Civic Capabilities

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Justin Smith
The Public Sphere Project & St. Mary's University

Peoples can often find the path to social and economic empowerment blocked to them due to any number of circumstances whether they be lack of literacy and information, limited access to health care, a low-level of durable assets, political marginalization and so forth.


From the grassroots level up towards the international sphere peoples are seeking ways to encourage and develop capability of both individuals as well as communities to actively engage in creating the life they desire to live through promoting access to health, higher literacy and ability to collectively engage in public political action.


Taken from the work of Amartya Sen and his thesis on capabilities or substantial freedoms it is asserted that the, “expansion of basic human capabilities, including such freedoms as the ability to live long, read and write, to escape preventable illnesses, to work outside the family irrespective of gender, and to participate in collaborative as well as adversarial politics, not only influence the quality of life that the people can enjoy, but also effect the real opportunities they have to participate in economic expansion.” (Sen, and Dreze, 1999)

In essence such a statement highlights both the ends we seek to achieve in the process of development and similarly the path by which we achieve that end. If people do not have access to health how will they be able to rightfully participate in society or of the civic life of their geographical community? Also, if they can not participate, how is that they are to ensure that they will encourage and generate a level of action necessary for developing the access to health they need?

In taking a closer look at Amartya Sen's and Jean Dreze's statement above Jan Garret believes that there are important freedoms that have an instrumental role in making positive [substantial] freedom possible.

  • Political freedoms-- "the opportunities that people have to determine who should govern and on what principles, and also include the possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities, to have freedom of political expression and an uncensored press, to enjoy the freedom to choose between different political parties, and so on. They include . . . opportunities of political dialogue, dissent and critique as well as voting rights and participatory selection of legislators and executives."
  • Economic facilities— "the opportunities that individuals . . . enjoy to utilize economic resources for the purpose of consumption, or production, or exchange." The quantity of income as well as how it is distributed is important. Availability and access to finance are also crucial. (Not being able to get credit can be economically devastating.) (See: Micro-Finance, Coopertive Micro-Enterprise or Durable Assets)
  • Social opportunities--arrangements society makes for education, health care, etc.
  • Transparency guarantees--these relate to the need for openness that people can anticipate; the freedom to deal with one another with a justified expectation of disclosure and clarity. These guarantees play a clear role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility, and violation of society's rules of conduct for government and business.
  • Protective security--a social safety net that prevents sections of the population from being reduced to abject misery. Sen refers to "fixed institutional arrangements such as unemployment benefits and statutory income supplements to the indigent as well as ad hoc (temporary) arrangements such as famine relief or emergency public employment to generate income for destitutes."

As a pattern of development the idea behind Engaging Capabilities can exist as both an approach as well as map for distinct and concrete implementation of development projects and empowerment campaigns whether they be economic, political, health and gender-centric or an integrated collection of all of the above. In regards to the term engaging it is meant to refer to the normative stance that these are fundamental aspects of enabling individuals to lead lives worth living.

It is a call to both peoples who are blocked from realizing these capabilities in their day to lives to engage and work to actualize these in their lived experience, similarly it is a call to those social activist, community animators, government and international organizations working to help better their society to pursue not only the economic betterment of peoples, but to address the more holistic reality that makes up a persons lived experience.

While Sen's work has placed much emphasis upon the individual, capabilities also naturally points to the civic or community sphere in which groups of participants are able to engage in the process of not only achieving such substantial freedoms but also collectively enjoying and exercising such freedoms.

While much development may in an indirect way encourage the creation or realization of such freedoms; the purpose of engaging these capabilities as a pattern is meant to emphasise awareness of such fundamental freedoms and promote their centraility to a consiusly constructed pattern language that seeks to empower individuals and communities at all levels of society.

This means identifying and pursuing direct interaction with local, as well as national-level officials to engage in cooperative and advesarial politics. Ideally bringing about accountability, or achieve steps towards a responsiveness from of government. Affiliation with regional and transnational advocacy groups can assist accessing leverage for marginalized groups. Through engagement and a direction towards freedoms and capabilities peoples can prioritize their political battles that pressure government to pursue policies that actually equate to results in education, health and economic opportunity for those who lack these building blocks.


Ultimately, the idea of engaging capabilities is a critical component to almost any pattern language we might wish to construct. Therefore, when constructing a pattern language that is meant to address development in anyway it is necessary to consider the ways in which these projects will utilize the individual as well as collective capabilities of a community (and associated development partners) and how they will be utilized to support and encourage the further realization of these freedoms in peoples lives.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Illiteracy, lack of information, poverty, and political marginalization can block social and economic empowerment. To overcome this we must encourage and develop the Civic Capabilities of individuals and communities to actively create the lives they hope to live. Direct interaction with officials, engagement in cooperative and adversarial politics, and affiliation with other advocacy groups can bring about accountability and increased governmental responsiveness.

Pattern status: