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What Good is Literacy? Insights and Implications of the Capabilities Approach


  • Brian Maddox


The capabilities approach has consistently promoted literacy as an important social entitlement, a key determinant of well-being and a goal of human development. This significance of literacy is reflected in the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. Nevertheless, as Martha Nussbaum highlights, adult literacy statistics are a pervasive reminder of social inequality and capability deprivation on a global scale. This paper examines the insights into literacy provided by the Capabilities Approach, and the distinctive rationale that it provides for supporting adult literacy programmes. The article begins by discussing the place of literacy in human development, and the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. In so doing, the paper examines the intrinsic value of literacy as a good, and its instrumental role in enhancing wider capabilities. The discussion is then extended in relation to ethnographic examples drawn from fieldwork in Bangladesh.

Suggested Citation

  • Brian Maddox, 2008. "What Good is Literacy? Insights and Implications of the Capabilities Approach," Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 9(2), pages 185-206.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:jhudca:v:9:y:2008:i:2:p:185-206 DOI: 10.1080/14649880802078736

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Anand, Sudhir & Sen, Amartya, 2000. "Human Development and Economic Sustainability," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 28(12), pages 2029-2049, December.
    2. P. B. Anand, 2004. "Financing the Provision of Global Public Goods," The World Economy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 27(2), pages 215-237, February.
    3. P. B. Anand, 2003. "From conflict to co-operation: some design issues for local collective action institutions in cities," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 15(2), pages 231-243.
    4. Barrett, Scott, 1994. "Self-Enforcing International Environmental Agreements," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 46(0), pages 878-894, Supplemen.
    5. Anand, P.B., 2006. "Millennium Development Goal 7: An Assessment of Progress With Respect to Water and Sanitation: Legacy, Synergy, Complacency or Policy?," WIDER Working Paper Series 001, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
    6. McFadden, Daniel, 1999. "Rationality for Economists?," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 19(1-3), pages 73-105, December.
    7. Anand, P B, 2007. "Right to water and access to water," MPRA Paper 47437, University Library of Munich, Germany.
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    Cited by:

    1. Esposito, Lucio & Kebede, Bereket & Maddox, Bryan, 2011. "Literacy Practices and Schooling: A Case Study from Mozambique," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 39(10), pages 1796-1807.
    2. Arusha Cooray (University of Wollongong), "undated". "Does Colonialism Exert a Long Term Economic Impact on Adult Literacy?," QEH Working Papers qehwps176, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford.


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