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What charter for humanity? Defining the destination of ‘development’ (1/5)

Today, development and economic growth are almost used interchangeably. But what does the Bible have to say about development? This is the scope pursued by Dr. Michael Schluter in this Cambridge Paper. In this first instalment, Schluter explores the Western assumptions behind the word ‘development’ and why they are not necessarily sound.

A Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre. (September 2006)

[G]ross national product…measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It pays no heed to the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our wit nor our courage, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living, and it can tell us everything about our country except those things that make us proud to be a part of it.

Robert Kennedy [1]

Seek the shalom (well-being and social harmony) of the city…’

Jeremiah 29:7


The word ‘development’ describes a journey of economic and social change, but is often implicitly taken to define the destination as well. Economic growth is generally regarded as the purpose as well as the means of this social change. However, the biblical emphasis is on the quality of social, political, and economic relationships, which may be summarised as ‘relational well-being’ (RWB). National aspirations should not focus primarily on levels or distribution of income, nor on individual freedom and choice. Rather, Christians should re-examine policy and project goals in both high-income and low-income societies from a relational perspective, so as to tackle relational deprivation as well as material poverty.

What goals for ‘development’?

Use of the term ‘development’ often begs the question, development for/towards what? It is possible to speak about ‘developing’ institutions such as schools, hospitals or companies so they deliver better on their stated objectives. But is it appropriate to use the term ‘development’ for whole nations? If so, is the implicit goal of government policy simply the production of wealth, or certain public services such as education or health? Or are these better described as intermediate goals, serving some greater purpose?

Since 1945 it has been assumed that low-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America could ‘develop’ to become wealthy and democratic, aspiring to the values and lifestyle of the ‘developed’ West. Initially, development was measured by economic growth, i.e. growth of Gross Domestic Product. In the 1970s this was broadened to include ‘basic needs’ (access to food, health, education, clean water). In the 1990s, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced the ‘Human Development Index’, which focuses on three measurable aspects of quality of life: living a long and healthy life, being educated, and having a decent standard of living. ‘Human development is first and foremost about allowing people to lead the kind of life they choose – and providing them with the tools and opportunities to make those choices.’[2]

Basu has proposed focusing on absolute income growth of the poorest 20 per cent of the population. He does not deny the importance of the larger aims of political and environmental stability, or a generally higher quality of human life. However, he argues that his indicator captures many of the other social indicators emphasised in broader notions of human development.[3]

Most governments today support an even wider set of objectives, the eight ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (target date, 2015).[4]They include universal primary school education, promoting gender equality, reducing infant mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/Aids. The most pressing goal is reducing poverty (defined as individuals living on less than $1 a day) by half. Economic growth is still regarded as the prime instrument to pull people out of poverty. The IMF, too, focuses on the broad goal of reducing poverty: ‘All developing economies need more rapid and sustained rates of growth that will in turn promote large-scale and lasting poverty reduction and rising living standards for all.’[5]

Amartya Sen, however, regards freedom as both the means and the end of development.[6]He evaluates development in terms of ‘personal functioning and capability’.[7]‘Functioning’ is what a person manages to do or be. Goods can enable functioning but are distinct from it. Sen emphasises the importance of cultural liberty (so that individuals are not constrained by their social or religious heritage), and political choice (democratic government), alongside the opportunities made available by greater access to income and education.[8] Much development thinking is now focused on political outcomes. It is assumed that democracy always results in economic growth because it results in public accountability. Unfortunately, democracy does not guarantee social cohesion or even high levels of political participation.

In Western countries, there is growing interest in ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB). Increased wealth has ceased to bring greater happiness; a wider set of concerns, including health and quality of personal relationships, contribute to SWB at least as much as higher income does.[9]With greater economic security, but fragmentation of family and community relationships, politicians are being required to focus attention on new priorities.

Michael Schluter

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

With special thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

[1]Robert F. Kennedy, Address, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 18 March 1968.

[2]‘Human Development Report’, UNDP, 2004, p.128.

[3]Kaushik Basu, ‘On the Goals of Development’, in Gerald Meier and Joseph Stiglitz, eds, Frontiers of Development Economics, Washington DC: IDRB, 2001, p.65.

[4]Shantayanan Devarajain, Margaret Miller and Eric Swanson, ‘Goals for development: history, prospects and costs’, World Bank Policy, Research Working Paper 2819, 2002.

[5]Krueger, A.,‘Expanding trade and unleashing growth: the prospects for lasting poverty reduction’. Remarks at the IMF Seminar on Trade and Regional Integration, Dakar, Senegal, 6 December 2004.

[6]Amartya K. Sen, ‘What is Development About?’, in Gerald M Meier and Joseph E Stiglitz, eds, ibid, p.506.

[7]Amartya K. Sen, Development as Freedom, OUP, 1999.

[8]UNDP, ibid, pp.13ff.

[9]For example, see

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