Why is economic growth our measure of human progress?

Whether you believe that ‘money makes the world go round’ or that it’s the ‘root of all evil’, increasingly humanity is waking up to the fact that money can’t ‘buy you happiness’ and that it’s certainly no longer an accurate or helpful measure of planetary progress. Our world faces multiple crises of which continuing economic growth has often been the cause and less often the solution.

Today the planet is a miserable and frightening place for most of its inhabitants. Many of the rich are not happy, while the gap between the rich and poor gets wider. The wealthiest 80 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 50%, or 3.5 billion people. Our pursuit of economic growth means that we are ruining the planet at such a rate that – sooner than most people can imagine – large parts of it will become uninhabitable. Our soils and forests are disappearing, our oceans are being vacuumed of fish, unstable financial markets lurch from crisis to crisis, disengaged people vent their anger and frustration at oppressive governments and we live in an economic system that rewards our greed and immorality and that forces those living in rural areas and no longer able to support themselves, more than a billion people, to swarm towards cities where there is no work for them.

In 2014 young people in 20 countries around the world were asked ‘to what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than your parents’ generation or will it be about the same?’ On average, only 37% of young people living in the ten wealthiest countries ranked by gross domestic product (GDP) thought that life would be better for their generation than it was for their parents. In the US, the richest country, only 26% thought it would be better.

  Country GDP in millions of US$ (World Bank, 2013) % of people aged 29 or under who believe that today’s youth will have had a better life than their parents’ generation (Ipsos Mori, 2014)
1 USA 16,768,100 26%
2 China 9,240,270 76%
3 Japan 4,919,563 41%
4 Germany 3,730,261 30%
5 France 2,806,428 16%
6 UK 2,678,455 22%
7 Brazil 2,245,673 48%
8 Italy 2,149,485 21%
9 Russia 2,096,777 41%
10 India 1,875,141 46%
  AVERAGE(Rounded to the nearest whole) 4,851,015 37%

When the future is looking bleak for the wealthiest countries on the planet, it’s perhaps time to reconsider GDP as a measure of progress.

Gross domestic product, or GDP is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, but usually calculated annually. GDP has traditionally been used to measure progress economically, but fails to take into account social and environmental ‘wealth’ or causes of social tension or inequality, something that I believe is essential to truly understanding if, how and where human progress is being made.

GDP measures everything “…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

There is already an abundance of measurements that we could call on to replace GDP and give a fairer, more useful picture of what is and isn’t working and how we go about creating a world that works for all, not for the few. So far, suggestions range from birth weight (usually a good indicator of a child’s likely future quality of life) the number and sound of birds in a city (a good indicator for biodiversity); and ownership of washing machines (with the assumption that their requirement for piped water and electricity make them a good measure of development); to the economic emancipation of women. I’m sure you can think of more…

Today, I’d invite you to think about why our leaders and big businesses measure economic growth as a measure of human progress and how we can move beyond measuring success by how much we makerather than how we live.

What do you think human progress is? And why is growth the only answer? #WhyGrowth

This post was originally posted on The Rules website on 11th September 2015.


Obama in Africa (again)

Back in July (yep, a very long time ago), I blogged about Obama’s visit to Kenya and the response from a journalist called Andrew Mwenda. I’ve since read lots of further really interesting articles and viewpoints on the topic, which I’m keen to share with you, both those that further my points, and challenge them.

As a recap, here’s a short excerpt of Andrew’s argument:

To use Jean Bricmont’s analogy from his book Humanitarian Imperialism, the US and Western Europe behave like a mafia godfather who, as he grows old, decides to defend law and order and begins to attack his lesser colleagues in crime, preaching brotherly love and the sanctity of human life – all the while holding onto his ill-gotten wealth and the income it generates.

And here are just two of the many other responses I’ve read and found interesting since:

Minna Salami (MsAfropolitan): When Obama addressed the African Union

Trade and development partnerships are the modern-day version of England’s indirect rule, a continuation of a painfully dark history of exploitation. To name only a few, there’s the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), which Obama mentioned and which considering that it creates 100,000 jobs in the US ought to be called the “American Growth and Opportunities Act”; the New Alliance Cooperation Framework through which African nations legitimise the theft of natural resources to for profit corporations under the aegis of “private sector investment plans”; the “Pan-African initiative”, or PanAf as it deceptively locally sounds, was set up by the EU to improve trade, observe elections, run governance initiatives, yada yada – it just so happens that African states are forced to tie a large portion of their markets to Europe in exchange. There’s also the rather sinisterly named “Trade Africa“, which boosts intra-African trade, not a bad thing per se, but what does the US get in return? Well, how about a million bucks.

Read the full article here.

Patience Akumu: Why Obama doesn’t understand the lust for power of our African leaders

To African leaders, Obama’s solutions for Africa are untenable. They view him as detached from the challenges and realities of an African leader. For starters, this African son has one wife and no known concubines. No wonder he comes up with wayward ideas such as educating more African women. Does he know how hard it would be to convince a scientist, engineer or entrepreneur to become a second wife? Does he know how many legal cases African countries would have to deal with if most of the masses – whose human-rights violations nosy organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do not tire of reporting – were educated and employed rather than hungry and destitute?

The reality is that these African leaders do not realise that their argument that human rights, dignity and democracy are a western concept force-fed to the African continent no longer holds water. Its demise happened around the time when Bakayoko, the protagonist in Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, declared that dignity, good food, water and housing, are not for white people – they are for people. The notion that human rights and democracy – the kind that Obama speaks about – are not African was stripped of all legitimacy when African leaders, evoking the universal declaration of human rights and drawing inspiration from the French and American revolutions, demanded self governance and equality. They made these demands in English, French, Portuguese and other languages that their tyrants would understand. With their sweat and blood, they adopted human rights, made them African and used these ideals to liberate the continent from colonialism. It is baffling that these same people now dare to reject such ideals as being foreign. With worrying nostalgia, some Africans of an older generation will tell you that colonialism was so much better than the governments they live under. If African leaders cared, it is this kind of talk that would keep them up at night and push them to do whatever it takes to perform better.

Read the full article here.

What do you think? Do you agree with Minna, Patience, or Andrew?

Have you ever thought about how #PovertyIsCreated?

Have you eaten today? If not was it because you chose not to or because you didn’t have enough money to do so? And if you have, did you have to think carefully about what you could afford, or did you eat whatever you fancied?

Whoever we are, and however much money we do or don’t have, a lot of the time we’re so focussed on living our daily lives we (understandably) don’t stop to think about how we’ve got to where we are – whether that’s making difficult choices about how we spend our last few coins, having so much money we don’t know what to do with it, or something in between.

It’s also easy to forget how connected our lives, and our money, really are. We can all get our heads around the idea that if someone takes too much of something, someone else will have less, but when it comes to poverty we’re often told that ‘we’re born into it’, or ‘it’s just the economy’, or ‘the wealth will trickle down’, or ‘we’re just lazy/unlucky/unfortunate’. These are such powerful stories that they’re easy to believe, but they all hide the fact that poverty is created – it doesn’t happen by chance.

Imagine two children – one child grows up in a house that’s warm and dry, with shelves full of books and a fridge full of food; parents who can afford to stay at home and look after them; a private education in a well-resourced school with teachers who love their jobs; and, as an adult, access to loans and internships and connections. Today they live comfortably, with a lifestyle like their parents and children of their own.

The other child grows up in a damp, noisy, busy house, with parents who must work several jobs; education in a school with large classes, little funding and stressed teachers; and, as an adult, no access to loans, financial commitments at home and little help finding work. Today they live in poverty, with a lifestyle like their parents and children of their own.

Imagine two countries – one country fosters innovation and develops its industries; it travels across the world to trade with other civilisations; it manufactures weapons which it sells to others; it forces millions of people from other lands to leave their families, jobs and lives to work for them in slavery; it divides up continents and groups of people and rules over them – creating new countries where citizens must work power the empire’s economy; its companies take billions of dollars of resources from other countries without fair retribution whilst damaging ecosystems; it lends money to other countries with an expectation to be repaid with interest; it teaches its values, religion and worldview and wages war on countries and people who do not play by its rules. Now this country is (largely) economically, politically and societallystable, with a large proportion of its population living comfortably above the poverty line.

The other country fosters innovation and develops its industries; it begins trading with visiting nations from overseas; it buys weapons manufactured there; millions of its people are forced to leave their families, jobs and lives to work abroad in slavery or are killed; its people are divided up into new territories and ruled over by foreign countries and forced to grow crops to power foreign economies; its resources are extracted by multinational corporations from abroad and both produce and profit are sent overseas leaving only environmental devastation; it borrows large sums of money from other nations to try and compensate with so much interest it can never be repaid; its values, religions and worldview are criticised, undermined and systematically destroyed, and it is physically attacked if it doesn’t play by the rules. Now this country is economically, politically and societally unstable, with a large proportion of its population living in poverty and hunger.

There are hundreds of stories, just like these, that show that poverty exists because it is created.

You only have to do the maths… the 85 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3 billion. Is that just a coincidence?

Every year 18 times more money leaves poor countries in the global south than trickles into them... and we wonder why they’re poor?

This month, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are telling us a good-news story, and it’s one we all want to hear – that things are getting better and that if we keep doing things largely in the same way, with charities and technical fixes we can end centuries of global poverty creation by 2030.

Don’t get me wrong, I too would like to end global poverty by 2030, but we think that it’s not going to happen until we start admitting that poverty is created, not a state of nature, spot of bad luck, or a disease that humans can ‘cure’ but don’t ‘create’.

So although we all want to feel good about the world, I’d like to invite you to start finding the gaps in the stories we’re being told about poverty and start asking the BIG questions:

  1. How is poverty created? # PovertyIsCreated
  2. Why is growth the only answer? #WhyGrowth
  3. Who’s developing who? #WhosDevelopingWho

When we’re really honest about what’s going on, then we can look at breaking the creaky, archaic, unfair rules with game-changing and exciting possibilities like updating the money system so that it doesn’t just create debt; moving to a steady-state economy so that it’s in balance with nature; putting limits on the power of big companies so that we can have real democracy; or considering a basic income for everyone so we can spend less time fighting and more time loving, and where both of the children and the citizens of the countries we talked about earlier would share fairer, more equal lives.

Originally posted on TheRules.org on 7th September.

How to feel good about poverty…

It’s been a mad month as I’ve started working with www.therules.org, which, as you can imagine, is a dream come true.

We’ve just launched a campaign based on the idea that #PovertyIsCreated in advance world leaders coming together in New York later this month to formally sign the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs will be met with fanfare: celebrity endorsements, photo ops and a general air of celebration. These goals will set the international development agenda for the next 15 years and will affect the lives of millions of people, but what they are proposing is business as usual – grow the global economy and wealth will trickle down to the poorest. We know this won’t work, because between 1990 and 2010 global GDP increased by 217%, but the number of people living in hunger and poverty has actually increased.

The UN has lots of answers for reducing poverty, but it’s not asking the right questions. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 have grown economies, but left 60% of the world’s population living in poverty and contributed to the continued destruction of the planet.

How can we sustain growth when we’d need 4.1 earths for everyone to live like an American? And if growth works, why does all the money end up in the hands of the few? – Even now the 85 richest people in the world have the same amount of money as the poorest three billion and 18 times more money flows out of the global south every year than trickles into it.

We need to start asking the BIG QUESTIONS about poverty, because if we can expose its root causes we can get real answers about how to eradicate it and change the rules for a world that works for all.

With the UN and the SDGs under the media spotlight for the next month, we have a unique opportunity to tell the true story of poverty and how #PovertyIsCreated with videos, articles, tweets and other messages. This is the first step to steering the conversation towards solutions that can truly alter the system to stop creating poverty and change the rules for a world that works for all. We need to make sure our message reaches as far as possible.

Please watch and share our short video to find out the big questions we need answers on, and soon.