Thursday, August 12, 2010

Desires, Aspirational Capabilities, and the Missing Dimensions of Poverty

In thinking about the multiple dimensions of poverty and wellbeing, we should not underestimate the role of aspirations and desires.  Often there is an implicit distinction between the "desires" of the developed world (us) and the "needs" of the rest (Them), and this can seduce us into an easy and well-intentioned paternalism that discounts the dreams, hopes, and aspirations that motivate and orient long-term thinking, even among the poor.

This is not to say that material poverty doesn't matter.  It does, and the crushing material conditions of lived poverty shape the options and capabilities open to the poor.  But, as my friend Bart Victor always reminds me, "the poor" are not singular, as much as we may talk about them as such ("what we need to do to help the poor is . . . "); the poor are different not just from you and me but from each other as well, and poverty is always experienced in myriad quotidian and local ways.  And, even those suffering the worst sorts of absolute poverty say that they don't want their children to be poor-they dream of something more, something better for them, however that "better" might be defined.          

This speaks to the aspirations and desires that fuel self-determination.  It is odd, as Arjun Appadurai (2004) points out, that so much of anthropology defines "culture" in terms of the past when the folks we interact with are just as eager to talk about the future.  Appadurai outlines a "capacity to aspire" that provides a sort of dynamic metapreference structure for individual choices; it is a "navigational capacity" that orients horizons of desire and visions of alternative futures.  And the capacity to aspire is diminished, Appadurai argues, in conditions of poverty.

Appadurai characteristically does us a great service, giving us a conceptual language to think about local desires in the context of international development.  In fleshing out that project, we should stress the verdant landscape of desires and aspirations that do exist, even among the poor.  In Broccoli and Desire, Pete Benson and I make the case for taking seriously Maya farmers' desires for the future, even when those are at odds with our own distant moral projects.  Taking a capabilities approach, after all, means giving up some power, opening the possibility that those we seek to help will make choices we may see as counter-productive other otherwise "bad."

Debraj Ray (2006) important work notes that "poverty stifles dreams, or at least the process of attaining dreams."  She introduces the concepts of the "aspirations window" and the "aspirations gap," both explicitly defined socially in terms of relative standing to and relations with those with whom one interacts.

The role of aspirations and desires are seen clearly in times of boom and bust.  James Ferguson (1999), in a powerful account of the aftermath of the copper boom in Zambia, shows how expectations of a particular modernity had become important, internalized motivational forces; the aspirations window of ordinary Zambians opened wide and provided new points of reference for dreams of the future.  After the bust, these dreams became unviable, and new outlooks, disconnected from the modernist aspirations of the global ecumene, emerged: the material conditions shaping the form and limiting the range of aspirational capabilities.

Turning to another corner of the southern hemisphere, take the case of Maya farmers in Guatemala growing broccoli and snow peas for export to the United States.  Some argue that Maya farmers need to focus on subsistence production, growing corn and beans to ensure their own food security.  And there is good reason for such concerns.  But, talking to Maya farmers we hear a different vision of their future, one unironically modern.  Farming is hard work-something we sometimes forget from our distant studies-and Maya farmers want algo más (something more, something better) for themselves and their children.  They see export agriculture as the risky business that it is (fragile crops, fickle markets), but they also see in it hope for a better future for their kids.

In contrast to the methodological individualism of much of neoclassical economics, a notion of "desires" and "aspirations" should see them as shaped by collective experiences, cultural images, and political economic structures.  As Pete Benson and I have written, desires move individuals to take up stakes in certain activities that are compelling because they embody moral, economic, or symbolic values. As such, desires are specific to local worlds, which are themselves part of larger systems of production and affected by large-scale processes.

In this way, desires and aspirations form a key "capability" in the Senian sense.  Sabina Alkire, James Foster, and others at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) have developed an innovative framework that incorporates the "missing dimensions" of poverty: employment, physical safety, the ability to go about without shame, agency, and subjective wellbeing.  While agency and wellbeing capture certain aspects of an aspirational capability, there is value in treating aspiration as a capability in its own right, mutually constitutive with agency, for example, rather than subsumed to it. 

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