Redesigning Society for Prosperity

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

We are at a critical juncture in our understanding of prosperity. We no longer have an unshaken belief that prosperity is based on economic development or industrialization. The United Nations’ Strategic Development Goals (SGD) have helped reassess the belief that prosperity is mainly an economic goal. These goals have expanded our definition of prosperity towards a holistic improvement of well-being, such as in health, education, nutrition, et cetera.

As we begin to free ourselves from a GDP-focused view of prosperity, we are gaining greater freedom to design society for a more holistic approach to prosperity. To explore these new possibilities, we should revisit indigenous views towards social values, commerce, community, and governance. Indeed, we can draw from a few readily available examples.

In the Andean region of South America, Ecuador and Bolivia have reimagined their social contracts by integrating the concept of Buen Vivir into their constitutions. Buen Vivir (“good living”) is the Spanish phrase for a worldview shared among Andean peoples. While it has no single definition, Buen Vivir emphasizes collective well-being that is in harmony with nature and also culturally sensitive. This concept was integrated into the Ecuadorian constitution in 2008 and later in Bolivia in 2009.

Both countries have interpreted Buen Vivir in different ways. The Ecuadorian constitution guarantees a healthy and an economically balanced way of living. This includes granting nature legal rights that can be enforced through the court system. In contrast, the Bolivian constitution views Buen Vivir through the lens of social justice and political-economic redistribution. The harmony of Buen Vivir is achieved through limiting land ownership size and elevating the political power of village and indigenous communities.

Indigenous concepts not only offer more holistic visions for social contracts but also alternative ways of thinking about work and capitalism. The Igbo people of Nigeria have created a system of apprenticeship that focuses on entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. It’s more than an education system; it’s a unique venture capital system. In the Igbo tradition, children, usually after primary school, are sent to work for an owner of a trade or shop for 5 to 10 years. At the end of the apprenticeship, owners are obliged to help the apprentices set-up their own businesses (called a “settlement”). This apprenticeship model offers a different way to think about business, economics, and education. The Igbo tradition ensures inter-generational equity through enabling entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.

While we can find many sources of inspiration from the Global South, we need to understand how they can work, be re-interpreted, and scaled in different societies and contexts. The different Ecuadorian and Bolivian approaches to Buen Vivir is one example of the challenges of interpretation. In the case of the Igbo apprenticeship, we need to imagine what a regulated, digitalized, and scaled-up version of this apprenticeship could look like. Now that we have greater freedom to rethink society, these are the exciting new challenges we must focus on.

© Daniel Riveong 2018