This volume is a worthy successor to the UNU/WIDER volume The Quality of Life, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993). It continues the path‐breaking project of bringing philosophy and economic thought together in a way that prompts searching foundational criticism of some current approaches to development policy. Whereas The Quality of Life focused on mapping out debates on a variety of foundational issues, the present volume has a more concrete emphasis and arrives at a practical consensus. Starting from a variety of different philosophical positions, the contributors assess and in most respects strongly support the contributions of the ‘capabilities’ approach pioneered by Amartya Sen. They argue that it is superior to utilitarian‐economic and cultural‐relativist approaches in analysing the problems of women in developing countries and in generating creative proposals for change. They show the practical importance of this sort of basic philosophical work by relating their arguments to Martha Chen's field study of women's rights to work in India and Bangladesh, which is a centrepiece of this volume.
The problems of women in developing countries call urgently for new forms of analysis and for an approach that moves beyond utilitarian economics to identify a number of distinct components of a human being's quality of life, including life‐expectancy, maternal mortality, access to education, access to employment, and the meaningful exercise of political rights. Even when a nation seems to be doing well in terms of GNP per capita, its people may be doing poorly in one or more of these areas. This is especially likely to be the case for women, who have been treated unequally in many traditional societies, and who nowhere enjoy, on average, a ‘quality of life’ equal to that of men, when this is measured by the complex standard recommended by the ‘capabilities’ approach.
The influence and value of this approach to development in general and to sex inequality in particular can already be seen in the 1993 and 1994 volumes of the UNDP Human Development Report. The present volume presents and examines the arguments that supply the basis for that influence. Under the leadership of Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover, the quality of life project has continued to generate new modes of analysis while grappling very concretely with the urgent practical concerns of women in developing nations. The volume is noteworthy for its emphasis on the direct practical value of theoretical inquiry, and for the dialogue it represents among thinkers from many different nations and traditions. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that it appears before the forthcoming United (p.vi) Nations Summit on Women, in Beijing as UNU/WIDER's contribution to that conference.
Economic Adviser to the
President of Sri Lanka
Former Director, UNU/WIDER