Education for Human Development

The question of the conditions that ought to characterize social justice has been deeply studied by numerous scholars, including Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Nancy Fraser. Although there are differences among their arguments and those offered by other scholars writing on these concerns, they all agree that human development is essential to the attainment of social justice (Alexander, 2008; Fraser, 1990; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2005). Human development relates to the creation and improvement of living conditions, such that individuals can develop their potential to the fullest and enjoy the opportunity to live their lives as they might wish (Keleher, 2007; Sen, 1985).

Sen, Nussbaum and Fraser, among other scholars, have pointed to such empowerment as an important aspect of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007). This essay (1) describes human development and its defining characteristics (2) surveys existing definitions of empowerment and their dimensions and (3) briefly explores the role that higher education may play in promoting individual empowerment.

Human development and the capabilities approach

Traditionally, development has been measured as increases in income or access to material goods, known as the economic growth approach (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Sen, 1985). Human development, meanwhile, “is a process of expanding the real freedom of persons to lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value” (Keleher, 2007, p. 26; Sen, 1997). Nussbaum has proposed this construct as an alternative to traditional economic growth-centered development theory (Nussbaum, 2011). The approach seeks to ensure that individuals are free to exercise their individual agency as they choose to achieve certain functionings/capabilities (Keleher, 2007). Sen/Nussbaum describe those functionings and capabilities as education, employment and safety, among others.

In short, in this view, human development is assessed within a capabilities approach in terms of the capacities with which a person is free to engage (Keleher, 2007).  Following Keleher, I operationalize this perspective here as the several alternate capabilities a person may pursue to live a life they value (Keleher, 2014).  Proponents of this view have strongly argued that empowerment  is an essential component of human development (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). The next section offers an overview of various definitions of empowerment and how each relates to human development and the capabilities approach.

Defining Empowerment

Conger and Kanungo have defined empowerment as the authority or power an individual has to control their life and claim their  rights (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472). However, proponents of both the economic growth and capabilities approaches have embraced the idea of empowerment.        For advocates of the economic growth approach, development results from efficient economic growth and productive forms of market participation (Keleher, 2007). In this view, empowerment is a person’s ability to make market-related decisions and autonomously control his/her economic status (Keleher, 2014). For those embracing this perspective, empowerment is an essential part of development to the extent that it uses economic means to promote economic growth and market proficiency (Keleher, 2007).

Since this approach posits that empowerment in individuals can be achieved through the promotion of strategically planned and executed economic interventions (Keleher, 2007; Patrick, 1996), it positions the poor and oppressed as beneficiaries and recipients of services, resources, development interventions and therefore of agency itself (Keleher, 2007).  In contrast, those advancing the capabilities approach view empowerment as a process of expanding the substantive freedom people enjoy, and it therefore relates to an individual’s ability to make basic choices in their lives absent imposed constraints (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 2011). This approach positions empowered people as owners not only of their economic activities, but also as possessors and managers of all of the dimensions of their life experience (Alexander, 2008; Gandjour, 2008; Keleher, 2007; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001) including family, employment, education, health and education, among others. Empowerment, as understood by proponents of the capabilities approach, is central to human freedom and individuals’ realization of life possibilities (Keleher, 2007).

Additionally, unlike those embracing the economic-growth perspective, those advocating the capabilities approach do not believe empowerment can be provided by anyone, it can only be exercised by individuals themselves (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472; Hill, 2003). In the same way, within the capabilities approach, all development projects and interventions can be understood as projects that seek to provide space and capacities (Keleher, 2014), so individuals can exercise their agency (demonstrate empowerment) to make the life choices they value. In this way empowerment for these scholars constitutes both a process and a result (Keleher, 2007).

I adopt the human development perspective and capabilities approach, which provides a broader definition of empowerment than the economic growth view (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007; Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2003). The following sections assume this perspective.

 Empowerment manifestations: Individual Versus Collective     

Since empowerment is a process of expanding individuals’ capacity to exercise the full range of their human potential (Keleher, 2014; Rowlands, 1995; Sen, 2011), it is concerned with people’s ability to become conscious of their interests and abilities  (Rowlands, 1995). Several scholars have established that the capabilities attributed to specific groups of people are to a large degree socially constructed (Duflo, 2012; Rowlands, 1995). As a result, those constructs can be positive or negative to varying degrees. Empowerment, therefore, involves overcoming, “negative constructions so affected individuals get to see themselves as having the capacity and the right to act and have influence” (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Rowlands, 1995, p. 103). The following section outlines different manifestations of empowerment at the individual and collective scales.

The personal dimension refers to the development of individual capacity to reverse the consequences of internalized oppression (Rowlands, 1995), while the collective dimension refers to peoples’ ability to work together to achieve a broader impact than each could attain alone (Rowlands, 1995). It is important to recall that in order to be able to work together with a group in order to achieve a common goal, each individual must possess some minimal sense of their own abilities and worth (Rowlands, 1995; Townsend, Zapata, Rowlands, Alberti and Mercado, 1999). Additionally, the collective dimension includes engagement with shared or group action, institutions and political structures (Rowlands, 1995).

 Empowerment and Agency

Empowerment can be understood as opening space for the exercise of agency and increasing the capabilities of individuals (Fraser, 1990; Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum, 2011). Agency constitutes the most important factor in individual empowerment (Keleher, 2007). The concept refers to the ability a person has to decide for him or herself and to act autonomously to secure change in order to achieve the life course he/she chooses (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 1985). This freedom to select among opportunities is what distinguishes, for example, between an individual who has no choice but to starve, and a person who voluntarily elects to fast (Keleher, 2007).

Individual agency represents the ownership and management an individual has of his or her own life (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). A person with more agency than another, evidences more felt-capacity to achieve the things he/she values and has reason to value (Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). This distinction suggests that there are two dimensions of individual agency: freedom and achievement (Sen, 1985). The freedom element refers to an person’s ability to decide direction as well as daily choices for herself or himself (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Agency–related achievement, meanwhile, is tied to an individual’s realization of the goals and values they envision (Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Devotees of the capabilities approach believe it is what allows individuals also to identify existing un-freedoms and to work alone and with others toward overcoming and/or eliminating them by expanding their capacities and self-understanding and by working to alter socially constructed and institutionalized attitudes and practices constraining them (Keleher, 2007).

Empowerment and Political Agency

Collective agency (Shapiro, 2005) refers to an ability to influence a targeted group  positively through cognitive and valuative change (Cerny, 2000).  Political agency involves questioning and challenging unjust assumptions and practices in order to allow individuals to pursue their goals free of socially imposed structures (Beaumont, 2010). Developing agency requires that individuals understand that their everyday choices contribute to their capacity to pursue their political goals collectively (Beaumont, 2010). That is, the belief that lone actions have the capability to contribute to personal and social change, constitute core components of individual agency and empowerment. They are similarly crucial to the achievement of collective agency (Beaumont, 2010).

Political agency arises from individuals acting on their capacities in individual and/or collective ways to secure positive change, and it can therefore manifest differently in different individuals (Cerny, 2000). Often a person’s consciousness of their political agency arises as a result of challenges to existing beliefs, values and practices that had previously undermined its exercise (Shapiro, 2005). Because of this, although political agency is a potent tool for transformation, it directly depends on individual self-awareness and willingness to act (Cerny, 2000). That is, for action to occur men and women should have the ability to recognize the change they want, the capacity to express it and the understanding that they innately possess the ability to engage in activities to promote it. Change also requires reflection and collaboration with other members of the community (Cerny, 2000; Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007).  Each individual’s involvement and sense of empowerment will vary; a fact that implies that social shifts will likely occur over time, rather than comprehensively and at a single moment. Accordingly, efforts to promote human development and justice via political agency should work to ensure that the poor and the oppressed are given ample opportunity to examine and decide what is what they want for their lives (Beaumont, 2010).

The Role of Higher Education in Human Development

Many scholars have argued an inability to access higher education can promote socio-economic segregation and deny individuals important opportunities to develop their capabilities (Connell, 1994; Neave, 1989; Teichler, 2007). Indeed, one may reasonably ask whether current trends in higher education are emphasizing the elements that contribute to student empowerment and therefore to human and social development.

In principle at least, if not always in current practice, higher education is intended to foster broad-based development of human talent and potentials (Chickering and Reisser, 1993). As argued above, empowerment is an essential part of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). Nonetheless, many education leaders, following the example of many political officeholders, have now adopted the view that empowerment is an essential part of development only to the extent that it uses economic means to promote growth and market-oriented proficiency exclusively. In so doing, they are overlooking, if not degrading, the potential of education to expand the substantive freedom people enjoy in all of the spheres of their lives, including employment, family, health and others.

Those higher education leaders who understand empowerment from the economic growth perspective, have led their institutions to prize efforts to prepare students for specific jobs. Meanwhile, college and university leaders who view empowerment through the capabilities approach could lead efforts that envision students not only as agents of economic activity, but also as owners and managers of all the different spheres of their lives. A higher education system organized on the basis of the capabilities approach would incorporate concepts of justice, diversity and inclusiveness as core elements of its curricula (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002; Nunan, Georg and McCausland, 2000). Including a multidimensional exploration of these concepts within diverse academic programs would promote a broader understanding of the world, a safer but challenging learning environment and ultimately an array of spaces that encouraged student empowerment (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Nunan et al., 2000).

In conclusion, the exercise of their own agency wrought by a broader understanding of empowerment allows individuals to identify existing un-freedoms and social negative constructions and to work towards altering institutionalized attitudes and practices that sustain them (Keleher, 2007). Put succinctly, this is why, if we want to change the world through post-secondary education, a holistic understanding and promotion of empowerment is essential when designing academic programs within higher education institutions.


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Vanessa Guerra is an architect, urban planner and PhD candidate in Environmental Design and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include urban interventions as potential contributors to poverty reduction and sustainable development. She has presented her work at several conferences across the United States and South America, and has been a featured speaker at a TEDx event in Quito-Ecuador and at Cityworks (Xpo) in Roanoke, VA. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Vanessa worked as a project architect and taught at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito-Ecuador, where she also coordinated the seminar “Ecuador towards Habitat III”. She currently participates in the Global Forum for Urban Regional Resilience and is a member of DE Lab Decision Engineering for Sustainable Infrastructure and of the Regional Studies Association). Vanessa co-founded LIGNUM, an architecture and urbanism firm in Ecuador.



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