Education for Sustainable Development (ESD),
Global Citizenship, and Curriculum Development


Human Capabilities Approach

Another related idea is the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA). This concept has come from the writings of both economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Both consider that using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of human wellbeing or quality of life makes little sense in terms of a broader concern for human welfare and have developed ideas around the human capabilities approach as a possible alternative. As applied to higher education by authors such as Melanie Walker, it articulates another way of considering the answer to the question 'What is a university for?' The Human Capabilities Approach puts human wellbeing centre-stage, elevates 'being' and 'doing' rather than 'knowing' and suggests:

the university should not be distant from the tremendous problems the world faces nowadays - environmental challenges, social injustices, armed conflicts, intolerance, abuses of and lack of respect for human rights - and that it should have an active role, engaged in local and global spaces to foster and support a just and sustainable society.

(Boni and Walker, 2012, p2)

Alongside human wellbeing, the wellbeing of other species and the ecosystems that support them are also clearly highlighted.

One of the most important elements of the HCA is the distinction made between functionings (the different things that a person can value doing or being) and capabilities (the opportunity and freedom to use the different combinations of functionings that that are effectively possible).

Capabilities are the freedoms each person has to choose and exercise a combination of ways of beings and doings they have reason to value

(Walker 2013 p.5)

……the real possibilities and opportunities of leading a life which a person has reason to value.

(Boni & Walker, 2013)

The human capabilities approach is still developing. Many proponents of the approach resist the idea of defining a list of capabilities perhaps because this approach is specifically NOT attempting to define a list of 'skills' or 'attributes' (see for example Robeyns, 2011). However, some do define core capabilities for example: ten core capabilities.

Responsibility towards others’ capabilities is also a feature that has important resonance particularly in terms of education for sustainable development and global citizenship and links back again to the concerns of the ESD agenda.

The ESD team has been awarded a Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Scoping Award to investigate Potential of the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA) for strategy development in the Higher Education curriculum. Further details »