By now everyone in my family including my nieces who are 3 years old have heard of Amartya Sen. I love his work and the empathy with which he approaches issues… I vividly remember a conversation with my supervisor in 2007 at Wellesley (Prof Lindauer) where I told him that I must quit economics because it was for selfish crooked individuals who would do anything to maximise monetary gains. After a two-hour long conversation, it dawned on me that Economics (as a field) had much to offer and that we, as humans, were just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential for changing lives positively including for the most marginalised. Later, when I read Amartya Sen, it all made sense.
It was therefore with great anticipation and a bit of fear that I joined the HDCA conference in Cape Town. Why fear? Most of the people I quote and read at 3am were to attend the conference from Sabina Alkire to Elaine Unterhalter to Caroline Haart to Mario Biggeri and more. It was like the Oscars for academics working on the Capability Approach (CA)! And I was going to present there – and secretly wished no one (except the chair and co-panellists) would show up for my presentation. To my great surprise, many came and the comments I got were so encouraging. My thematic panel was entitled, “Challenging inequalities of identity” and engaged the audience on cases from Sri Landa, India, and Niger on how differential access to quality education may occur in context where people define their identities as being distinctly different from the established norm(s).
What are three keys points I like about the conference?
Point1: The summer school was so well-organised
Two days before the conference, a small group of young scholars attended the Summer School. It started on a Sunday at 8am with topic as deep as Capability Approach and Education Systems… and people stayed awake. It was an opportunity to learn with more depth about the CA as applied to health and education in particular but also share our insights on how we are approaching our own research. One point that I will remember is Prof Sridhar Venkatapuram’s introduction to the talk “Capability Approach & Health Justice”: he talked about the great famine 1877-1878 that claimed over 6 to 10 million deaths. When he asked us why and how the state watched on as the famine enfolded… my response was, the colonial powers had come to view the indigenous populations as less than human – that it was “easier” and “acceptable” to watch people they have de-humanised die. It turns out, one of the theories driving the silence and lack of action to save these human lives was…. Malthus. To this regard, Amartya Sen writes, “a misconceived theory can kill, and the Malthusian perspective of food-to-population ratio has much blood on its hands.” This, to me, speaks to the great responsibility we have as scholars because theories could have serious and real life implications for people who often may not have the means to contest that theory.
Point2: The people I quote are real and so human
The panels were all of an exceptional quality. Every panel left me with new insights – some for empirical applications and others for their theoretical contributions. Most importantly, I appreciated the size of the conference – small with a high-intensity of relevant speakers. Most of the mega-stars in the field are so down-to-earth and approachable – the set-up of the conference made it easy to interact with speakers during sessions but also during tea breaks. I still marvel at how much the conference managed to fit without the whole experience being overwhelming. One of the most important encounters I made was that with Elaine Unterhalter… Why? First, when I started my PhD we were asked to think of a role model, a scholar that we admire and would want to look up to. I naturally searched for African women economists… I could not find many, and the few I found did not particularly speak to my heart and mind. (If you know any non-known names African women economists, please share). So Elaine Unterhalter, even if she is not an economist, came close to write about issues I cared about and in a way that spoke to questions I had been struggling with. I was star-struck when I met her and asked for a photo (as I did when I met Seguino in July in Seoul at the feminist economics conference). Most importantly, I came convinced that I must publish – all the authors I read and quote do not write out of certainty of having writing a perfect draft. They write to further the discourse and make contribution.
Point3: The breath of perspectives and countries
I bonded with a participant from Bangladesh who does her PhD in Australia on children, learning outcomes, and the capability approach… She used participatory approach to assess her findings. Others were using this approach to analyse the telecom industry. I realised that the strength of this theory could also be its Achilles tendon: the theory is broad enough to encompass many things but in its broadness, it could be misused to justify approaches that would serve the very outcomes that this approach sought to tackle… issues about injustice, inequality, and freedom. The roundtable with Solava Ibrahim (a dear friend and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge), Sabina Alkire, Richardson, and Robeyns spoke to some of these issues.
One of the keynotes’ panellists was particularly provocative. In my understanding of the CA and what it means, fighting inequality remains a core tenant of this approach. Therefore, any talks of progress based on averages could be so misleading. I was shocked to hear leading experts of international organisations speak of ‘progress although pockets of inequality remain’. Could we speak of progress when inequity prevails and so starkly demarcates life opportunities based on variables the person has no control over? Progress often lags where it is most needed, so where it occurs where it is to be expected, should we still call it ‘progress’? At times, in an attempt to ‘leave no one behind’ on targets, so many are left behind in reality. My research looks into some of these aspects where the targets become the end goal rather than the very change they are intended to bring.
Point *Bonus*: South Africa, you aren’t a rainbow if you aren’t complex
Thanks to the presence of two South African friends, I believe I have experienced a deeper South Africa than our conference bubble could have offered – the participants and organisers themselves did not miss the irony that a conference on inequality was being held at a 5* hotel… In our journeys across South Africa, from Cape Town to Robben Island to Jozie (Johannesburg), one of the things that stayed with me was the ongoing questioning of this nation struggling, shaping, and striving for so many things – the struggle is real. With all its protruding contradictions, South Africa is building itself. I was left with many wonderful memories with friends and family (yes Nigerien aunt and cousin in South Africa), a book, and an album by a young South African who speaks unapologetically about where his country is, what progress means (if any), and sings his heart out about Sizwe, the Nation.