Breaking Up With Growth: What Mainstream Development Organizations Are Still Getting Wrong

Submitted by Jessie Green.

Like any good desperate and enterprising undergrad in International Development, I spent most of January scouring the internet for summer internship opportunities at various NGOs and nonprofits. I was disheartened to find so many websites that reflected outdated and problematic ideas prioritizing economic growth as a development approach.

The assumption that growth is the solution is not only incorrect but actively harmful to both the impoverished and the environment. So, how did we get here?

As the world recovered from World War II, the assumption that economic growth, measured by increasing GDP was the solution to poverty cemented itself in development theory. Growth was seen as the all-encompassing panacea to inequality and human suffering. The pursuit of growth made inequality and exploitation palatable by promising wealth accumulation through hard work (Kallis 2018, 71).

Providing the loans and investment for the rapid growth, capital accumulation, and modernization deemed necessary to improve well-being seemed obvious, or even generous, to the post-WWII powers. However, many individuals and countries were quickly consumed by debt (Escobar 1995, 74). This economic development strategy thus trapped its supposed beneficiaries into a global capitalist system and institutionalized a hegemonic relationship with the developers.

Instead of delivering on its promise, growth has seen capital accumulate in the hands of the wealthy by exploitation of human labor and natural resources (Kallis 2018, 73). The World Inequality Lab’s 2018 Inequality Report found that global economic inequality is either rising or staying extremely high – the wealthiest 1% own 45% of the world’s wealth.

In the face of such staggering economic inequality, why does this growth-based development paradigm persist on NGO websites?

It persists because the development discourse has been dictated not just by the dominant capitalist system, but the power relations that define it. “[The World Bank] should be seen as an agent of economic and cultural imperialism at the service of the global elite.” (Escobar 1995, 167). In promoting growth as the solution to poverty, a cycle of exploitation and consumption is perpetuated — a cycle that is disastrous for economic inequality as well as the environment.

One might argue the simple answer is to implement sustainable development! It is well documented that the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation. As soils degrade, forests disappear, and sea levels rise, they lose their homes and livelihoods. Sustainable development seeks to continue the path of development while promoting social equity without compromising natural resources and ecosystems. Thus, the three inextricably integrated issues of environment, development, and equity seem eloquently solved.

The problem with sustainable development is that it attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable – economic growth with environmental health and social equity (Escobar 1995, 195). It continues to perpetuate the problematic narrative of nature as a commodity to accumulate and exploit (Escobar 1995, 195). As Escobar (1995) argues, capitalization of nature is an extension of colonization – it appropriates nature and local knowledge for itself (204). Sustainable development does little to intervene in the cycle of exploitation that characterizes this hegemonic system.

These criticisms are far from ground-breaking. However, many major development organizations— such as Heifer International, the Gates Foundation, the World Resources Institute, and the World Bank— continue to name economic growth as a central goal. Indeed, the UN’s eighth Sustainable Development Goal is “Decent Work” and (get this) “Economic Growth.”

The Gates Foundation, in partnership with Heifer International, launched a now infamous agricultural development strategy called Coop Dreams whose goal was to increase the percentage of Sub-Saharan Africa raising chickens from 5% to 30%. These low-maintenance birds would lift millions out of extreme poverty, empower women, and combat malnutrition. However, such a massive increase in chicken production would dramatically decrease the sale price rendering the effort ineffective at ameliorating poverty. One must also ask what the environmental impact of using vast amounts of land to raise and grow feed for so many chickens would be.

In his blog post about the initiative, Bill Gates’ calls chickens “a woman’s animal” because they stay close to home and, therefore, are easy for women to tend. Herein lies the main issue – in the capitalist hegemony, both female labor and natural resources are seen as domestic and thus lack formal valuation in the market economy, rendering them free for exploitation.

On the Gates Foundation agricultural development strategy page, “growth” is referenced as a critical goal and priority 13 times. Through programs like these, powerful development organizations perpetuate cycles of exploitation in the name of growth. In so doing, developing communities are indoctrinated into the global capitalist system we’ve recognized as destructive and unjust.

Think of the global capitalist system as a toxic relationship. A person or planet only has so much to give. Staying in a draining relationship is possible, for a time, but ultimately exhausting to a breaking point. We live in a system that expects infinite growth from a finite planet. We can engineer all the substitutions and solutions we want to our dwindling resources, but the Earth has a limited amount. As a society whose well-being is deeply entwined with that of our planet, we need to get out of this damage-dependent relationship.

Practically by definition, developing communities are places and people that are either not yet a part of or only loosely committed to the relationship. This is precisely why I think development organizations have a powerful opportunity to promote an economy independent of growth.

In class, grassroots approaches, co-operative housing, alternative food networks, ecovillages are fascinating concepts to discuss and embrace. Frustratingly, it seems to me that this discourse is not making its way beyond academia and into the real world. If mainstream development organizations leave behind the growth paradigm and instead support the creation of strong, vibrant communities outside the hegemonic capitalist system, those communities will provide a compelling counter-argument to the status quo.

Additional References:

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development : The making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (2012).

Food and Agriculture Organization. (2019) United Nations. <http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/>.

Kallis, G. (2018). Degrowth. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.

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