Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 119–130 | Cite as

The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development

  • Dorothea KleineEmail author


Amartya Sen’s capability approach has become increasingly popular in development studies. This paper identifies controllability and operationalisability as two key stumbling blocks which prevent the capability approach from being used even more widely in development practice. It discusses the origins and application of the Choice Framework, a conceptual tool designed to help operationalise the approach. The framework can be used to deconstruct embedded ideologies and analyse the appropriateness of development goals, to map development as a systemic process, and to plan interventions which can result in increased freedom of choice for people. Three examples of the application of the Choice Framework in the field of information and communication for development (ICT4D) are given. The three technologies which are examined, telecentres (Infocentros), Chilecompra and Fair Tracing, can be placed at different places of a determinism continuum, some reducing the spectrum of choices a user has. The paper argues that while frameworks such as the Choice Framework can be developed further to increase the operationalisability of the capability approach, it is up to development funders to accept the fact that people’s choices are never fully predictable and thus Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ will inevitably be a dynamic and open-ended process.


Capability approach Amartya Sen ICT4D ICTD Internet Choice Livelihood framework Empowerment Telecentre Telecenter Design 



I would like to thank Alexandra Norrish, Diane Perrons, Robin Mansell, Macarena Vivent and Rodrigo Garrido for comments on the Chilean study, which was made possible by a Fellowship of the Dr Heinz Duerr Foundation/Studienstiftung. Thanks to colleagues on the Fair Tracing Project, to Mike Powell, Mark Thompson and Ann Light for discussions on risk and development outcomes, and to two anonymous reviewers for their comments. The Fair Tracing Project was supported by the EPSRC, Grant Number EP/E009018/1.


  1. Alkire, S. (2002). Valuing freedoms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alsop, R., & Heinsohn, N. (2005). Measuring empowerment in practice—Structuring analysis and framing indicators. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bebbington, A. J. (1999). Capitals and capabilities: A framework for analysing peasant viability, rural livelihoods and poverty. World Development, 27(12), 2021–2044.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  5. Castells, M. (2000). The information age: Economy, society and culture: The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  6. Chambers, R., & Conway, G. R. (1992). ‘Sustainable rural livelihoods: Practical concepts for the 21st century’. Discussion Paper 296. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.Google Scholar
  7. Clark, D. (2002). Visions of development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  8. DFID. (1999). Sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets. London: Department for International Development.Google Scholar
  9. Duncombe, R. (2006). Using the livelihoods framework to analyse ict applications for poverty reduction through microenterprise. Information Technologies and International Development, 3(3), 81–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Garnham, N. (2000). Amartya Sen’s “Capabilities” approach to the evaluation of welfare and its applications to communications. In B. Cammaerts & J. C. Burgelmans (Eds.), Beyond competition: Broadening the scope of telecommunications policy (pp. 25–36). Brussels: VUB University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Gerster, R., & Zimmermann, S. (2003). Information and communication technologies (ICTs) for poverty reduction? Discussion Paper. Bern: Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation.Google Scholar
  12. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  13. Gigler, B.-S. (2004). Including the excludedCan ICTs empower poor communities? Towards an alternative evaluation framework based on the capability approach, Paper presented at Fourth International Conference on the Capability Approach, Pavia, Italy (5–7 September).Google Scholar
  14. Harriss, J. (2001). Depoliticizing development—The World Bank and social capital. London: Anthem Press.Google Scholar
  15. Heeks, R. (1999). Information and communication technologies, poverty and development. Development Informatics Working Paper No. 5. Manchester: IDPM.Google Scholar
  16. Johnstone, J. (2007). Technology as empowerment: A capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics and Information Technology, 9, 73–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kleine, D. (2007). Empowerment and the limits of choice: Microentrepreneurs, information and communication technologies and state policies in Chile, (unpublished PhD thesis). Department of Geography and Environment, London, London School of Economics and Political Science.Google Scholar
  18. Kleine, D. (2008). Negotiating partnerships, understanding power: Doing action research on Chilean Fairtrade wine value chains. The Geographical Journal, 174(2), 95–191.Google Scholar
  19. Kleine, D. (2009). The ideology behind the technology—Chilean microentrepreneurs and public ICT policies. Geoforum, 40, 171–183.Google Scholar
  20. Kleine, D. (2010). ICT4What? Using the Choice Framework to operalitionalise the capability approach to development. Journal of International Development, 22(5), 674–692.Google Scholar
  21. Lessig, L. (2000). Code and other laws of cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  22. Light, A., Kleine, D., & Vivent, M. (2009). Performing Charlotte: A tool to bridge cultures in participatory design. International Journal of Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development, 2(1), 36–58. (forthcoming).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mansell, R. (2002). From digital divides to digital entitlements in knowledge societies. Current Sociology, 50(3), 407–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mansell, R. (2006). Ambiguous connections: Entitlements and responsibilities of global networking. Journal of International Development, 18(6), 901–913.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide–Civic engagement, information poverty, and the internet worldwide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Oosterlaken, I. (2008). Product innovation for human development; A capability approach to designing for the bottom of the pyramid. Working Paper of the 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology. Delft: Delft University of Technology.Google Scholar
  28. Robeyns, I. (2003a). Sen’s capabilities approach and gender inequality: Selecting relevant capabilities. Feminist Economics, 9(2/3), 61–92.Google Scholar
  29. Robeyns, I. (2003b). The capabilities approach: An interdisciplinary introduction. Department of Political Science and Amsterdam School of Social Sciences Research Working Paper, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  30. Sen, A. (1980). Equality of what? In S. McMurrin (Ed.), The Tanner Lectures on human values (Vol. 1, pp. 197–220). Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Google Scholar
  31. Sen, A. (1984). Resources, values and development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Sen, A. (1985). Well-being, agency and freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(4), 169–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sen, A. (1992). Inequality re-examined. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  34. Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Wajcman, J. (2004). Technofeminism. Oxford: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  36. Zheng, Y. (2007). Exploring the value of the capability approach for e-development’. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries. Sao Paulo, Brazil, (28–30 May).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ICT4D Collective/UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, Department of Geography, Royal HollowayUniversity of LondonEghamUK

Personalised recommendations