Light on Development

Development Policy03 Feb 2014Henk Molenaar

The post-MDG agenda should be based on an alternative theory of development, leading to a simple framework of only three complementary goals: reducing global inequalities, abandoning growth, and enhancing trust.

Growth and the MDGs

When reflecting on a post-2015 agenda, the need to move beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in our thinking is abundantly clear. The MDGs were formulated in an attempt to overcome a one-dimensional focus on economic growth in development thinking. But unfortunately, this attempt has not been very successful. The MDGs do not spring from a clear theoretical foundation,1 and seem to imply that poverty and other social economic problems are limited to developing countries. For these reasons, the MDGs have always been somewhat shallow and toothless.

Economic growth has remained the almost universal prime policy goal of governments. Around the globe we conceive of the need for growth as a self-evident necessity.2 This is connected with the idea that society is based on the pursuit of self-interest by the autonomous individual, homo economicus. Growth and the pursuit of self-interest are part of the self-understanding of modernity.3

Of course, there is no denying the many advantages economic growth has brought, not only in terms of material welfare, but also of enhanced freedom, life expectancy, and education. But there are good reasons to reflect on and question the value of growth.

Questioning growth

A first reason to question growth is the built-in pressure to pursue it, which necessitates increased consumption and evokes ever new desires. We tend to feel that economic growth allows us to satisfy these desires and are blind to the fact that it forces these desires upon us. New consumer needs are continuously created by marketing and advertising strategies that play on the emotions and instincts of unwary consumers.

Second, economic growth is unevenly distributed and unavoidably creates and increases inequality. Generalized market competition constantly produces winners and losers. But we are beginning to realize the high price we have to pay for inequality.4 It is correlated to the incidence of many social and health problems. More unequal countries are worse off, even if their average absolute level of wealth is high. Likewise, life expectancy, literacy, trust, and general well-being are all better in more equal societies, even those with a relatively low level of absolute average wealth.

Consequently, the first goal of a new (post-MDG) global social agenda is to radically reduce global economic inequalities, both within and between nations. Addressing the problem of inequality is not only to the benefit of the poor but equally in the interest of the rich. It is, therefore, a truly universal goal. It will eradicate absolute poverty and greatly reduce relative poverty. It will supersede practically all the MDGs and render them obsolete.

A third reason for questioning growth lies in its ecological consequences. A system depending for its survival on the continuous arousal and satisfaction of ever new desires has an in-built incentive to exploit all available resources, irrespective of the social or environmental costs. But the expansion of the global economy is reaching its limits. The incessant expansion of material production results in sustained exploitation of nature, depleting natural resources and polluting and devastating ecosystems.5

These three reasons for questioning growth paint a bleak picture. Furthermore, research into human well-being and happiness consistently indicates that, beyond a certain material threshold, further growth does not add to well-being,6 and moreover, that it is not wealth and material possessions but social relationships and social participation which contribute most to feelings of happiness, contentment, meaningfulness, and belonging.7 There can be only one sensible conclusion, and that is that we need to abandon growth. This, then, should be the second goal of a post-MDG agenda: to stop global growth and move towards a steady-state global economy.

An alternative for growth

To progress towards these goals, we need a convincing alternative. We need a perspective to inspire enthusiasm, arouse energy, capture the imagination, and fuel the drive for social action. To find such an alternative we must start from another notion of selfhood, a notion that is less atomistic and more social in character.

Neuroscience has recently confirmed that our brain is socially responsive.8 Our minds are not separate, isolated entities but interdependent and mutually permeable. From early childhood onward, the self originates out of a preconscious awareness of the world through gradual self/other differentiation.9 Obviously, this is a notion of selfhood that differs radically from the self-contained, atomistic self of homo economicus. In a sense, the self originates from outside the individual and is born out of social relations.

It is from this mutual empathy that trust springs. Trust is first and foremost a social phenomenon. It is the glue that makes society possible. Its ability to play the role of a social lubricant facilitates cooperation. Trust towards others can be generalized and become embedded in social structures, thus becoming the basis for a well-ordered society. High levels of trust make people feel secure and see others as cooperative. Trust, then, represents a central and indispensable condition for both individual and social well-being.10 It offers an alternative to growth in the pursuit of human well-being. For these reasons, I advance the enhancement of trust as the third goal of a post-MDG agenda.


These are the outlines of an alternative theory of development, which results in an entirely different global social agenda. It springs from a simple and intuitively appealing vision of well-being rooted in social cohesion. It is a simple and powerful agenda that comprises of only three complementary and mutually reinforcing goals: reducing global inequalities, abandoning growth, and enhancing trust.

This blog post is a shorter version of the original article. For the longer version, please see here.


  1. AIV (Advisory Council on International Affairs), The Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Millennium Development Goals in Perspective, Advisory Report No. 74, The Hague, 2011: 20-26
  2. David Graeber, Debt. The first 5000 years, Melville House, Brooklyn New York, 2011: 289-290
  3. Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science. How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community, Harvard University Press, Cambridge-Massachusetts and London-England, 2008 : 9-14
  4. Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level – why more equal societies almost always do better, Penguin, London, 2009
  5. UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), Keeping Track of our Changing Environment. From Rio to Rio+20 (1992-2012), UNEP, Nairobi, 2001
  6. Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness. What government can learn from the new research on well-being, Princeton University Press,Princeton and Oxford, 2011: 14
  7. Richard Layard, Happiness. Lessons from a new science, Penguin Books, London, 2005
  8. Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence. The New Science of Social Relationships, Arrow Books, London, 2006: 4-58
  9. Martin L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development. Implications for Caring and Justice, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000: 139-162
  10. A. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Oxford, Polity Press, 1990: 104