What are ways the Global South might redefine prosperity?

Daniel Riveong has written his second installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he questions the nature of prosperity. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The stunning economic successes of Asian countries like South Korea and China have been touted as proof that economic growth is possible for all, not just Western countries. What’s implied in the celebration of their economic success is that economic growth drives prosperity, generates happiness, and raising living standards. While countries like Ethiopia seek to replicate the Asian success stories, environmental degradation, fears over job automation, and rising inequality are challenging this narrative: economic success is both now more difficult and less relevant in the face of dangerous environmental consequences.

If explosive GDP growth is no longer plausible nor desirable, where does this leave policymakers and might we measure our prosperity in new ways? Must rising living standards be rooted in Western-minded developmentalism? This question is of pressing concern to developing countries, home to 85% of humanity, over 6 billion people. If we must look beyond the West and the Asian Tigers to re-define prosperity, how might we do so? Where do we look?

The past decades have seen many attempts to look beyond GDP as a measure of a country’s prosperity and improving living standards. The most common known alternative measure of development has been from the United Nations, which developed the Human Development Index (HDI) and Sustainable Development Goals. More recently, economist Kate Raworth has proposed the “doughnut economics” framework based on addressing the challenges of Earth’s life support systems (fertile soil, stable climate, etc.) to life’s essentials (as defined by UN’s SDG).

If we shift our focus to the Global South, we can find far more radical rethinking of prosperity. At the 2018 World Government Summit, the Indonesian Minister of National Development Planning, Bambang Brodjonegoro, spoke of how SDG has been reinterpreted within Indonesia’s cultural lens. The 17 SDG goals were reframed across spiritual, environmental, and human dimensions drawing from Indonesia’s Hindu and Muslim beliefs:
• Improving People-to-God relationship (Hablum minallah)
• Improving People-to-People relationship (Hablum minannas)
• Improving People-to-Nature relationship (Hablum minal’alam)
These three relationships above called Tri Hita Karana (“Three Reasons for Prosperity”) among Indonesia’s Hindus. Such a worldview from a high-ranking government official, specifically the minister of national development planning, speaks volumes of how the narrower, Western idea of “economic growth is good” is supplemented by more culturally-specific values.

In the United Arab Emirates, we find even more ambitious, culturally-driven rethinking of prosperity with the establishment of the Ministry of Happiness. The ministry’s mission is to drive “government policy to create social good and satisfaction” and to “make the country amongst the top five happiest countries in the world by 2021.” To achieve UAE’s vision of happiness, UAE monitors metrics like divorce rates help track family cohesion and adherence to Muslim values to assess the strength of its national identity.

UAE’s interpretation of a happy society and Indonesia’s views of development challenges the traditional materialist view of prosperity. It emphasizes a culturally specific perspective of what is a successful society. Prosperity is no longer just about building gleaming skyscrapers or eliminating hunger, but can also mean flourishing cultural traditions and strong families. Indeed, the challenges of climate change, inequality, and automation throughout the world will perhaps inspire each society to rethink prosperity in more cultural and human terms.

© Daniel Riveong 2018