Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

NZJER Special Issue: Human Capability

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

NZJER Special Issue: Human Capability

Article excerpt


The genesis of this special issue lies in the conclusion of the editors' FoRST funded research 'Developing human capability: employment institutions, organisations and individuals', and in the tenth anniversary of the 'human capability framework' developed by the Department of Labour in 1999 to assist policy thinking on the labour market. Hence, this issue comprises six articles which utilise in different ways the concept of human capability and its development.

Dictionary definitions typically refer to capability as either 'ability and power' or as 'underdeveloped or unused faculty'. In relation to people, there is a sense in this definition of capability referring to human potentialities rather than actual human actions. In this sense, the concept of human capability and its development lends itself to a number of areas within the domain of employment relations, particularly with regard to workplace skills and skills development, an area which has been the focus of much recent effort from the macro- to the micro- level in developed states such as New Zealand.

At one level, therefore, human capability is perhaps indistinguishable from the notion of human capital, whereby human qualities, either innate or learned, have the potential to be employed in production in much the way that physical capital is. Human capability from this perspective becomes reduced to the utility people have in production. Similarly, capability development becomes reduced to the acquisition of skills and other human qualities that are of relevance and use to the workplace. Given the dominance of human capital theory in the disciplines informing employment relations, it is perhaps reasonable to ask what usefulness a new term - human capability - has for something that already has been 'named' and informs discourse and practice. The articles in this issue hope to address this question by encouraging the reader to think of human capital in more holistic terms by centring attention on the 'human' part in human capital. In doing so, emphasis is placed on people as social beings brought into existence for social reasons rather than for their use in production. It also acknowledges that individuals differ in their innate and learned qualities and motivations, including those that are useful to production.

Also, in this expanded view, sites of production become recognised as sites of social production as well as of commodity production and thus subject to societal tensions and contradictions as to what constitutes development. Similarly, a broad view of sites of production recognises that human capital and its development goes beyond bringing about economic development but also brings about social development. Most of the articles in this issue take this more expansive interpretation of human capital, and, principally drawing on the various works of A. K. Sen (the Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1998) and use the term human capability to capture this wider view.

Sen's work originated within the context of development economics. He critiqued dominant development thinking and practice which prioritised economic development based on a 'western model' and measured by increases in GDP per capita, noting its failure to raise the human condition for the masses in what constituted 'underdeveloped' nations. In Poverty and Promise, for example, Sen demonstrated that it was a lack of entitlements ('command over commodities') rather than insufficient food availability through development that resulted in death and suffering on a wide scale. His analysis of the famine in Bangladesh in the early 1970s illustrated that people started dying when food availability was at record levels. People died, not because of a lack of food but because many lost their jobs when the floods hit and consequently their entitlement to food. At issue was not a lack of economic development in terms of productive capacity but an issue of distribution (Sen, 1981). …

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