendered Results of Conflict: “We live in Hell” vs. We were “Revolutionaries”.

** Note: It should be noted that the Yakan live within the context of a nation where people predominantly hold a Catholic identity. It is important that freedom of one religion is not perceived to detract from freedom of another. This calculation is specifically Yakan. For policy and practice Islam should be considered from a larger religion and development standpoint. This standpoint ensures that freedom of one religion does not decrease freedom of another.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks