Imagine an hourglass and think of one of the countless impoverished communities in South Africa. Ask yourself: How do we enrich the lives of the people in these communities and equip them with the skills to secure sustainable employment opportunities? If you fill the hourglass with resources and turn it over, these resources will trickle down steadily, but leave few lasting effects for the community. Therefore, the question remains unanswered.
According to director of the Optentia research unit at the North-West University (NWU), the sand in that hourglass should be a focus on capability development rather than resources.
“Our research shows that work capabilities are essential for sustainable employability. Sustainable employability means that workers can achieve tangible opportunities by acquiring a set of capabilities. Also, they enjoy the conditions that enable them to make a valuable contribution through their work now and in the future, while safeguarding their health and well-being,” explains Prof Rothmann.
“A capability-centric approach is more effective than a resource-centric approach because it focuses on what people are able to do and be, rather than simply the resources they have. Resources only have value because of what individuals can be and do by using and converting such resources into valuable outcomes. Therefore, equity in capabilities – which means the freedom people have to achieve goals – is more important than equality in resources.”
The mission of Optentia is to develop and organise knowledge for the optimal expression of individual, social and institutional potential, with a specific interest in the African context. And, according to Prof Rothmann, the research by the NWU and Optentia into sustainable employability is vital to ensure sustainable liveability.
“Due to global change processes, people and institutions face precarious conditions, which result in precarious jobs and lives. Individuals in our society are also changing – they want to be involved, participate, and feel enabled in their work. Optentia is interested in understanding the capabilities that people need to participate in and benefit from work. Our research uses the capability approach to understand human development and well-being. By focusing on work capabilities, we move away from income-led evaluation methods to focus on people's ability to achieve what they value, and on common normative principles such as inclusiveness, fairness, equality and justice in our approach to studying work.”
The NWU is committed to helping achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which, among other outcomes, include the promotion of sustained and inclusive economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
In this regard, the research being done by the team at Optentia is invaluable, as it also shows how equality of opportunity translates to social justice better than equality of resources.
“In a just society, the focus should be on developing and supporting the capabilities of each member of society. Society should provide freedom and genuine opportunities for individuals to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it, and alter their life plans accordingly. Understanding the nature and sources of capability deprivation and inequity is central to removing injustices. Focusing on social justice aligns with the principle that, without fairness, people will not experience mattering to its fullest extent, resulting in poor well-being and performance,” says Prof Rothmann. “Equality of opportunity is the idea that everyone should have the same opportunities to succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances. Equality of resources is the idea that everyone should have the same amount of resources, such as income, wealth and education. Equality of opportunity is more likely to translate to social justice than equality of resources because it is more inclusive and enabling. Equality of opportunity takes into account the fact that people have different needs and abilities. It allows people to choose their path in life and achieve their full potential. Equality of resources, on the other hand, can create a disincentive for people to work hard and achieve their goals. It can also lead to conflict and resentment as people compete for scarce resources. Therefore, a universal policy that gives everyone the same resources, regardless of their needs, values, enablement and achievement, amounts to social injustice,” he concludes.
Back to the hourglass. As more time passes and the resources trickle through, so the woes of our communities most desperate in need continue to grow. The answer? If the resources sand is replaced with that of capability development, a multitude of benefits result. The NWU is replacing sand in the hourglass and stopping opportunities from escaping.
Prof Ian Rothmann