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Poverty Times #2

Capabilities and poverty-environment links

Two notions about poverty-environment links are now widely shared by policy-makers, ngos and academia: i) that world poverty reduction depends on proper ecosystem management to be achieved sustainably, and ii) that the links between ecosystems and human well-being are dynamic and complex since they depend on time-lags, geographical and temporal scales, cultures, institutions, traditions and many other particular features of local ecosystems and constituents of human well-being. However, although the complexity and multidimensionality of these links are widely acknowledged, the use of unidimensional and linear techniques (such as simple livelihood analysis and environmental impact assessments) remains quite entrenched among researchers and policy-makers. Yet, new initiatives such as unep’s Poverty-Environment Initiative are revolutionising the way in which the complexity of poverty-environment links are being comprehensively and systematically assessed. A central feature of these initiatives is the use of a multidimensional approach to evaluate human well-being and ecosystem services focused on the promotion of autonomy of individuals and communities. These new developments match technical advancements, such as mapping aspects of human well-being and ecosystems.
By Flavio Comim

These initiatives have been highly influenced by the development of Professor Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and its implications for the establishment of a human development perspective. This approach has been used to assess well-being with emphasis on distributive considerations. The approach aims to determine which criteria should be used when making normative assessments. In the current context we could ask: what criteria should we use when we are assessing the impact of poverty on ecosystems or the impact of ecosystem changes on poverty?

Sympathisers of the Livelihoods Approach would claim that the main criteria to assess impact on human well-being should lie on the distribution of resources among different individuals or communities. They would emphasise rural portfolio management options and strategies to cope with vulnerability caused by the volatile returns of the poor’s assets. This analysis will prove an important contribution, but, as Professor Sen has pointed out, resources are usually imperfect indicators of well-being. Because not all people are equal in their capacity to convert resources into well-being and not all of them live under the same cultural and social constraints, promotion of equality should be achieved in the space of capabilities. Different families or individuals might get the same resource allocation but might not have the same capability of converting these resources into whatever they have reasons to value.

The Livelihoods Approach has given a first step into the promotion of multidimensionality analyses of poverty-environment links. The Capability Approach furthers this logic by broadening the dimensions incorporated in the examination of these links. Information about resource distribution is not all that matters. Other informational spaces related
to the constituents of human well-being, such as health and education, are important here. Thus, the Capability Approach provides a rationale for the use of techniques and methodologies that take into account: i) multidimensional aspects of human well-being, ii) ethical considerations for assessing distributive issues in assessing human well-being, iii) the choice of environmental and poverty indicators that reflect the importance of assessing the quality of processes rather than simply outcomes of policies, iv) the use of participatory approaches to enhance the ownership and participation of local communities in the management of their natural resources, v) what people are actually able to be and to do (ends) rather than simply what resources (means) they have available to promote their well-being.

It is important to note that the added-value of the use of the Capability Approach lies not on a simple list of these points but on the general perspective that articulates all of them in a comprehensive and systematic way.

Poor people and the ecosystems where they live should be seen as part of the solution and not as part of the problem. The Capability Approach provides a rationale for articulating a wide range of information needed for the solution of entrenched poverty-environment problems. It does not provide a ready-made solution. It provides a way for us all to arrive at solutions.

Flavio Comim is the Director of the Capability and Sustainability Centre, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. The csc provides a forum for collaborative research and interdisciplinary discussion tackling human and sustainable development, and their links, from a capability perspective