Relational capability : a multidimensional approach | ESSEC Business School

par | 16 avril 2013

This paper explores some of the dimensions related to poverty and exclusion, by defining a Relational Capability Index (RCI) which focuses on the quality of relationships among people and on their level of relational empowerment. This index is rooted in a relational anthropology; it insists on the quality of the social fabric and of interpersonal relations as a key aspect of human development. As a multidimensional index, the RCI includes integration into networks, private relations and civic commitments. By Gaël Giraud, Cécile Renouard, Hélène L’Huillier, Raphaële de la Martinière, Camille Sutter.

We provide an axiomatization of a family of multidimensional indexes. This axiomatic viewpoint fills the gap between theories of justice and poverty measurements. By means of illustration, we apply three different versions of the RCI, which are el- ements of this family, to the measurement of the impact of oil companies on local communities in the Niger Delta (Nigeria) and to national surveys (Afrobarometer).

1. Introduction

This paper contributes, both theoretically and empirically, to the measurement of multidimensional aspects of development. This line of inquiry has been initiated by Amartya Sen (Sen, 1999) and expanded by the UNDP (Human Development Report), the Human Development and Capability Association and the Oxford Poverty and Development Initiative (OPHI). In 2010, the OPHI and UNDP introduced a Multidimensional Poverty Index which entails three components: health, education, and living standards. The justification for the choice of these components is threefold: the areas are of key im- portance in terms of human development and Millenium Development Goals; a consensus has been reached on the importance of these components from a practical perspective (thanks to a participative methodology) and from a theoretical one (universal recognition of health, education and living conditions as core dimensions of human rights); and there are several data constraints facing the field. The initiators of this index, however, under- line the importance of focusing on other human capabilities as well. Alkire and Santos (2010), for instance, emphasize that “a key priority for future work on multidimensional poverty must be gathering more and better data around core areas such as informal work, empowerment, safety from violence, and human relationship (social capital and respect versus humiliation). This will enable empirical exploration of whether such dimensions add value to a multidimensional poverty measure.” The present paper explores some of these later dimensions, by defining a new index —the Relational Capability Index— which focuses on the quality of relationships among people and on their level of relational empowerment. We discuss the philosophical roots of such a measurement concept, as well as its methodological challenges. As an illustration, we apply this index to measuring the impact of oil companies on local communities in the Niger Delta (Nigeria), and to national surveys (Afrobarometer).

Our perspective is rooted in a specific understanding of human development through the expansion of (individual) capabilities to share flourishing relationships. Human rela- tionships are at the core of human life—this is the starting point of our work. Arguably, emphasizing, as we do, the relational aspect of social life amounts to adopting a norma- tive standpoint about what makes our lives “human”. We shall see, however, that such a prejudice is in line with, for instance, the recent work by Nussbaum. On the other hand, however, we put the accent on capabilities, i.e., on “what people are actually able to do and to be” (De Munck and Zimmermann, 2008; Nussbaum, 2003), including access to resources, agency (capacity to make free choices), and functionings (achievements). Our approach therefore puts social networks at the center of the very concept of human development but, at the same time, acknowledges the diversity of personal and collective values and ends. In particular, we refrain from imposing a single view of what it should mean to have flourishing relationships. This is reflected in the specific methodology we develop in order to aggregate the various dimensions of our index into a single real number.

The paper proceeds as follows. We first present our relational approach based on individual capabilities in view of the various concepts of social development already ex- amined in the literature (2). The following section then proposes a set of dimensions and indicators entering into the construction of ourRCI, and proceeds with the aggregation of such dimensions into the RCI, as partly inspired by the Multidimensional Poverty Index methodology (cutoffs, means, and weights) (3). Section 4 details the axiomatic model that justifies the way the index dimensions have been aggregated, and the index’s proper- ties. The last section presents two empirical applications (5). The case of areas impacted by oil extraction in the Niger Delta, in Nigeria, illustrates the practical relevance of the RCI. Its computation at a national level by means of the Afrobarometer shows that our index is intuitive, simple to use, and can be applied with good effect to real-world data.

2. Concepts—towards a relational development

Today’s definitions of poverty are often framed in terms of the (lack of) capacity of a person to participate in the society in which they live. For instance, the notions of social inclusion, social integration or participation have become widespread in international institutions such as UNDP or the World Bank. Similarly, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 (Marlier and Atkinson, 2010) describes the “process by which efforts are made to ensure equal opportunities—that everyone, regardless of their background, can achieve their full potential in life.” The goals of social integration and inclusive society depict “a more stable, safe and just society for all”, in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play” (United Nations, 1995, par 66).

This approach in terms of social inclusion is a significant step towards a more satis- factory understanding of poverty, as opposed to the definitions relating to financial and real assets that were previously prevailing. It enables a view of poverty as a complex set of deprivations: malnutrition and bad health, lack of access to the job market, low mobility, low social capital, low skills and incomplete education, etc.

However, viewing poverty as a lack of social inclusion is not immune to ambiguity. For instance, the World Bank’s “Poverty Reduction Strategy” and the Post-Washington Consensus claim that their aim is to ensure everybody is able to participate in the market economy (which is seen as an opportunity to overcome poverty); such a purpose rarely involves any criticism of the deadlocks of this deregulated market economy, and only (monetary) compensations of the negative side effects of structural adjustments are envisioned. Moreover, most recommendations are phrased as if there was an implicit discipline of integration, a “duty” to accept the programs under scrutiny: the poor who do not seize the opportunities on offered might even be sanctioned, inasmuch they will suffer from a moral stigmatization of being the “lazy poor.” Finally, within this context, the idea of social development is usually linked with the search for social investments (human and social capital); it is about competitive societies and integrated national economies.

Consequently, this understanding of poverty often leads to the idea that poverty reduces to a lack of social capital—where “social capital” is “a variety of different notions that have two elements in common: […] all consist[ing] of some aspect of social structures, and facilitate[ing] certain actions of actors—whether persons or corporate actors—within the structure” (Coleman, 1988). Both Bourdieu (1994) and Coleman (1988) consider so- cial capital as relational resources which can be accumulated over a lifetime through various “social investments”, and give access to goods or opportunities. In our view, this approach has two main limits. First, it is a “capitalist” approach (accumulation as an advantage “against” other people) which shows a very partial aspect of social connected- ness, inasmuch as it is blind to the positive externality implied by socialization. Second, this instrumental approach cannot seize social relationships as an accomplishment and a goal for itself.

2.1 Social connectedness as a public good

Beyond the ethical criticisms, the social capital approach does not allow for a full comprehension of the functioning and outcomes of social interconnection. Representing it as a (rare and) valuable resource overshadows its principal characteristic as a public good: its capacity to be shared without impoverishing its “owner” (like knowledge). Therefore, our approach is closely related to the traditional view of social capital as being the positive effect of social closure—i.e., the presence of cohesive ties—in promoting a normative environment that facilitates trust and cooperation between actors (Coleman (1990, 1988)). As stressed by Coleman (1988, p.119), “a property shared by most forms of social capital that differentiates it from other forms of capital is its public good aspect: the actor or actors who generate social capital ordinarily capture only a small part of its benefits, a fact that leads to underinvestment in social capital.” It is this public good aspect that we aim to capture, as we suggest that the relational payoff of an actor must depend not only upon the number of neighbors they have, but also upon their respective connectedness with these neighbors.

This means, in particular, that producing and consuming goods and services should be viewed as a means towards the maximization of people’s relational capability. This is evident—and has already been acknowledged by economists—for club commodities (Ellickson et al. (1999, 2001)); i.e. for commodities whose value increases with the number of people connected to them (such as the phone, Internet, Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Second Life, etc.). For instance, if Robinson Crusoe were the only person on Earth to own a phone, the phone would be useless; yet if he can talk with 6 billion people, the value of his phone becomes almost infinite. In a sense, our approach amounts to saying that most commodities and services share the same fundamental property as club commodities: Their value arises from the quantity and the quality of the relationships that their consumption makes possible, as well as from the richness of the relationships that were necessary to produce them. Most people do not watch TV “because” TV programs are intrinsically interesting, but “because” it is a way to enter into relationships with people who have watched the same programs (hence allowing them to share the same information about the world, dream about the same “Californian way of life,” etc.).

Think about it: would you even listen to Monteverdi, read Hegel or admire Turners’masterpieces if you were absolutely sure that nobody cared about them and nobody ever would? Of course, there are exceptions: even before meeting Friday, Robinson Crusoe needs some basic items in order to survive on his island—non-polluted oxygen, drinkable water, vitamins, natural sunlight, etc. Let us call these “basic goods.” Our viewpoint is therefore that, apart from a few basic goods (whose list should be fixed and from which many people in the world are still deprived), all commodities and services are “club goods” (or “club bads”). Some examples may facilitate understanding of this renewed approach: for instance, “blood diamonds,” whose production has lead to a war in Sierra Leone and the exploitation of children, should have a negative value regardless of the subsequent use rich Northern households make of them. Conversely, “fair trade” can be viewed as a (still ambiguous) first step towards the integration of relational capability into the price of marketed commodities, where consumers buy coffee not only “because” of its “intrinsic taste” (which, from our viewpoint, is closely related to the relationships entertained during the time spent, for instance, at breakfast, when drinking coffee with family) but “because,” by doing so, they learn the story of the Columbian producer of coffee whom they choose to sustain. Numerous situations are quite ambivalent and need a close analysis: an activity such as tourism, for instance, indicates, at first glance, the triumph of relationships over the narcissistic pleasure of consuming commodities. On the other hand, sexual tourism, such as that in South-East Asia, shows that “touristic relationships” may induce major deprivations. Obviously, this approach leads us far away from the libertarian Weltanschauung claiming that everything that receives a “free price” ipso facto becomes a legitimate market commodity. In particular, it leads us to consider the idea that markets and private contracts should be re-embedded within their surrounding society (Polanyi, 1957; Porter and Craig, 2004).

2.2 Social cohesion

In line with the Polanyian criticism of the above-described inclusive liberal society, the notion of social cohesion states that “a socially cohesive society is one where all groups have a sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, recognition and legitimacy.”

According to Bernard (1999), social cohesion entails a set of relationships in economic, political and socio-cultural spheres at the same time. These relations are can be of two kinds: formal relationships define the passive integration of people in a society through access to resources, integration into networks, and rights and entitlements. These are what Sen calls “resources” and “entitlements” (Sen, 1999). On the other hand, substantial relations define the active commitment of individuals in social interactions that express achievements of their capabilities. This is what Sen calls “functionings”. From the perspective of the capability approach, to which this paper adheres, we can refine Bernard’s typology of social cohesion…

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