Place based Development and the Good Life for all
Development at the MLGD Institute is interpreted in its broadest sense as dealing with what ought to be achieved in society over time. As such development as a goal should provide guidance for policy and criteria against which policy can be evaluated. What is to be achieved in and by society cannot be detached from an ongoing process of inclusive, deliberative, civic political discourse about environmental, social and economic issues and priorities.
In part research on development is pursuing a scientific utopian agenda. At one extreme orthodox economics has a capital accumulating utopian vision of a methodologically individualist society that grows forever on a finite planet. At the other is the vision of a sharing, just, social economy where humanity lives in harmony with Nature in pursuit of the philosophical good life.
An alternative approach to measure development, pursued at the MLGD Institute, is in terms of time use. Such an approach raises research questions concerning the right balance between various domains in life as well as the social and ecological effects of different lifestyles.
The aims of Social Ecological Transformation (e.g., ecological sustainability, participatory democracy) have to be contextualised relative to a concept of development (i.e., where ‘we’ as a society want to go). The conceptualisation of development is in itself an important element of a transformative social process towards social, ecological and economic sustainability and increased social and political participation.
In the standard economic viewpoint, common to both orthodox and heterodox schools, development is equated with throughput of material goods for consumption, which is converted into monetary terms as Gross Domestic Product. This then forms a disciplinary mission statement. The orthodox economic discourse about development rests upon the notions of welfare or well-being. Welfare economics stresses peoples’ purchasing power and, as in all orthodox economic methodology, ignores political power as well as social and distributional issues.
The concept of (subjective) well-being has in part emerged as a response to and critique of this consumption oriented concept of development. Even though the term well-being is used in various ways in the literature, the predominant view is to conceive spontaneous feelings of happiness the ultimate goal in life. This then remains a limited hedonic pleasure seeking model of human goals and aspirations.
More generally, in recent decades, several discerning discourses about and concepts of development have emerged. Most widely recognized is Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaumer’s Capabilities Approach, which takes political and social aspects into account but leaves aside questions concerning the organisation of the economy, and its potentially undermining effects on the environment, and social and political life. More marginalised discourses about development include ‘buen vivir’. This originated in Latin America and can be translated as ‘a good life for all’, which stresses social and cultural aspects and specificities in relation to development. In Social Ecological Economics the approach of Manfred Max-Neef has had some recognition with its emphasis on needs and satisfiers. This theory specifies needs and their means of achievement in a categorical system, as opposed to the capabilities approach.
Another development discourse, deeply rooted in environmental thinking, is that of the ‘Degrowth’ movement. This draws on the writings of critical thinkers such as Ivan Illich, André Gorz and Serge Latouch. Degrowth has correspondences with the good life for all and both entail a more fundamental critique of the current political economy than anything found in the Capabilities Approach. They question the close relationship of development as GDP growth with increasing income, and raise social, political, economic and ecological concerns. Members of the MLGD Institute are particularly active in contributing to discourses about Degrowth, a good life for all and the related research agenda in moving to a post-growth society.
Besides debates about how to conceptualize development there is the supplementary question how to measure it. Development as GDP growth, or increasing scores of self-reported happiness, are one-dimensional indicators. Pretending that everything that is relevant for development can be measured in terms of GDP suggests commodification and value commensuration in the extreme. The measurement and interpersonal comparison of self-reported happiness also poses a broad variety of methodological problems for empirical research. Deficiencies of these indicators have encouraged research about alternatives. Based on the conceptual work of Sen and Nussbaumer, the UN employs the three-dimensional ‘Human Development Index’. The OECD has created a ‘Better Life Index’ consisting of 11 complementary dimensions. Such multi-dimensional indicators typically apply a simple “more is better” logic in each separate dimension, and are less explicit about the interrelatedness of different dimensions.