What is “Vulnerability” All About Anyway?
As an academic who regularly conceptualises about poverty and vulnerability, I get into a lot of back and forth arguments with people about the nature of poverty and vulnerability. Everyone thinks they know something about both of these concepts. To some extent, everyone does know something about both concepts. But it’s tricky when we try to generalise from our own experiences. What follows is one of my more readable syntheses on the nature of vulnerability. Should you want full citations, I’m happy to provide. One core citation is Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and a New War on the Poor. Strongly recommended.
I want to ask the reader to think about vulnerability and deliberately invite the reader to think of an infant known personally by the reader at some point in the reader’s life. At the most basic level, what does an infant need?
When I did the exercise above, my one word answer was “care.” My friends welcome new babies into this world constantly. Almost everyone my age has direct, full-time responsibility for an infant. Conveniently, I do not have children of my own so I can stay out of the “fog of war” of the daily parental struggles associated with caring for children and notice some themes across the experience. In caring for infants, fears regularly collide with hopes. Parents want their kids to be healthy, happy, successful, and cultivate a broad sense of being able to have fun living life. Almost without fail, parents rejoice when these desires seem to be “on track” and mourn in seasons where these desires seem to be little more than pipedreams on a rainy day.
Measuring these conceptual insights against the literature, many people have written about analyzing failures to be healthy, be happy, and develop capabilities for life. Some physicians like Farmer recognize that “to be healthy” requires a lot more than simply bodily integrity. To Farmer(2004), “health” involves a holistic sense wellness that enables the poor people to realise their social and economic rights. To use Farmer’s criteria of discerning decisions that most prefer the poor, I demand evidence that the poor describe their poverty in terms of health and/or wellness. A major project conducted by the World Bank to ask people about their poverty indicates strongly that the poor view their principal challenges in life related to failures to achieve wellness. Building from the voices of the poor, advocates for the poor assert that wellness has dimensions of material wellbeing, bodily wellbeing, social wellbeing, and security while permitting freedom of choice and action (Narayan et al., 2001). Further, development scholars (Gough and McGregor, 2007) have begun the arduous task of synthesizing a vast volume of work across a range of scholarly disciplines to advance a more rough-and-ready wellbeing framework for use in development policies.
Thinking about caring for infants, I observe people differ. After all, no two infants are exactly the same. Even when infants live in the same family, their caregivers quickly realize that each infant represents a unique person and needs a different approach to care. When theorising about the nature of individual care, Sen identifies at least five categories that change the basket of the goods and services needed by individual persons for human flourishing: 1) personal heterogeneities like age, gender, or disability, 2) environmental diversities largely presented as climatic regimes, 3) social climate concerning the overall quality of common public goods, 4) relational perspectives as to how one navigates various norms and customs in communities, and 5) intra-household patterns of distribution related to providing care (Sen, 1999, 70-71). Using Sen’s analysis (1999) encourages thinking about people as individuals, acknowledging that certain decisions, such as allocating resources within a household (1983), may be nearly impossible for an outsider to see.
 The observation of no two infants having identically the same needs holds true even amongst the identical twins I have met.
 Sen’s framework can be misused, particularly when applied to the identification of vulnerable groups and in no way should be understood as the only framework to discuss wellbeing at an individual level. Sen’s conceptualisation around entitlement theory and development as freedom represent watershed moments in the intellectual history of analysing poverty and vulnerability.