Development Cooperation in a Post-Growth Era

by Ulla Puckhaber & Tanja Brumbauer (NELA -Next Economy Lab)

“Without growth – no investments, without growth there are no jobs, without growth there is no money for education, without growth there is no help for the weak”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said when introducing the Growth Acceleration Act in November 2009. However, in times of massive ecological overshoot and increasing inequalities worldwide, this growth dependency is increasingly questioned, particularly the notion of ”green growth”. Critics ask:  Is economic growth really indispensable for wellbeing and (global) justice? Or is it, on the contrary, rather a source of global inequalities, severe environmental crises and- even a possible economic decline in the long run?

Questioning growth in high-income and high-consumption countries in the Global North is one thing, but how about low-income countries? In how far does the question of growth and post-growth play a role for the Global South, and what does it mean for Development Cooperation?  With three speakers from the Global South, our recent seminar “Development Cooperation in a post-growth era” gave room for discussing these and other questions and for identifying practical approaches.

India – A Pluriverses of Alternatives Is Already There   

Rajeswari S. Raina, professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance at the Shiv Nadar University (Dadri, India) is convinced that “The Indian economy does not have to ‘catch up’ with the West and repeat the mistakes of the ‘developed’ countries”. Although the original rules and institutions of the Indian economy were partly destroyed during colonial rule and later by the capitalist Western economy, Indian ways of economic activities are still functioning and prevailing in the country, where 90% of labour is organized in an informal way. According to Raina, Indian ideas of economic activities are traditionally not based on growth and external or financial capital. “Capital” rather exists in many forms. As in the case of Indian agriculture, hills and mountains are seen as nature and a source of water but are not monetized and capitalized with the objective to create economic growth. A pluriverse, that means diverse and multifaceted forms of living and economic activities, is already established. Departing from there, a fair and environmentally friendly economy should be based on decentralized policies and direct democracy, especially in a very diverse country like India.

According to Tonny Nowshin, climate justice activist from Bangladesh, it is rather the “maldeveloped” Global North that has to change: “The Global North must degrow to change the narrative of the absurd, growth-based economic model, established through colonisation of the Global South”.

“Western Capitalism Is Not As Important As It Is Seen To Be”

Roldan Muradian, professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói, Brazil, sees the concept of post-growth as “a naive way of looking at the world”, because “Post-growth economic thinking seems to assume that a post-growth phase of capitalism is possible”. Just like the concept of “development”, the notion of “post-growth” maintains the hierarchies created by colonial rule and capitalist economies, and the division of the world in categories of “those in need” and “those who give help”. He rather calls for a complete change of narratives within global interactions.  From his perspective, the term “post-growth” refers to the narrative of growth and Western capitalism which he doesn’t see as important and all-embracing as it is said to be. In line with Raina, he also, stresses various forms of economic activities in the Global South that don’t follow the capitalist and growth-oriented models.

More Bottom-Up Solutions

In the interactive discussions participants linked the speaker´s inputs, postgrowth concepts, and their own experiences and knowledge from development cooperation to develop ideas for a more meaningful, just and sustainable international cooperation. It comes as no surprise that many held a critical view on development cooperation in its current form, and heatedly debated whether it should be questioned in its totality, or whether there could be changes within existing structures.

The main outlook after two days of input and lively online discussions was a focus more on local and regional bottom-up solutions in the Global South as well as the Global North. Reconsidering and rethinking frames and narratives of development cooperation would be essential, to dissolve the persisting division of the world and paving the way for a more equal and just global distribution.

“It does not need development cooperation, but a just global economy and a focus on regional/local concepts”.

The ideas for concrete actions that came up all went in the direction of strengthening local people to be able to defend their own interest instead of being forced to follow “one size fits all” solutions. This implies also changing frameworks set by policies. As an example, government structures were named as not easy to bypass when working with small communities. Beside political measures, the need for more fair production, trade and financial systems was highlighted. Producers in the Global South should be able to set their own terms of production and focus more on local than global distribution. For example, coffee producers could focus on producing food for locals instead of exporting goods to satisfy global demands. Apart from Global South Countries, also the Global North is on spotlight for change. “We need to start in our own countries – and try to figure out how trade can be really fair, which implies more than just carrying a fair-trade label!”. To implement these changes, small initiatives to start the change towards a post-growth economy and global system were seen as a possible way to interfere in global development cooperation structures. The government to government approaches of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the /German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), would need to be revised. The cooperation should instead be rooted on lower political levels. A general political engagement to evoke a change in persisting power structures, global frameworks, institutions and rules would thus be necessary.

 “Act locally! Work locally with local experts! If help needed, let locals identify their own problems and solutions”, applies in the Global South as well as in the Global North.

Another idea, as a more concrete measure, was the establishment of a demand driven development cooperation, e.g. through a facility that only acts upon concrete demand. This goes along with the support of more local change agents in each society who work for an empowerment of local structures and change from within. The introduction of frugal innovations was proposed in order to stop the growth based economic focus and dissolve dependencies between the Global North and the Global South.

As one of the participants from the field of development cooperation put it: “I try to think about creating a just global economy in my work and ask myself the questions: Is my project in the logic of someone needing to catch up? Or is it in the logic of creating a just global system?” Even if the application of post-growth concepts in development cooperation is complex and certainly not an easy task, it offers alternative and progressive solutions and has the potential of shaping new working methods in development cooperation.

The seminar was organized by NELA – Next Economy Lab. A follow-up seminar is already on the agenda for 2021.

Ulla Puckhaber is a student of the master programs Cultural Studies (University of Leipzig, Germany) and International Development Studies (University Grenoble Alpes, France). Tanja Brumbauer is an economist and co-initiator of the working group “Plurale Ökonomik” at the University of Bayreuth. She has been working on the role of bottom-up initiatives in processes of the social-ecological transformation for many years. Both work at NELA – Next Economy Lab. The newly founded organisation engages with the development and implementation of regional, climate friendly and growth-independent and thus, transformative economic models.

The workshop was funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).