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Poverty Perspectives: ‘Basic Needs Approach’ vs ‘Capabilities Approach'

Updated on July 26, 2017
Can you answer my question?
Can you answer my question?

The One-dimensional Poverty Concept is Inadequate

The concept of poverty needs a clear and practical definition; it is still very much an ill-defined concept. It often finds company with the terms such as deprivation, shortages, backwardness, disempowerment, lack of development, lack of well-being, poor quality of life, human suffering, and so on. But what exactly it means to be poor?

The traditional idea of poverty associates it with lack of sufficient money, so it tries to measure poverty in terms of shortage of income. Taking forward the logic, the efforts for poverty removal then revolve around eliminating unemployment which is connected with the economic processes. But it remains a one-dimensional approach focused on income or lack of it.

Poverty researchers, in their efforts to quantify poverty, came up with the clearly tangible idea of headcounts of the poor if some number can be attached with poverty. This gave birth to the concept of monetary poverty lines – people with income below the poverty line came to be labeled poor. Modern research demands kind of concepts that can be converted into explicitly measurable parameters. That certainly leads to simplification (often oversimplification) of the concept. It hardly represents the complexity of human life. However, a lot of people still see people’s well-being only in income terms.

Following similar logic, we can also device other one-dimensional ideas of poverty. For example, poor people also lack good health, so how about some benchmark (say food or nutrition shortage) of health and then see people’s well-being only in terms of this health parameter. They also lack education so another benchmark of poverty can be education level. They also lack proper shelter, sanitation, clean water etc. Thus, each of these can provide a mono-dimensional benchmark, similar to the income poverty line.

In reality, the poor live deprived of most of these essentials needs of life at the same time. So, no single dimensional parameter can ever satisfactorily describe the state of poverty. Any oversimplified measure can provide convenience but can’t ever present the complete picture. It helps to the keep this fact in mind.

Furthermore, human well-being also has non-material dimensions, which could be psychological, social, cultural, political and environmental. They are no less important than material factors. How to count or account for them?

Anyway, the one-dimensional income poverty measure has been the favorite of policymakers to judge the impact of various policies on the lower section of the society in a general way. The World Bank still follows the $1.25-a-day “extreme poverty” line; it used to be $1-a-day until 2008. Needless to say it will remain favorite of those who see “money” as the central theme of human life.

Poverty has Several Inherent Dimensions

Both the basic needs approach and capability approach are inherently multi-dimensional, because several things matter at the same time. Human well-being cannot be reduced to income, or any single thing.

Poverty is Inherently Multidimensional

Given the presence of multiple deprivations in the life of a poor, it certainly makes sense to explore the status of his well-being in terms of various shortages (which can be correlated with different incapacities). If done at the individual level it would provide a microscopic matrix of individual shortages. Moreover, all factors – material and non-material – also depend upon the state policies and socio-political environment.

An ideal anti-poverty framework would try to eliminate all these shortages (and the associated incapacities). Since there are so many factors that don’t directly depend upon income, a comprehensive approach would aim to go beyond the stereotype prescription of tackling poverty through reducing unemployment.

The basic flaw in the ‘employment’ focus approach is that poor folks mostly have low level skills, which can only enable them to get low paid jobs. So, even if employed they can’t earn enough to tackle all deprivations. With low incomes they can only live to sustain poverty, or at best avoid sinking in deeper poverty. This may be a good situation for companies and employers to keep their expense on wages low, but certainly not for the purpose of eradicating poverty. Besides, being poor makes them vulnerable to socio-political environment, which can be often unfavorable or exploitative.

We shall discuss two approaches here that view poverty as a state of multiple deprivations. One is the basic needs approach (BNA) which views poverty as “deprivation of consumption” and the other is the capability approach (CA) in which poverty is seen as “deprivation of opportunities.”

Poor don't need charity. They need Development.
Poor don't need charity. They need Development.


A country that sells weapons should not be considered more ‘developed’ than a country that has chosen not to make weapons and export them, simply because the production of weapons makes the gross domestic product (GDP) of that particular country significantly higher. – Mehbub ul Haq

1. The Basic Needs Approach (BNA)

This basic needs approach (BNA) is simple. It identifies a bundle of basic minimum requirements of human life such as food, shelter, clothing, clean water, sanitation, and so on. People whose minimum requirements are not met are considered poor. This is the most popular idea behind state's welfare programs which are designed so that people's basic minimum needs (as prescribed) are met. Such a package guarantees subsistence to those struggling to survive. Once subsistence is assured, the poor are in better shape to improve their lives further. The ease of implementation is the core strength of this approach. Different bundles can be created for different regions or groups of people. It is thus quite flexible.

While it provides considerable flexibility to the policymakers, this approach is criticized for arbitrariness. "Experts" and bureaucrats at the top generally decide what and how much people 'need', assuming that all people have exactly the same needs, which is questionable. In reality, people value different needs differently. So, it is essentially a paternalistic approach indifferent to individuals’ preferences. Ideally, the bundle of consumption should be assessed at the individual level in terms of what people want (need). Being an input (consumption) based approach and it fails to connect poverty with people’s values and aspirations and the end result (well-being).

Origin of the BNA

In the early 1970s the idea that satisfaction of basic needs should be the primary objective of development emerged from work on employment at the International Labor Organization (ILO). Contrary to popular belief, an analysis of data on employment conditions in developing countries revealed that economic growth and employment generation do not necessarily guarantee freedom from poverty. In fact, despite working hard many people can’t fulfill their basic human needs – health, food, education, etc.

In 1977, the idea of meeting basic needs as the goal of development policy was formally introduced for the first time in a report on Employment, Growth and Basic Needs by the ILO. The idea gained policy influence when it was picked up by the then World Bank President Robert McNamara, who set up a special commission, led by Paul Streeten, to work explicitly on basic needs. The commission’s work was published in 1981, which became known as the basic needs approach.

This approach aims to provide the opportunities for the full physical, mental and social development of people. Although it aims to provide conditions for comprehensive fulfillment of human life (material, social, cultural and political), in operational terms it primarily focuses on the minimum requirements for a decent life – health, nutrition and literacy – and the goods and services needed to realize it, such as shelter, sanitation, food, health services, safe water, primary education, housing and related infrastructures.

Although the basic needs approach appealed the aid agencies due to its simplicity of implementation, it remained neglected during the 1980s and saw revival in the early 1990s, particularly with the creation of the Human Development Report and the Human Development Index in 1990.

Poverty is not an income issue.
Poverty is not an income issue.

In the capability approach, poverty is seen in terms of a shortfall of ‘basic capabilities’ or kind of ‘basic capability failure’. Such failure involves the inability to achieve certain minimally adequate levels of crucially important functionings, such as being nourished and being sheltered. Amartya Sen has explicitly related the relevant functionings to ‘basic needs’.

What is Amartya Sen's Capability Theory of Development

2. The Capabilities Approach (CA)

In the capability approach, poverty is seen in terms of a shortfall of ‘basic capabilities’ or kind of ‘basic capability failure’. Such failure involves the inability to achieve certain minimally adequate levels of crucially important functionings, such as being nourished and being sheltered. Amartya Sen has explicitly related the relevant functionings to ‘basic needs’.

The capability approach aims to empower people through developing their capabilities so that they can look after themselves. It is basically a development approach and connects the problem of poverty with the broader issue of human development. It primarily concentrates on the capabilities of people and their enhancements so that they become capable of leading the life they value. Thus, the capability approach encourages not the welfare programs, but empowerment initiatives. It firmly believes that “people are responsible for their own lives” and should have the opportunities to do so. It is clearly a people-focused approach.

It emerged in the 1980s and provided the theoretical foundation to the UNDP’s annual Human Development Reports started in 1990.

The 1998 Nobel winner economist Prof. Amartya Sen has been the pioneer of the capability approach. He worked extensively on this approach during the 1980s and 1990s which stimulated considerable interest across the world. His theory essentially consists of two indispensible elements: functionings (what people are capable of doing or being) and freedom. As a result, development is now seen as the process for creating an enabling atmosphere so that people can achieve valuable functionings and have the freedom to pursue what they value.

Functionings, Freedom and Capabilities

The functionings are defined as “the various things a person may value doing or being.” Functionings are more directly related to living conditions; they are different aspects of living conditions. It is not limited to material things only. People certainly need commodities and facilities to live in comfort but their lives have dimensions which are emotional, social and political also. Functionings include working, resting, being literate, being healthy, being part of a community, being respected, and so on. Goods and resources are important because they enable functionings. For example, having a bike enable the functioning of mobility and an Internet connection enables the functioning of connectivity, and so on. Of course, how best you make use of the bike or the Internet facility depends upon you. Therefore, not all persons will have the same functionings from the same commodities or facilities. Recognition of this individual diversity is an important feature of the capability approach.

Another crucial element of the capability approach is freedom which brings the capabilities into picture. It points to the ability to choose and prioritize different functionings – or freedom to choose a particular way of life. In other words, capability reflects people’s freedom to lead one type of life or another. Thus, any discussion on capabilities must include freedom. It is the capabilities that pull the living standards upward. In simple terms, the capabilities are “people's ability to do things taking everything into account, including external constraints as well as internal limitations.” Thus, the capabilities are closely related to the idea of opportunities.

What is ultimately important is that people have the freedoms (capabilities) to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, to do what they want to do and to be the person they want to be. The freedom here also includes freedom to participate in the social and political activities and express opinions, criticize and influence policies, and so on. Therefore, the CA considers all aspects of human life, not just the material (consumption) side.

Therefore, the scope of the capability approach is comprehensive and includes everything that affects people’s lives; it includes economic aspects but doesn't overemphasize them at the cost of others. In other words, the capability approach treats people as human being and refrains from probing their well-being through measures like income, mortality, literacy, or other such parameters because they only point to people’s functionings, not the level of freedom (capabilities) they have.

Consequences of Following the Capability Approach

It also means that people’s inputs are essential when it comes to decisions about their lives; their values and choices must be respected. Therefore, the development initiatives will follow more humanistic and more deliberative strategies – ideally, a continuous public dialogue is needed at all levels in order to sustain the capability approach. Further, the capability growth requires more than material input (It also needs institutional, social, political and cultural inputs) at various levels. Clearly such deliberations (which have empowering effect) are rarely important when a few “experts” at the top decide what people at the bottom need.

Unlike the basic needs approach, it does not prescribe a standard package of goods and services for the people but focuses on individuals’ capacity building and expanding their freedom so that they can make their own choices about how they want to live. So, the capability approach is certainly far more positive and empowering; it distinguishes between materialistic and functional achievements. In simple terms, it does not view development as merely expansion of material possessions, but as the expansion of capabilities.

Although not considered strictly a capabilities approach, the 1997 and 2007 Human Development Reports of the UNDP have underscored the importance of freedom in the anti-poverty programs which can be rephrased as follows:

“People whose lives are blighted by poverty, ill-health or illiteracy are not in any meaningful sense free to lead the lives that they value. Similarly people who are denied the civil and political rights are also deprived of the freedom to influence decisions that affect their lives.

Poverty can be seen as a state of “low human development” or of lack of capabilities. Thus, poverty removal implies the enlargement of choices, such as the opportunities to lead a long, healthy, creative life and to enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, dignity, self-respect and the respect of others.”

Rich Smile of poor girls
Rich Smile of poor girls

Difference between the BNA and the CA

The BNA sees poverty in terms of consumption deprivation (inadequate food, nutrition, clean water, education, health, etc) but the capability approach looks at poverty in terms of deprivation of opportunities related to lifestyles people value. This difference in perspective leads to very different policy initiatives.

Focusing on consumption, the BNA aims to give the poor adequate access to some minimum benchmark of consumption; thus, assuring the poor of subsistence. The capability approach, on the other hand, focuses on capacity building of people rather than how much they consume. To make the point clear, consider a project aiming to provide clean water to poor households through water pipes. The BNA would evaluate the impact of the project through a single indicator, say percentage of households with access to water.

The capability approach would judge the impact from the freedom point of view and would explore the new opportunities made possible by such intervention. For example, children and women would be no longer needed to carry water from wells or rivers which might open new opportunities say, for the children to attend school and adult women to use the extra time for new jobs. Thus, the basic concern of the capability approach is empowerment.

The relationship between the policymakers and the poor would also take different forms under the two approaches. Under the BNA, the policymakers would use their own understanding and judgment to determine the consumption package with virtually no input from the poor. It would be a paternalistic approach and the decision would be imposed on the poor. Of course, policymakers can design different bundles for different groups of people; they do have this flexibility within the paternalistic context.

On the contrary, the policymakers following the capabilities approach would refrain from prescribing some functionings-set and invite participatory discussions. It would provide considerable opportunity to the poor to raise their concerns and voices heard. This approach allows for greater focus on local values and choices; in fact, it relies upon and promotes participatory democracy.

Summarizing, while the BNA efforts are more generalized, the capabilities approach would be sensitive to local specialties. The following table summarizes the key features of basic needs approach and the capability approach.

Key Features of the Basic Needs and Capability Approach

Towards a Practical Approach

The capability approach requires focus on local factors, which would involve deliberations at all levels that makes formulation of overall policies harder. It does not recommend compiling a list of universally functionings for wider applicability. This is the inherent weakness of the capability approach.

From the practical angle, the BNA can easily be the first starting step. This, in turn, may facilitate and trigger public debates. The element of freedom, as desired by the capability approach, can be incorporated by allowing the poor to play active role not only in fine-tuning the policies at the local level, but also to suggest what would be good for them.

The Human Development Index (HDI) of the UNDP is a good example that combines the BNA and the CA. It aggregates the three dimensions of human development (health, education and living standard) into one index (the HDI). The CA provides the theoretical foundation and the BNA helped set some targeted achievements pointing to the health, education and living standard aspects. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are another well known example where poverty is recognized as multidimensional and encompass a range of functionings rather than income.


In summary, it would suffice to highlight some salient points:

  • Poverty is best viewed from multidirectional perspectives including both the material and humanistic aspects.
  • Despite profound differences, the two approaches are not incompatible with each other.
  • Though the basic needs approach is essentially top-down but is rather easy to operationalize and can provide the first step and public deliberations can be added later. The capability approach, in contrast, emphasizes people’s choices and values but is significantly cumbersome to implement.
  • Poverty reduction should not become a game of targets; it must also empower the poor and provide them opportunities to choose their valued lifestyles.


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      angel 7 months ago

      this is soooo true and im loving is so true that we should protect the earth or we wont have one.

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      Heather 14 months ago

      Hi! Great and incredibly informative article. Wondering who the author is?

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