Capability (n): power and ability

To describe a culture, a place, a country, an environment – it’s the job of a writer, but never an easy task; entire fields of academic inquiry have emerged in its pursuit. When asked tell me about where you live or tell me about Rwanda, I —we— tend toward two modes for response.

Last Friday evening, during a Google Hangout with an American high school, both were in full effect. The event was an interesting concept, engineered by Steve, my friend/colleague just across the border in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo: discussing our experiences in DRC and Rwanda to a group of high schoolers studying the Rwandan Genocide. Six thousand miles, I joked, is the most effective amount of distance between myself and one hundred high school juniors. The event took place in an auditorium and the teacher set up smartphones around the room, streaming video to the Hangout link so we could move between the feeds, seeing either the main projection of our own video transmissions or the kids themselves, hunched over their notebooks. Flipping between feeds triggered flashbacks of my own high school: a rainbow of coloured hoodies, eye liner, persistent adolescent acne. 

It’s a peculiar feeling, to talk without having the interpersonal signals of turn-taking, present in a conversation or judged facing the audience from the centre lectern of a university hall. Talking into a chat, answering a question that you’ve rehearsed earlier in the day, skimming notes. Here, the mild discomfort of public speaking is exacerbated by distance, time difference, and the continual finger-crossing that your internet connection wouldn’t fail.

What is it really like to live there? I listened to Steve answer that seminal question, relating his observations of the state of the country to the earlier discussion of DRC’s history as King Leopold’s private colony. Today: broken roads, broken buildings, broken economy, broken society. I think we always want to understand why – why is the DRC so seemingly broken – is it the years of stress, the trickle down depression of a lack of opportunity: why strive when there is nothing to strive to? This is what happens when power, money, and opportunity are so heavily concentrated with a small elite, leaving the rest of the country to fend for themselves.


Sambaza fishing boats at dusk on Lake Kivu, the primary border between Rwanda and DRC

I glanced down at my own notes to prepare for my response. Thinkers, we gravitate toward statistics to flesh out the background or foundation of the environment: something cold, hard, empirical about listing numbers, even if math was forever my poorest subject and statistics even more dismal. For Rwanda, when talking about the past, it’s a bleak numeric parade: of those who lived through the Genocide, 99.9% witnessed violence, 69% witnessed someone being killed, 87.5% saw dead bodies (UNICEF, National Trauma Survey, 1995). Earlier in the week I’d calculated brighter statistics – completing my program’s midyear report with its requirement for quantifying five months’ work to produce statistics – how many served, how many trainings ran, how many additional projects – the language that Congress requires when determining the efficacy and value of English Language Programs and whether it merits continued operation.

These are the two descriptive tendencies: to list what is wrong, or to rely on numbers. The first is a natural tendency, especially for Americans, with our cultural orientation that — problems can be surmounted, challenges can be fixed, so we quite naturally focus on what is wrong, what is not “right.” Tell me what is wrong, and I will know what I can work to fix. Give me the numbers, and I will drive them down to a more reasonable rate. 70% illiteracy? The right band aid, and we can make that 40%.

When describing our work in our respective countries, we do this constantly, especially for those of us working in Africa, where the challenges often appear insurmountable, the proverbial hummingbird transporting droplets of water to quell a raging inferno (see: Wangari Maathai). It’s a problem of orientation and focus: what if we flipped the orientation, instead of finding the negatives, look for the places where opportunity exists?

This describes, in a poorly constructed nutshell, the framework for evaluating well-being proposed by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen: Capabilities Approach (CA), the evolving effort of his lengthy career which has been co-opted within the past decades for its significance in education in low-income or developing contexts. CA involves a comprehensive framework for conceptualising – describing, to borrow my earlier word – what he terms “functionings” achieved by individual persons and translated into capabilities that indicate well-being and freedom (Sen, 1990). Actual capabilities are many, and functionings can be decided according to the context, possibly including “the ability to be well nourished, to avoid escapable mortality, to read, write and communicate, to take part in the community, to appear in public without shame” (p. 126). Instead of measuring a country’s position by their GDP, CA focuses on their well-being and capacity to “bring about changes that they value” within their communities (Tikly & Barrett, 2014, p. 7).

At its simplest, CA looks to change the language that we use and see how it automatically disempowers a people, to focus on the disadvantages that emerge when compared to a wealthier group. It’s not just political correctness at work – it mirrors the word choice with handicapped and disabled, focusing on what they don’t have, now reframed to different-abled and handicap able. It’s returning power to people, returning their sense of ownership over their persons and possibilities.

For my work and my context, CA requires understanding of the environment and forcing my perspective away from the continued parade of what “isn’t” there. I have to ask myself, instead of filling holes, does the EL Fellow Factor broaden a person’s capabilities within their context? What are my students able to access after they have left my class?  How does my work, the work of every Fellow in their unique and separate context, hoping that we operate in ways that value and promote our teacher trainees and language learners’ existing capabilities and enables them to channel this into the improvement of their communities. How do I report on this community in a way that demonstrates what they can accomplish, instead of what they lack?

Steve, in closing his response about life in the DRC, gravitated, CA style, to the humanity of people he encountered, those with materially little but an unending supply of hospitality, grace, gratitude, compassion. Westerns often report being shocked by how those in developing countries will share their last food with you – how we are shocked by the kindness of strangers, how we think of the selfishness we might have if we faced their daily challenges of feeding their families and escaping commonplace violence. So, we already do this: we end with the positive.

So that’s my goal, moving forward. To look for the potential positive, to understand what Rwandans do that we Westerners don’t have even the ingenuity to enact, to evaluate and reflect, to think in terms of capabilities instead of disabilities, to figure out how to present this to the world … or even just to American high school students on the other side of video feed.

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. K. (1990) Gender and cooperative conflict. In: I. Tinker (ed.) Persistent inequalities. New York: Oxford University Press, 123-149.

Tikly, L., and Barrett, A. M. (2011) Social justice, capabilities and the quality of education in low income countries. International Journal of Educational Development, 31 (1), 3-14.