External Capabilities

OPHI Working Papers

The capability approach of Amartya Sen evaluates well-being in terms of an individual’s achievements and abilities to function. The traditional view of capabilities is that they are discernable as part of an individual’s own set of characteristics, or as part of a package of socially provided services. We argue that individuals also have access to a broad array of capabilities through their family, friends and other persons with whom they have relationships. We introduce the concept of ‘external capabilities’, which are defined as those abilities to function that are conferred by direct connection or relationship with another person. Several examples are provided, and we distinguish between our new concept and other existing notions of capabilities originating in groups. The perspective of external capabilities can be especially valuable in formulating development policies or understanding how existing policies work. As an illustration of this, we show how information and communications technologies (ICT) can enhance development by augmenting external capabilities.

Authors: James Foster and Christopher Handy

Year: 2008

Citation: Foster, J. and Handy, C. (2008). 'External capabilities', OPHI Working Paper 8, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford.

Also published in K. Basu and R. Kanbur (eds.), Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, ch. 19, Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780199239115.

capabilities, development, freedom, social networks, well-being


James Foster and Christopher Handy

Series Name
OPHI Working Papers
Publication date
Publication Number
WP 08