Capabilities Approach

Capabilities Approach

Work from development economists can be difficult for any layman to remember, particularly because there is still so much unnecessary poverty and suffering in this world. There is, however, the theory entitled The Capabilities Approach that, founded by development economist Amartya Sen and developed further by theorists like Martha Nussbaum, make a lot of sense when considering how best to achieve poverty reduction that I think everyone should keep in mind when considering how best to contribute to poverty reduction or how best to support our work here at The Fig Tree Children.

Achieving economic well-being depends on a person’s ability to “be” and ability to “do.” To be and to do are functions, which require certain kinds of freedoms: capabilities. Perhaps the following explains the concepts more succinctly: “Functionings are ‘doings and beings’, that is, various states of human beings and activities that a person can undertake, such as being well-nourished, getting married, being educated, and traveling, while capabilities are the real, or substantive, opportunity that they have to achieve these doings and beings,” (Robeyns et al. 2020).

There is a reason as to why this is so relevant to The Fig Tree Children. Poverty can be described as deprivation of capabilities. What we aim to do at The Fig Tree Children is help to expand the capabilities of some of the most vulnerable children in one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Providing money as a ‘hand-out’ may not be the best solution to expanding capabilities, but we can provide money to pay for resources that expand these children’s capabilities exponentially. How? By providing them access to educational resources. Once a child has access to education, they have the freedom to choose between different functioning combinations, different combinations of being and of doing. 

The functionality of literacy and numeracy are critical examples of functions that lead to immense capabilities. Amartya Sen “is a strong advocate of literacy as a goal of human development, and has regularly cited literacy, and ‘the ability to read and write’ as a ‘basic capability’ and necessary condition for well-being,” (Maddox 2008, pg. 189).

I welcome you to think about how The Fig Tree Children is critical in providing the tools necessary for vulnerable orphans in Sierra Leone to experience capabilities and functionings, especially within the context of providing the capabilities to be literate and numerate. 

Let’s think about it from the perspective of a Fig Tree Child. A sponsor has paid money for a child to have access to their respective school, as well as school supplies such as school shoes, backpacks, and notebooks to last them the year. These things provided are called resources in the capabilities literature. Resources lead to capabilities; essentially, the effective freedom of an individual to choose between multiple and differing functioning combinations that may lead to well-being.

These functioning combinations may include being able to read, write, count and perform valuable trades.

Being educated leads to so many opportunities; it may lead a child to have the freedom to be a tradesman when they are out of school, to help Sierra Leone continue to develop their country’s infrastructure which was not long ago destroyed by a devastating civil war. It may lead a woman to develop a passion for numeracy and give her the freedom to be an accountant, which would also significantly benefit her local community. 


Amartya Sen himself has written a list of the capabilities and functions derived from education, and the literacy gained through education: 

  • i)  the reduction of illiteracy and innumeracy as deprivation and ‘forms of insecurity in themselves’;
  • ii)  improving access to ‘jobs and gainful employment’ (individual benefits and those of the wider economy);
  • iii)  people’s ability to ‘understand and invoke their legal rights’;
  • iv)  increasing people’s opportunity for ‘political voice participation’;
  • v)  improvement in women’s wellbeing (including benefits to women
    such as access to employment, and participation in ‘decisions within and outside the family’ and to their family in terms of ‘reduced fertility rates’ and ‘reduced mortality rates of children’);
  • vi)  the impact of education and literacy on identity formation, its potential to influence conflict and the conditions of peace and security. (Sen, 2003, pp. 22–29)

Capabilities and functions lead to outcomes of human wellbeing, and everyone deserves the freedom to work towards their wellbeing. 


With these matters in mind, we thank you for your continued support of our work for The Fig Tree Children.



Maddox, B 2008, ‘What Good is Literacy? Insights and Implications of the Capabilities Approach’, Journal of Human Development, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 185–206.

Robeyns, Ingrid and Morten Fibieger Byskov, “The Capability Approach”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Sen, A.K. (2003) ‘Reflections on literacy’, in C. Robinson (Ed.), Literacy as Freedom, 

UNESCO, Paris, pp. 21–30.

Freetown Landslide

Freetown Landslide

A lot can happen in three years, especially in the eyes of a child. In Freetown, this is an understatement. On the 14 of August 2017 the citizens of Freetown had experienced the impacts of a devastating landslide that left over 1,000 people dead or missing, while also leaving 11,000 people displaced and homeless [2]. The Regent district of Freetown was the area most heavily impacted by the landslides, with people and homes buried alive under mud, rock and rubble. Faud* and Joseph*’s father was working in the Regent district the morning that the landslides occurred and has not been seen since. For Faud* and Joseph*, tragedy struck at such an early age, uncertainty enveloping their young lives as they failed to find their father amidst the mud and rubble. 

Such an event is unfathomable and tragic; while the effects on individuals, their wellbeing and livelihoods continue to this day. Faud* and Joseph*’s widowed mother has struggled to put food on the table, let alone pay for the boy’s school fees. It is clear that tragedies such as the Freetown landslide affect the poor most disproportionately, but it is unfathomable that in 2020 a family continues to struggle to feed itself and survive. 

Unsustainable levels of urbanisation led to massive deforestation which, coupled together, contributed to the devastating landslide in Freetown. Deforestation contributes to landslides directly as it decreases rainfall infiltration and increases debris runoff. It must thus be taken into consideration that Sierra Leone’s rainy season, while the direct cause of the landslide, would have been less likely to happen were informal and hazardous urbanisation, “disturbing the natural ecology and hydrology of the mountain slope,” [3] avoided.

Freetown needs structured urban planning and enforceable legislation against illegal logging and illegal settlement construction. Furthermore, Freetown would benefit from reforestation initiatives. One example of a land restoration initiative could be an increase in agroforestry, which would have the added benefits of curbing climate change and increasing the city’s food security [4].

These initiatives are all the more important in the face of climate change, as there is scientific consensus on the dangers of increased severe weather events, including wetter and more intense rainy seasons. As “poverty and disadvantage are expected to increase in some populations as global warming increases,” [5] the people of Sierra Leone are in danger of more catastrophe and urgently need to prioritise climate resilience and adaptation.

Working on climate change adaptation strategies, including natural disaster prevention, helps to reduce the requirement for rebuilding efforts after natural disasters. So much so that “every $1 spent upfront on prevention strategies and disaster risk management will save the $3 required for rebuilding after an event.” [6] Along with the need to advocate for investments in natural disaster prevention, there is also the need to support the victims of the traumatic 2017 landslide. This is certainly the case when considering vulnerable children such as Faud*. 

While Joseph* is being sponsored by a Fig Tree Children supporter, Faud* continues to lack sponsorship. Sponsoring Faud* would make a significant positive impact on his future. Not only would it help to educate him, but it could also lead to Faud* developing the skills necessary to contribute to his 

community as it continues to recover from the landslide and develop natural disaster prevention strategies.

* Pseudonyms used


[1] Al Jazeera 2017, ‘Sierra Leone mudslides “kill more than 1,000”’, 28 August, <>.

[2] ACAPS  Assessment Capacities Project 2020, ACAPS Anticipatory briefing note: Sierra Leone – Floods – 4 August 2020, <>.

[3] Cui, Y, Cheng, D, Choi, CE, Jin, W, Lei, Y & Kargel, JS 2019, ‘The cost of rapid and haphazard urbanization: lessons learned from the Freetown landslide disaster’, Landslides, vol. 16, no. 6, pp. 1167–1176

[4] Mbow, C, Van Noordwijk, M, Luedeling, E, Neufeldt, H, Minang, PA & Kowero, G 2014, ‘Agroforestry solutions to address food security and climate change challenges in Africa’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 6, pp. 61–67.

[5] Allen, M, Babiker, M & Chen, Y 2018, Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, IPCC, <>.

[6] Bruce, I 2019, ‘A preventable disaster: Landslides and flooding disaster in Freetown, Sierra Leone’, World Bank Blogs, 2 May, <>.


Mitigating Climate change, one educated girl at a time

Mitigating Climate change, one educated girl at a time

Not only is education key to bringing countries like Sierra Leone out of poverty, but it is also critical for the health of our planet. Educating girls has been determined to be one of the top 100 ways to combat climate change. So much so, in fact, that it was ranked 6 out of 100 solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. This ranking was determined by a thorough analysis, published in the book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken. A whopping 59.6 Gigatons of CO2 can be reduced by 2050 if the world committed to filling the massive educational financing gap that is currently present in low and low-mid income countries [1].

Educating girls is also a cost-competitive carbon abatement strategy [2], meaning that funding girls’ education can be as cost-effective as other climate change mitigation and carbon-abatement strategies. While conventional development literature stresses the importance of educating girls for the sake of carbon reduction in the form of limiting population growth [1, 2], we must stress that it is not this merit that we consider critical. Rather, what we consider to be important is that education provides girls and women more opportunity to think independently. Education grants the agency that they deserve as a human right. Christina Kwauk, a gender equality specialist, writes that “quality education plays a critical role in fostering girls’ leadership and womens’ capacity to participate in climate decision-making,” [3]. 

Not only is educating girls important and effective with regard to carbon abatement and climate change mitigation, it is also important and effective with regard to climate change adaptation. Educating girls has been found to be the “single most important” factor associated with reducing vulnerability to natural disasters, [4] many of which are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. This is a major finding, considering that the impacts of climate change are expected to hit the poor, particularly those in less developed countries, the hardest [5].

The Fig Tree Children’s efforts in assisting orphaned children in Sierra Leone includes paying the child’s school fees directly to the school that they attend.

Fig Tree Children such as Binta* and Sinnah* above are young girls who have recently become sponsored and now have access to school, as should be their right. 

Christiana*, from the time of this writing, still urgently needs sponsorship to cover her school fees. Girls like Binta*, Sinnah* and Christiana* have the potential to do great things with the education they could get.

*The real names of the children registered with us are replaced by a pseudonym to protect their identity.



[1] Hawken, P (ed.) 2017, Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, Penguin Books, New York, New York.

[2] David Wheeler and Dan Hammer. 2010. “The Economics of Population Policy for Carbon Emissions Reduction in Developing Countries.” CGD Working Paper 229. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development.

[3]Kwauk, C 2020, ‘Opinion: Girls’ education as a solution to climate change is about more than fertility’, Devex, 6 April, <>.

[4] Striessnig, E, Lutz, W & Patt, AG 2013, ‘Effects of Educational Attainment on Climate Risk Vulnerability’, Ecology and Society, vol. 18, no. 1.

[5] Mendelsohn, R, Dinar, A & Williams, L 2006, ‘The distributional impact of climate change on rich and poor countries’, Environment and Development Economics, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 159–178.