Reinventing Development

Learning to live within our planet’s boundaries will require dramatic changes in the way we define and approach the development of our societies around the globe. Let’s start with looking at how we have pursued ‘development’ to date. The roots of today’s development aid reach back to colonial times: Europeans justified colonialism with their assumed ‘moral obligation’ to bring civilisation to ‘uncivilised’ countries in the Global South. Missionaries spread Christian religions and soldiers, merchants and public servants established the dominance of the colonialists’ way of life. Even today, decades after the end of the colonial era, the elites in many countries of the Global South are still deeply engrained in the French, Spanish or British cultures of their former colonial ruler. After the World War II and with the formal end of colonialism the concept of bringing civilisation to the Global South evolved into today’s paradigm of development aid: the developed countries of the Global North would bring modern technology, economic and political systems to the Global South. Through this transfer, people everywhere would be able to lead a life of comfort and safety just like Europeans and North Americans.

In the 1950s and 60s governments of industrialised countries set up development ministries, created development budgets and founded development agencies. German engineers dug wells in Africa, British teachers taught children in Asia and American Peace Corps volunteers promoted America’s ideals of democracy and free markets around the world. Based on the experience of rebuilding Europe after World War II the OECD and specifically its Development Assistance Committee (DAC) were founded to coordinate the delivery of aid. The colonial division of the world turned into the division of donors and recipients of aid. But the dynamic growth which the Marshall Plan had initiated in Europe did not occur in the Global South: while there were many successful projects to show for the money, broad economic development and the expected ‘trickle-down effect’ which would eradicate poverty failed to take off. Only during the last decade, has the substantial economic growth in Asia changed the picture. Led by the world’s most populous countries, China and India, development has finally occurred. This success is not so much due to decades of development aid; it predominantly stems from economic globalisation and changed national politics. However, by spreading the ideals of the western consumer society development aid has strongly contributed to laying the groundwork for today’s success.

But now that, as a result of this economic development, hundreds of millions emerge from poverty, join the global middle classes and develop similar consumption patterns, we find that the available resources globally are not sufficient to afford affluence for all. The oxymoron of development cooperation, which has been on the table since the publication in 1972 of ‘The Limits to Growth’, can no longer be ignored: Given the limited resources available, not everybody globally can live the life of affluence which the average American or European citizen leads today. Neither does the world provide sufficient resources to produce all the required goods, nor does it offer the capacity to absorb all the pollutants resulting from the production and consumption processes. It is simply a matter of basic mathematics. In his remarkable book ‘The Great Disruption’ Paul Gilding, a former Greenpeace leader, sums it up: “An infinite growth economy on a finite planet just doesn’t add up.”38

This means: We, the rich part of humanity, have to replace our paradigm of consumerism by a new one aiming for sustainable production, fair distribution and moderate consumption, which may also serve as point of reference for the aspiring middle classes in emerging economies. We will either have to be prepared to live much less affluent lives or admit that we have never been serious about the values we propagated as the foundations of development aid such as solidarity, equality and human rights and try to hang on to our privileges and defend them with all we have. I very much doubt that the second alternative is realistic. In fact, our choice is even more limited: the emerging economies which make up the majority of the world’s population will simply not accept the imbalance of wealth any longer. Our only choice is whether we are prepared to accept the inevitable and consent to drastically lowering our share in the consumption of the world’s resources or whether we will have to be forced to do so in the course of an extended period of violent global turmoil.

Whether by choice or by force, we will have to stop living beyond our means and revert back to lives which are in line with what our world can provide. This is not a new experience for humanity: living in a world of very tightly limited resources has shaped human history from the early beginnings. As human communities have used their share of the planet they had to learn how to respect the limits of what the earth would provide for them. Hunters and gatherers were usually nomads moving on when they had overexploited an area and sometimes returning decades later when nature had had the time to recover. With the foundation of cities people had to become much more efficient in using natural resources. Reports from the middle ages about the ongoing scarcity of firewood around the larger towns provide a good example of how our ancestors had to learn to live within the boundaries nature set for them. And this learning process did not always have a happy ending. In his book ‘Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ Jared Diamond39 examines the reasons behind the collapse of the civilisations of the Easter Islands, the Maya, the Vikings in Greenland and others. He identifies eight categories of environmental destruction which lead to the disasters: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, over-hunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth and increased per capita impact of people.

Today we are still very much living in a world shaped by these environmental limits. But two things have changed: in the course of industrialisation we have added a number of scary threats such as climate change and chemical pollution and we do not have the option of mass migration left: the earth is full and there are no new continents waiting for us once we have overexploited the existing ones. The habitat boundaries of our great-grandfathers have become planetary boundaries for us.

What needs to happen in order to bring the rich part of humanity back into the ‘safe and just space’ inside our planetary boundaries? While there is no final, tried and proven answer to this question there are many thoughts and concepts under discussion and their number is increasing by the day. Among those I reviewed for this book I would specifically recommend Paul Gildings ‘The Great Disruption’; secondly a ‘flagship report’ tabled by the German Advisory Council on Global Change titled ‘World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability’40, and finally, the web based discussions initiated by the Great Transition Initiative41. I am aware that, at first sight, the challenge of reducing our affluence is not a popular cause. But I believe that the concern about our future and, even more so, the future of our children and grandchildren and the understanding that, in the medium and long-term, ignoring the challenge will put us, our families, friends and communities in a much more difficult place, will eventually convince us to embark on a courageous journey of discovery. Here are some sign posts which may be helpful on that journey.

Development policies for the North

In the early 1990s when I was working for terre des hommes, an international children’s rights organisation, I visited projects we supported in Thailand. Some of the most impressive work I saw focused on stopping child prostitution. We were engaged in programmes which aimed at providing quality education and economic opportunities in rural areas in order to offer alternatives to prostitution and we were working with children who had been rescued from brothels helping them overcome their trauma and with reintegration into their communities. Our Thai partners were generally happy with the financial and technical support we granted them. But when asked, how we could improve our contribution they had a very clear idea: “Stop the sex tourists from your country who come to Thailand to abuse our children!” I went home with this unequivocal message and initiated a discussion on what we could do to stop the sexual abuse of children by German tourists. This is when I started to understand that development cooperation was more than the transfer of resources from North to South: our own society had to change in order to help our partners in the South improve the lives of their people. We launched a campaign against child sex tourism.

We developed a code of conduct for travel agencies containing commitments to state clearly that the company objects to the sexual exploitation of children, remove hotels from their programme which tolerated child prostitution on their premises, train tour guides and other staff making them aware that sex with children is a crime and distribute information to their customers inviting them to join the fight against sexual exploitation of children. The German travel industry first tried to ignore our proposal, and when they found that we would not stop they changed their strategy arguing that travel agencies were not able to accept any responsibility for the behaviour of their customers. In a discussion we had with the head of the German Travel Association he said: “when you sell a hammock you will not be able to control what people do when using it”; this would also apply to travel agencies providing seats on planes and hotel beds. At that point we decided that it was time to mobilise the staff of the four major travel companies to help us with our efforts to curb the sexual abuse of children by tourists. We asked a theatre workshop to build four large stage settings showing a so called ‘baby bar’ where child prostitutes were offered to tourists. Each of these enormous painted house fronts had a real door through which you could enter the imaginary bar. Early one morning groups of activists assembled the stage settings in front of the headquarters of the travel companies. When hundreds of staff came to work they received flyers with information and were asked to enter the building through the door of the ‘baby bar’. Many went straight on to the office of their CEO to make their opinion heard. Within hours we had won our fight and within weeks all major travel companies were busy implementing the code of conduct.

Based on this success we reviewed the situation in broader terms and discovered many other fields, such as global trade, agricultural subsidies, immigration laws, etc., where we could change our politics at home with significant benefit to our partners overseas. We even created a second programme division to complement our work with partners in the South and called it ‘Development Policies for the North’.

Twenty years later the need for development policies for the North has become dramatically more obvious: in a world of finite resources any development policy which aims to provide the poor with better access to resources needs to have an answer to the question how it will reduce the waste of scarce resources by the rich. As we enter the year 2015 when the Millennium Development Goals will be replaced by a new set of objectives, a fundamental shift is necessary. We cannot just refurbish our old development set-up; we need a complete paradigm shift. We need a global development agenda which firstly answers the traditional question of how we will support sustainable development in the Global South and secondly – and at least of equal importance – the question of how we will significantly reduce the waste of scarce resources in the North. Until today we have used development aid to buy time before we would be asked this second question. Today, given the visibility of our planet’s boundaries such a problem avoidance strategy is unacceptable. We, in the rich North, finally have to live up to our responsibility.

However, old habits die hard and, as most of us in the Global North will have to forego some of our privileges, we will list many good reasons why our traditional approaches can and should be maintained, and why change is dangerous and needs to be avoided. To my surprise I found that, in a situation where systemic change looks unavoidable, the old debate between communism and capitalism rears its ugly head: When I referred to the Oxfam doughnut recently a colleague discarded the concept as ‘Eco-Marxism’. Even the idea that everybody should live within the ‘safe and just’ boundaries set by our planet and our basic human rights seems to be a challenge for some of us.


‘Energiewende’ is the buzzword in Germany for the government’s decision, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, to close down all nuclear power plants and to shift to renewable energy supplies. ‘Energiewende’ is a great example for a number of aspects we need to take into consideration when resetting global development. Changing the way in which energy is being generated will have a lot of spill-over effects which can be used to promote other aspects of sustainability. Therefore it is a good idea to focus our attention on the energy sector. However, it should also be clear that the big global energy companies have invested billions of dollars in exploration and extraction rights of oil, coal and gas and will not leave these resources untapped and lose their investment without a major fight.

The decision to close down Germany’s nuclear reactors after decades of tireless efforts of millions of German citizens to stop nuclear energy shows that persistent campaigning and mobilisation efforts can overcome even the strongest corporate interests. The ups and downs of the fight – with one government taking the decision to phase out of nuclear energy and another one succumbing to the nuclear lobbyists and revoking that decision and finally, after Fukushima, giving in to popular pressure to stop the irresponsible nuclear adventure – show that persistent effort is required in order to prevail. This success has been secured by a resilient campaign which maintained people’s interest and engagement over a long time and overcame the unavoidable setbacks and defeats on the way. However, the way in which the German government tries to implement the ‘Energiewende’ provides examples for the wrong way in which to pursue the right politics. Instead of working to explain the rationale behind the necessary changes, the government exempts major industries from sharing the costs and makes the average citizen pay corporate subsidies through their energy bills. Such a policy which endangers the implementation of the government’s own policy is clearly a product of successful corporate lobbying and shows that the citizens’ campaign cannot scale down until the ‘Energiewende’ has been fully implemented.

While it is useful that Germany and some other countries move ahead it is crucial to aim for the supply of sustainable energy to all people around the world. In 2012, the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”, the UN launched a campaign to achieve three objectives by 2030:

  • Ensure universal access to modern energy services.
  • Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
  • Double the share of renewable energy in the global

energy mix.

Given the urgency of climate change, the third objective in particular is not ambitious enough. However, this UN initiative is a good basis for mobilising people around the world to move away from energy supply which destroys our climate or puts us at the risk of nuclear disasters and strive for safe and sustainable energy for all.

From ‘more’ to ‘better’

Most people just cannot imagine a world without growth. Just look at the panic that arises when the ‘end of growth’ is raised as a topic of discussion. However, humanity lived and thrived for thousands of years in a world without, or with very little growth. Economic growth in today’s dimension took off in the middle of the nineteenth century, not coincidentally at the same time when we accelerated our advance towards the planetary boundaries. And, if the scenarios of the Club of Rome and the Stockholm Resilience Centre are correct, economic growth will end two hundred years later, in the middle of this century. No question, the period of material growth has brought enormous progress for millions of people in terms of food, health, housing, rights and values. However, this phase cannot go on forever. Meanwhile the unavoidability of addressing the limits of material growth has dawned on many economists and many national and global economic institutions, but very few are daring to call a spade a spade. Instead of reviewing a new post-growth economic paradigm they talk about ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ or just about ‘new approaches to economic challenges’. While some use such terms to relabel ‘business as usual’ others use them to drive a post-growth agenda without having to face the full resistance of the pro-growth lobby.

Obviously we can still see dynamic growth in large parts of the world and, as long as our climate and other key features of the environment do not collapse there is still significant potential for growth out there. And, as long as China, India and other countries keep growing and demanding technology and services from the ‘developed’ countries, we can maintain the illusion of limitless growth. But, if we take a closer look at the terms of growth in the rich countries, we find that growth is either maintained by increasing – and increasingly unsustainable – levels of debt, or that growth in real terms is minimal or non-existent. In industrialised countries growth as a stable long-term feature is gone and will most probably not come back.

Critics of the post-growth debate rightly point out that stagnation would be a very dangerous feature for humanity. Stagnation may mean degeneration and decline. But there is no need for stagnation, on the contrary: conducting the fundamental transition which our world has to go through demands a lot of enhanced creativity, increased efficiency and thus new inventions. It demands a concerted drive for better quality rather than bigger quantity. Much of what we need to invent has been there before. Our grandparents had what we call consumer goods today, such as watches, bed sheets, towels, kitchen equipment and many other things which lasted for life, and not only for their lives: who hasn’t inherited an old watch or porcelain or cutlery from their grand- or great-grandparents? And what goods have our generation produced that will still be in use 100 years from now? I am afraid the answer is, very few, if any. We urgently need to go back to producing quality products not to be consumed and thrown away but to last for a very long time. We need to find ways to save resources, reduce pollution, improve recycling, enhance the durability of products and invent a whole world of better products and services: there is plenty of space for productive and exciting engagement and development. We don’t need growth to keep all of us going.

Readjusting the work-life balance

It must have been the year 1979: I had just been granted a scholarship to finish my studies when the foundation that sup-ported me sent an invitation to attend a seminar on ‘The Future of Work’. We had seen the reduction of working days from six to five days per week and trade unions were campaigning for a 35 hour week and a retirement age of 58 years. Our seminar focussed on the question of what people would do with all the additional free time and how far voluntary engagement and services which had to be paid for were required to keep people busy. Who would have thought than that 35 years later we would be back to the 42 hour working week and a retirement age of 67 with a further rise firmly envisaged? What went wrong?

In simple terms: our consumerism kept us back in the bad old times of too much work and too much stress. In economic terms: productivity increases can be passed on to the workers in the form of wage increases or working time decreases or in a – more moderate – combination of both. So, when the post-World War II economic boom in Germany (and many other European countries) slowed down, there was less to distribute and we opted for more money rather than less work. And now, that in the Global North growth in real terms has more or less disappeared, more income requires longer working hours. Today we are working longer hours and more years than we did a decade or two ago in order to afford our wasteful lifestyles, which, in global terms, are totally unsustainable. We need to learn that working less, earning less and consuming less is a much better combination, both for us and for our planet. And whenever I raise these thoughts with colleagues and friends I hear a long list of great things they always wanted to do but never found the time to focus on. What is stopping us…?

Managing shrinking societies

The shrinking (and ageing) of many rich societies is a hotly debated issue. Governments are deeply worried that their citizens are not having as many children as required to keep population numbers stable, if not growing. In Germany, which is one of the most dramatic examples, each woman on average would need to have 2.1 children in order to keep the population stable. However, at present the rate is at 1.39 children per woman. This means the number of Germans is shrinking. The government has responded to the decrease in the number of births by creating financial and other incentives, which           are supposed to encourage people to have more children. Given the social and economic challenges arising from a de-crease in population numbers the government’s worries are understandable.

But we are no longer living in a purely national world and any perspective reduced to the national level is not helpful. If we look at population numbers globally the real challenges lie at the other end of the spectrum: over the next few decades the world population will increase to a total of 9, 10 or even 11 billion people. Given our already unsustainable exploitation of resources globally, this figure is truly scary. Rather than worrying about how we in the rich countries can revert to continued population growth, we need to understand that with a decrease in population numbers we are on the right track, and that we should welcome and propagate the shrinking of our population rather than panic about it. And if we find the shrinking of our population all too difficult to manage: there are plenty of people       in poorer countries with a still growing population who would be ready to come and live and work in richer countries if we welcome and accommodate them. In fact this is already happening: for 2012 immigration into Germany was expected to be about 390,000 persons, more than emigration out of Germany and the Kiel Economics research institute expects a net surplus of 2.2 million immigrants for the next five years.42 If this development continues, Germany would be able to maintain stable population figures while helping to release the pressure of population growth in other parts of the world. In global terms, encouraging immigration is the answer to shrinking societies, not having more children.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

So far we have mostly spoken about the Global North, but what about the classical field of development policies, the Global South? There are billions of people who need more food, more health posts, more schools, more roads and internet access. Depriving people of growth, which has been the basis for im-proving our own lives so dramatically, is unacceptable. Asia and, in particular, Africa will need several decades of sustained growth to feed their growing populations and provide them with all the goods and services required to lead decent lives. However, there are many different ways in which to promote development, for instance: does a country invest in large scale centralised energy supply based on coal, gas and oil or does it focus on small scale decentralised supply based on solar and wind power and other sustainable resources? Does a country focus on growing its GDP or the wellbeing of its people? Does a country value and conserve its forests, its rivers and lakes, its biodiversity, mineral deposits and other natural resources or does it deplete them for short-term gains? The choices the large emerging economies make will very much define how far we will overstep the planetary boundaries and how dire the consequences will be.

Our planet simply does not provide enough resources to allow the Global South to follow the failing development path of the North. Both North and South need to completely redefine their development strategies: the traditional ones are leading us into a disaster of global dimensions. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities established in the course of the climate negotiations acknowledges the special responsibility of the Global North, the part of the world which to date has contributed the lion’s share to climate change and benefited most from the overexploitation of our planet. We need a completely new development paradigm based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The old one, which exclusively looks at ‘under-development’ in the Global South and leaves out ‘over-development’ of the Global North, must go. Our new paradigm has to start with identifying the changes the North has to undertake. Only if and when we in the North are prepared to change our own ways of production and consumption, our own habits and lifestyles, can we expect similar changes from people in the South. A credible and legitimate new development paradigm will demand much more from the North than transferring some funds to the South for the sake of not being criticised for its own wasteful and unsustainable development. ICSOs, most of which have been built on the old development paradigm, will have to come to grips with the emerging new paradigm: transferring money to the poor will no longer be good enough.