things vs capabilities

Pick your paintbrush: why what you measure matters

Governments, businesses, social enterprises all look for the right metrics or data to be able to help them make decisions and shape their policies. But, what if the data collected doesn’t paint a complete picture? Amartya Sen found this to be the case in his research. For years in India there was a theory taught about the relationship between food output and population size. It was thought that as the Indian population level would overtake the available food supply and that a lack of food caused famines to occur. However, Sen pointed out flaws in this theory – actually, people starve when there is food available and people don’t starve when there isn’t food available. The distribution of starvation in India didn’t correspond with the food supply available even though the amount of food available had been a key indicator used to explain why famines occurred. There were other societal factors contributing to the problem, such as lack of local jobs, low wages or an increase in food prices preventing people from being nourished. Considerations of people’s internal abilities in combination with these external factors are what make-up the capabilities approach. Previously in the developed world, stock markets, approval ratings and public policy change has been based on “leading economic indicators” such as GDP, However, more and more people recognise that these metrics have little direct relevance to the average person and that they don’t capture the nuances that may be important for decision-making. In 2003, Sen and American philosopher Martha Nussbaum founded the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA) to bring together academics and practitioners who are applying the capabilities approach to a spectrum of arenas, such as health, education, children, ethics, human rights, development, technology, inequities, and so on. Participle is working to operationalise the capabilities approach to measure its social impact. Rooted in Sen and Nussbaum’s theories as well as years of practical experience working with people and families in the UK, Participle is focused on measuring four core capabilities that are vital to living well in the 21st century: Capabilities2 Returning to our Pop Quiz Just because people attend school more frequently, apply for three jobs in a week, lose weight or need to go to the hospital less, doesn’t mean that they have flourishing lives. At Participle, we see the need for a fundamental shift to measure the things that are important to an individual and their ability to lead a meaningful life. For us, the capabilities approach paints a more nuanced picture and thus has the potential to help governments, businesses and social enterprises make important decisions. We see it as the method for defining the next generation of indicators that evidence success, just as much as the GDP, unemployment rate or inflation.

Amanda Briden is Measure Manager at Participle, and leads the development and implementation of social impact measures across all our work.  Find her online at @amandabriden.

Read more about how we measure the impact of our work.

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