EU’s democracy promotion abroad – applying ideal democracy approaches by Sen and Nussbaum

Source: Becky van Ommen Photography

Both Sen and Nussbaum apply what is known as the ‘capability approach’ into their research. While Sen is concentrating on individual freedom, Nussbaum has created a list which focuses on human dignity. Taking their vision of democracy into account, the European Union (EU) will have to measure poverty and development away from the basis of primary goods and income. Poverty is seen as a barrier for citizens who want to live a happy life, while development is understood as expanded capabilities of the people. Both Sen and Nussbaum argue that what is important in democracy promotion is the enhancement of capabilities, not the economic performance of a state. The focus of the capability approach is with the human conditions and what states or institutions are able to do to improve them. People’s capabilities are not just measured by material goods, but also health, housing, education and other essentials that will help them to be able to participate better in a democracy. In this case, ethics and economics are merged together to create a more equitable distribution of wealth. It regards diversity as something that needs to be addressed, because people’s ability to participate in a society and to achieve well-being depends on their own experiences. The ‘capability approach’ wants to address inequality, justice and social exclusion in much of a broader sense. In the EU, poverty and social exclusion are still measured by income and access to market. Sen’s approach, however, will push the EU to split people into target groups and to provide resources to them according to their needs. For example, people who are poor in terms of their income, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the illiterate and the migrants might have different needs for their capacity to participate fully in a democracy. Each of these people needs to be provided with different kind of support. Here, income is still an indicator, but is not considered as the most important because it is only one of the measures that affects capability deprivation. Promotion of democracy, rule of law and human rights of the EU works mostly under EU’s development assistance. The capability approach wants to move away from this framework, placing the focus on the individuals (quality of life), rather than only focusing on economic growth and improving institutions (e.g., election monitoring and training for a state parliament). If the EU incorporated the capability approach, it would be expected that the EU would invest more in human capacities (whether it is improving education or increasing opportunities abroad). Education, for example, is instrumental because without it people will not be able to make informed decision when it comes to voting. Furthermore, rule of law will only be respected when citizens understand their responsibilities and rights. Sen argues that a country should be able to ‘fit through democracy’, not ‘fit for democracy’. Democracy in this case helps to make people’s ability to function to be more equal. The EU should help to highlight the intrinsic, instrumental and constructive value of democracy as argued by Sen. It is clear, either when we took Sen’s or Nussbaum’s approach, that the ‘one-size fits all’ approach of the EU need some reconsideration. However, while the capability approach is truly beneficial for a democracy, how they will work in practice is still unknown.

Holst, C. (2010). ‘Martha Nussbaum’s outcome-oriented theory of justice’. Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, ARENA. [17 March 2014].
Robeyns, I. (2011). ‘The Capability Approach’. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online]. Available from: [17 March 2014].
Sen, A. (1999). ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’. Journal of Democracy. 10.3 (3-17). [17 March 2014].
Wells, T. (Unknown). ‘Sen’s Capability Approach’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online]. Available from: [17 March 2014].

by Nadira Irdiana, A graduate of the University of Groningen, MA International Relations (Global Governance)

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