Growth and development are not synonyms

Progress Namibia - Growth and development are not synonyms
24 June 2019

I submitted this piece the other day to the High Level Panel on the Economy as a point of departure for a discussion around what kind of growth we should be striving for. It was written with help from my colleagues and friends of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. I thought it good to share here as this Monday's Weekly:

It is important to consider that the point of economic growth is to drive equity and life quality, while making sure not to harm the natural systems on which our economy and life, in general, is based. In Namibia, less than 10% earns more than NAD 11,000 per month, while more than 60% of Namibians earn less than NAD 2,000 per month. We are going in the economic growth route that will only further perpetuate this reality.

Economic growth, in itself, is neither good nor bad. In fact, it can range from really good (e.g. higher incomes and better health) to really bad (opioid addictions or armed conflict) – all of these are forms of economic growth. Polluted ground water means that the population is forced to buy more plastic bottled water. This has shown to contribute to further plastic pollution, and microplastics in our guts which can be harmful to our health – hence more spending on health care. This all contributes to growth – but it certainly does not make life better – in fact, it is detrimental. So, the central question becomes: what do we want to grow, and why?

It has been widely proven, even on generally neoliberal platforms like the World Economic Forum, that the universal metric to measure economic growth, GDP, is vastly unsuitable to measure true economic performance. It is merely an aggregate measure of output that provides no insight into quality of growth (weapons or toys, health or addictions, exploitative or regenerative, it makes no difference). If you were, say, about to board an airplane, and the pilot announced that his dashboard only had a measurement of how fast you are going up (but no other information, like, how much fuel you have left, or where you are going, distance etc), would you get on that plane? Anyone serious about development needs to find a better way to measure growth. GDP growth, overall, has had benefits, but has come with increasingly mounting costs. We must remember that all rich nations in the world today have this in common: they did NOT follow a neoliberal austerity path toward growth (this has only been prescribed to us poorer nations).

In most countries around the world over the last 40 years, more than half of the wealth generated by economic growth has gone to the top 1%, while the poorest half have received less than 1% of that growth in wealth. In general, economic growth leads to more stress on the biophysical environment (resource depletion, pollution, climate change – exacerbating e.g. droughts). In fact, we are heading towards our planetary boundaries, and will risk collapse. The only exceptions to this have been deliberate strategies informing the type of growth we want, i.e. from wood-burning stoves to solar-power, replacing outdated machinery with more efficient, cleaner ones, redesigning the entire transport system from individual-use transport to highly efficient, renewable energy based, public transportation, or retiring coal-powered energy plants with solar/wind/hydro etc.

We need development in Namibia. For growth to be a net positive in a country like Namibia, it needs to be (1) equitable, (2) clearly defined in terms of types and assumed benefits, and (3) environmentally and socially sustainable. Most vital development does not necessarily require growth, but rather depends on inclusivity, reciprocity, efficiency, and above all, quality.

Globally, continued economic growth is neither sustainable nor desirable, while countries like ours do have to grow (in terms of opportunities for our people, life quality, health, education, clean renewable energy, etc), others will have to shrink (e.g. carbon emissions, resource depletion, plastic pollution, national debt, etc).

The future is going this route. There is no other way. The challenge for political parties, governments and societies is to shape a constructive, resilient and creative future today, or risk being left as bystanders as events take their course.

We, as the Economic Panel, can guide Namibia to become the first country in Africa to champion a new way of thinking. A pathway that will bring us toward a much better future than the current road is taking us. In other words, our choices on this panel will either put us on the right side of history, or the wrong side.