Why projects don’t work

Since the start of the pandemic, I have been preoccupied by its traumatic effects. Some of the losses are obvious, in the numbers of deaths reported daily, each life a world and the focus of grieving relatives and friends. Increasingly clear too are the lost jobs and businesses, each an iceberg tip of hardship, anxiety and pain. Less apparent, but affecting even more people, are the lost futures: the exams prepared, the college places secured, the careers envisaged, to say nothing of the emotional futures lost as relationships have been strained or broken by lockdown. These ‘anticipated lives’ might seem less important than the hard fact of redundancy, but their loss can be devastating. How should a teenager respond to the realisation that the path in life they have been working towards has vanished into mist? Multiply that by the millions who will leave high school this summer without a secure destination and the scale of the trauma is truly daunting,  

The capabilities approach has transformed ideas of human development in recent years, through the work of Amartya SenMartha Nussbaum and others. The term is not immediately clear and the theory behind it can be complex, but at its heart is a simple vision expressed by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq:

“The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.”

Dr Mahbub ul Haq, UNDP Pakistan

These thinkers consider that a good society must ensure that all citizens have access to the means and opportunities to pursue their own development on their own terms: these are the capabilities without which no human being can flourish. In Creating Capabilities (2011), Martha Nussbaum lists the central capabilities as: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; control over one’s environment. Although community art predates the current iteration of these ideas, its concept of cultural democracy is entirely consistent with it. These capabilities are the basic human resources that some humans can take for granted and others never attain. In her book, Nussbaum cites the work on disadvantage of two other scholars, Jonathan Wolff and Avram De-Shalit: 

“First, they propose a focus not simply on the presence or absence of key capabilities but on their security. People need to have not just a capability today but a secure expectation that it will be there tomorrow.”

Martha C. Nussbaum. Creating Capabilities

And that’s the point. That is why people’s lost futures matter so much now. Structural disadvantage arises not only from whether people have access to capabilities, but from whether that access can be relied upon. Any idea that we were equally vulnerable to Covid-19 has been dispelled by the dramatically different outcomes within and between countries. The illness may be natural but the response to it is not, and it greatly influences a person’s chance of survival.

Likewise, social inequalities have defined people’s experience of lockdown and their vulnerability to the losses it will produce. All of us will be hurt by this trauma, but some will suffer less and recover more easily because their access to basic capabilities will not be at risk. For others, especially those who could not rely on that access in the world before Covid-19, both loss and recovery will be far, far harder. Leaders now face an enormous task of reconstruction – not only politicians at national level, but leaders in every business, charity, cultural organisation or voluntary group. They would be wise to follow ul Haq’s vision of ‘an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives‘ by focusing on rebuilding people’s secure access to the essential capabilities of a good life.

PS – Why don’t projects work? Because, however valuable each one may be, they always end. They are not provided as a right, but as a concession, their remedial intent curtailed by their short-term horizons. Disadvantage can only be overcome by people who can rely on having secure access to the means and opportunities for development.