Beryl Levinger is the Senior Director for International Programs Education Development Center and Distinguished Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies

Ninth Annual Martin J. Forman Memorial Lecture


There’s an axiom popular among researchers: “The information you have is not what you want. The information you want is not what you need. The information you need is not what you can obtain,” Anyone who’s ever undertaken a study can attest to the validity of these observations.

This Iron Law of Research is, in many ways, the perfect backdrop for the remarks I shall offer tonight. The topic I wish to explore with you is the role of nutrition in human capacity development. To do justice to the theme, I should be prepared to offer some definitive comments on what it means for beings to become human and how nutrition contributes to this most remarkable development. Unfortunately, the information most accessible to me tends to illustrate the importance of nutrition in transforming successive generations into economic rather than human beings I can readily learn, for example, how much more a well nourished worker will earn over the course of a lifetime than a malnourished one, but it is far more difficult for me to grasp how the essence of their respective lives will differ because of differences in nutritional status.

To be sure, the information–and insights–I seek are simple to explain,yet impossible to obtain. What is it about homo sapiens that makes us human? And, in what ways does good nutrition enable us to maintain productive distinctions between ourselves and the other living beings with which we share our planet? Some of you may well ask, “do we really need to know this in order to advocate nutrition investments in developing countries?” In other words, do I need the information I want? I believe I do, and tonight I’ll attempt to demonstrate why by analyzing how traditional models of human resource and human capital formation have limited the development community’s appreciation of the importance of nutrition.

Human Capacity Development: Key Terms and Concepts

But let us begin at the beginning which, in this case, is to define a few keys terms that lie at the heart of how I conceive human capacity development I hope that you’ll forgive my concern for precision with these terms. Remember, please, that there is no subject, no matter how complex, which if studied with patience and intelligence, will not become… more complex.

The first term I wish to define is participation opportunity which refers to any productive interaction that enables individuals to contribute to the development of their nations, communities, and families. Participation opportunities span the course of a person’s life cycle and include the chance to go to school, secure gainful employment, influence political or civic affairs, raise a healthy family and protect the environment Such opportunities also encompass the chance to partake in agriculture extension efforts, cultural events, or entrepreneurial activities.

Essentially, participation opportunities–unlike upscale brands of American ice cream-come in just three flavors. Flavor one, the unavailable participation opportunity, occurs, for example, when a child cannot enroll in school or a woman cannot avail herself of a credit program because the community–public and private sectors alike–has not created such options for its members. This void may be the product of a lack of resources, the failure of will, or both.

In contrast, the other two participation opportunity varieties describe choices that individuals can actually make about the activities in which they will engage. Flavor two is the participation opportunity that is available but unaccessed. The school is there, but the child does not go. Some women have gained access to credit and are marketing locally processed foods, but one of their neighbors has chosen not to join them. In such instances, the available but unaccessed participation opportunity is reminiscent of the proverbial horse that’s led to water but fails to drink.

Finally, we come to flavor three, the participation opportunity that is both available and accessed. This is where the rubber meets the road for human capacity development is the process of accessing available participation opportunities and, in so doing, creating new ones for oneself and others.

To round out this description of how I conceive human capacity development, I need to introduce two additional concepts. First, the participation opportunities that lie at the heart of this mutually reinforcing cycle of access and creation are only those that have a bearing – either direct or indirect–on four very specific core domains:family, livelihood, civil society and environment. Although education,nutrition, and health are not in themselves core domains, all three are prerequisites for productive involvement in each of these key areas.

Now for the second concept. It is undoubtedly obvious to you that the goal of human capacity development as I have described it thus far is to create — in relation to four core domains-increasing numbers of accessed participation opportunities. To accomplish this, we must be concerned with those uniquely human characteristics that predispose individuals to avail themselves of whatever participation opportunities exist within their environment: flexibility, collaborativeness, adaptability, and a penchant for problem-solving. Accordingly, the practice of human capacity development does not focus solely on participation opportunity creation and access. It is also concerned with nurturing the development of these”predisposing traits” within individuals.

To finish clarifying this conception of human capacity development, allow me to offer an image. Picture, if you will, this process of participation opportunity access and creation as an ever-broadening upward spiral. Participation opportunities made available by society are accessed by individuals As their capacities grow, individuals, in turn, respond to thier environment by creating new participation opportunities, both for themselves and others. The spiral continues extending ad infinitum.

Let’s now move our discussion from the abstract to the concrete. Adequate food, health care and love are bestowed upon a baby girl who lives in a rural community that has a quality primary school–an available participation opportunity. The girl enrolls and eventually completes her primary education, becoming both literate and numerate. She acquires basic problem-solving skills as a result of having accessed this participation opportunity, These skills allow her to recognize the increasing demand for cooking oil in a rapidly-growing town nearby, Her education also gives her the confidence and ability to approach an agricultural extensionist for assistance. As a result of this consultation–another accessed participation opportunity–the woman initiates a small oilseed processing cooperative through which she and several of her peers earn supplemental income. A new participation opportunity is thus created for both herself and others. With this income, our heroine subsequently invests in nutritious food, schooling and health care for her children, thereby expanding their range of future participation opportunities. Her experience with the cooking oil venture also leads her to become increasingly involved in community life, and she joins the local Village Development Council. There, she helps launch a windbreak planting project to stem the desert’s encroachment. Her children become involved in this effort. A new participation opportunity is again created and accessed.

By focusing on how individuals behave with respect to four core domains and a wide range of participation opportunities, this conception of human capacity development is eminently human. It is concerned with the multiple roles that capable individuals play over the course of theirlives: community member, learner, earner, consumer, parent, partner,environmental steward and citizen. The underlying assumption is that ineach of these roles, individuals make choices that have a direct and profound bearing on the quality of life that they, their families, their neighbors and their fellow citizens will enjoy.