Last week I (Keri) went to the 2011 conference of the Human Development and Capability Association. It was a very exciting conference, with some big names from the UNDP, the World Bank, OPHI, among others. I was most excited to hear Martha Nussbaum, one of the founders of the “capability approach” with Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics and the author of the popular book, Development as Freedom.

The Capability (or Capabilities) Approach, also known as the Human Development Approach, is in its broadest sense, a theory of justice and in its most practical, a novel comparative quality-of-life assessment scheme. The former is more closely associated with the work of Martha Nussbaum and the latter with that of Amartya Sen. The Capability Approach has far reaching consequences and touches subjects beyond its original associations with development economics; at this conference, I was overwhelmed by the multitude of specialties that came together to develop ideas within the theoretical framework provided by the Capability Approach.

The Capability Approach focuses on the development of capabilities with the goal of allowing individuals to live the life they have reason to value. It arose as a response to the predominant and limited understanding of progress only in terms of economic development. Sen refers to capabilities as “substantial freedoms”; they are both abilities held by an individual and the opportunity to exercise those abilities in one’s social, economic, familial and political environment—internal capabilities and combined capabilities, respectively. In one of Sen’s famous definitions, he defines a person’s “capability” as follows: “a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve. Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations” (from Nussbaum, 2011, p. 20). Thus the term capability is simultaneously associated with concepts of opportunity, freedom, skills and abilities.

I went to the conference with the intention of discerning the discourse around the field of education. The first day I felt as if my head was going to explode, the second I started to get my feet under me, and by the third, I was eagerly asking questions. I left with a tension: a deep frustration at the materialistic assumptions that govern the development discourse  and a simultaneous awe at the great progress that has been made and the dedication of these great minds and hearts to the elimination of injustice.

As an elaboration on the former, as Bahá’ís we know that “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.” Interestingly, this quotation from Bahá’u’lláh comes from His letter to Queen Victoria. Bahá’u’lláh is reminding the western world that we cannot forget faith; nothing but the transformative power of the Word of God will bring true peace and justice to this world. At the conference, there were two poignant moments for me when I realized there was not yet room for this spiritual worldview in the current discourse. One was when an Indian economist was presenting. During the question and answer period, a question was raised about how to combat illiteracy. His stated with complete confidence, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that the desire to learn to read must come from within – it must be an internal motivation – and this comes from peace with one’s soul. Let me tell you, after that reply, it was complete silence. Another example was during a presentation from a woman who worked with youth in Palestine, focusing on how to nurture their aspirations. When prompted, she admitted that many of the youth’s conception of the future included a strong conception of the afterlife. She didn’t know how to deal with this, so she simply ignored it in her research.

All of that being said, I must say with complete sincerity that I felt great admiration for the motivation that drove many of those at this conference: to bring to all the people of the world a life worthy of human dignity. We know, as the Universal House of Justice has told us, that Bahá’ís will not be the only ones who build this new world civilization. It was obvious to me this is one of those “groups and organizations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, [that] will contribute to the civilization destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society” (Ridvan Message 2010).

As Bahá’í’s we have a responsibility to take part in the building of our own community’s capacity to contribute to the “manifold and diverse dimensions of civilization building,” knowing that Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation is the most powerful light in this dark world. At the same time, it is important to retain our humility and recognize that we are not alone in our aspirations for world peace; others are also working alongside us and contributing to the new world order’s unfolding. I look forward to learning more about the Capability Approach and discerning how I can bring some of the fruits from Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to contribute to its discourse.