A Capability Approach to Culture

The economist Mahbub ul Haq wrote those words in the first UN Human Development Report, published in 1990. In the 30 years since then, the idea that government’s primary goal is to strengthen people’s capabilities has been theorised by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others, and become firmly established in practice, though it is contested and far from universally applied. The capability approach, as it is usually known, is a powerful idea because it is clear, flexible and responds to people’s wishes for themselves. In 2009, Sen explained it as:

An intellectual discipline that gives a central role to the evaluation of a person’s achievements and freedoms in terms of his or her actual ability to do the different things a person has reason to value doing or being.

Amartya Sen, Cited in Ingrid Robeyns, Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-examined, Cambridge: Open Book Publishers 2017, p. 7

What matters to us is being able to do what we value. The capability approach is rooted in human rights and social justice. It asks, in Nussbaum’s words: ‘What is each person able to do and to be?’ (Martha C. Nussbaum. Creating Capabilities, The Human Development Approach, Harvard: The Belknap Press, 2011). This question is central to people’s relationship to culture, that domain of human meaning-making that is so powerful, so subjective and so universal. 

Culture is a human right, guaranteed in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects everyone’s right to participate in the cultural life of the community and enjoy the arts. This idea is the foundation of cultural policy, but it is also a cultural artefact that reflects its creators, their context and their time. 

Intended as a framework for cultural policy and planning, the 2020 Rome Charter asks how Article 27 can be a reality that improves people’s lives? 

This is where the capability approach is so valuable, because it asks what the state and its institutions can do to ensure that people have the capabilities to make their own choices.  And culture, more than any other field of human flourishing, is a matter of choice. 

The Rome Charter defines five interdependent and mutually reinforcing capabilities, any one of which may seem more or less important at different times, in different situations and to different people. How they choose to act with their capabilities is a matter for each person, because diversity is a constant in culture; it is not for the state or its institutions to decide. Culture is, and must always be, a matter of free choice. Anything less is a threat to human dignity. But that choice depends, as in their different ways ul Haq, Sen and Nussbaum all imply, on being able to develop the capabilities to be an actor within the cultural life of the community.