Many lessons have been taught from two verses in the book of James.

“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;’ not withstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (James 2:15-16, KJV)

I suggest the reader explore these verses with a different perspective.

We have all been in situations where a loving heart wants to help, but a lack of awareness keeps us from providing what is truly needed. Reviewing these verses, we can acknowledge that encouragement is not a bad thing. It simply missed what the need was.

A brother or sister didn’t need encouragement. They needed food and shelter. The need was missed; therefore, the solution to the need was misplaced.

Sometimes, we need to see things from a new perspective to get down to the true issues, the actual problems faced. This brings me to the Capability Approach, or CA.

I was introduced to CA through the writings of Amartya Sen, including The Idea of Justice, Development as Freedom, and Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

Sen is Nobel-prize-winning economist with an interest in international development who became dis-satisfied in how well-being was evaluated among and between nations.

Internationally, well-being has been seen as an economic term, measured by such indexes as gross domestic product and gross national product. Sen created CA to measure the health of a nation based on the well-being of its people, not solely on its economic achievements.

As Nuno Martins explains, CA argues that advantage should be measured not only in terms of achieved well-being, but also in the very freedom needed to achieve well-being.

The capability to have well-being is based on the freedom to choose the life one wants to live and to be free to choose the things needed for that desired life, according to writings of Martha C. Nussbaum and Sen.

Not having this freedom to function from a position of capability may lead to disadvantage, which exists when an individual’s capability to function freely is limited or reduced. When this happens, the result can be personal disadvantage, capability failure and reduced well-being.

More than economic poverty, the denial of opportunities and choices for living life brings about disadvantage, as J.B.G. Tilak explained in discussing education and poverty. Disadvantage can be seen as the expression of the complexity of capability failure and lack of function.

If a child is guaranteed a free education, but because of disadvantage is unable to attend or attends with compromised ability to focus and learn, not having the freedom to function or to access the free education makes the free education guarantee pointless.

The capability to be educated is of little value if there is no freedom to function within the capability, Tilak asserted. This freedom to function in a society reflects the freedom to advance one’s own well-being.

CA can also be viewed as a universal theory of the good.

Through this lens, Nussbaum set forth a list of what she considered 10 essential capabilities in her book Creating Capabilities: 1) life, 2) bodily health, 3) bodily integrity, 4) senses, imagination and thought, 5) emotions, 6) practical reason, 7) affiliation, 8) other species, 9) play and 10) control over one’s environment.

Nussbaum’s adaptation of the capability approach added a societal responsibility for ensuring a population has recognized capabilities. She moved Sen’s CA toward a theory of justice from a framework of evaluation.

Poverty has long been defined as a deficiency of income and resources. Therefore, any strategy designed to address poverty places great importance on investing money and material, as Xu Yanhui and Gong Ziyu explained in a journal article analyzing poverty in Shenzhen, China.

Direct compensation, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments, is often used to address a disadvantage or capability failure. Compensation tends to be seen as the cure-all, a monistic solution to disadvantage.

However, this approach does not consider that there are many things that cash cannot substitute for, such as dignity and self-worth. Compensation does not always address capability failure. Not every form of disadvantage can be compensated.

Capability poverty is more comprehensive than income poverty, as Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit explain in their book Disadvantage. As such, improvements in social quality and community capacity are recommended for alleviating capability poverty.

Yanhui and Ziyu made a similar observation: “Poverty not only refers to lowness of income; it must also be viewed as the deprivation of basic capabilities to obtain chances of survival.”

CA can inform the actions of leaders by helping them to assign meaning and value on those items seen as meaningful and valuable in the CA philosophy: dignity for individuals, ethical behavior, opportunities for marginal populations, and functioning over outcomes.

A CA-influenced leader will recognize well-being as the achieved functioning of “certain human capabilities that are important to a person’s well-being,” according to Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen in their book Hunger and Public Action.

When we view issues from a CA lens, we add a different perspective as to how we normally see issues of poverty and disadvantage.

When we only view problems from a resource-oriented lens, we may miss how people are actually doing, observed Elaine Unterhalter and Melanie Walker in an article discussing capabilities, social justice and education.

By evaluating the capability of individuals, as opposed to what they have available, perhaps we can come closer to meeting the true needs of our brothers and sisters as the writer of James urged.

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