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Partners in the Fight against Poverty and Inequality: The Relevance of Degrowth for Development

By: Katherine Trebeck


As policy makers return from Marrakesh puzzling over what a Trump presidency means for the Paris agreement, it is fascinating and wonderful to watch, from a desk in one of the biggest anti-poverty and development organisations, the increased energy, depth, and passion of the degrowth movement.

But this movement is unfortunately peripheral to many development conversations. Perhaps that is because degrowth is aimed, first and foremost, at economic models in the ‘global north’. This focus does not align with the global south focus of most development organisations, including Oxfam.

But degrowth and development are two sides of the same coin because the root causes of many humanitarian emergencies in the south lie in economic policy and personal choices made in the north. For example, many are caused by climate change, a function of the excessive, disproportionate, and, to be honest, selfish levels of emissions associated with richer people’s consumption. Most of whom live in the global north.

If we take the science of planetary boundaries seriously, then degrowth – in the sense of massive reduction in resource use and recognising that wellbeing is about more than consumption – is urgently needed in the global north. The north needs to make ecological space for the south. If this does not occur, then the message is that countries in the global south must remain content and resigned to lower living standards. And development organisations will be fighting to eradicate poverty for centuries to come.

Degrowth focuses on the belly of the beast

So degrowth is critical from a development perspective, despite its northern orientation. It focuses on the belly of the beast; on changing the economic goals and models of countries who are ruining the possibilities of a good life not only for themselves, but for so many others as well.

It is all very well to say, as so many still do, that poverty will be reduced by growing the pie so everyone has bigger slices. This lets us off the hook of changing our system as it presumes that we don’t need to worry if some people have too large a slice compared to others.

This argument might have been mildly plausible decades ago. But when our planet is exceeding four of the nine planetary boundaries; when we are facing the 6th mass extinction; when resource constraints mean violence over water and land; and when mass migration as people seek habitable land is forecast to characterise the 21st century, then that recipe for poverty reduction just won’t cut it.

Our collective reality is one of limits – we ignore them at our collective peril. So we can’t just grow the pie – we must talk about distributing the world’s resources: within countries and between countries.

Degrowth is the north making room for the south

That conversation needs to be very nuanced. The understandable reaction many in the global south will – and do – have to degrowth is:

You in the north have had your fun, you’ve raised your living standards, and now you want us to stop our economy growing just when it is paying for hospitals? You want us to go camping just when we can afford our first flight? You want us to go renewable just when we’ve got the technology to extract our fossil fuel resources? You want us to do community gardening just when the first shopping mall is opening up...?

These are understandable instant reactions when people come across the notion of degrowth. I would offer two responses:

  1. Degrowth needs to happen in the global north so the global south can have some growth, so it can use a share of the world’s resources approaching a fair share to increase living standards and meet the needs of citizens. Degrowth is the north making room – quite literally – for the rest of the world.
  2. In raising material living standards as is so necessary, countries in the global south can do so in a better, more efficient way than the global north did – more efficient in economic and environmental terms. They can foster economic models that get it right the first time around rather than requiring massive expenditure on healing, repairing, compensating, cleaning up. Basically, addressing the damage done en route. And we can see how harmful this damaging route can be just by looking at GDP-rich countries: every day there are new reports of the rise of loneliness, self-harm, stress, anxiety, and precarious work.

Fortunately, much inspiration for economic models that prioritise wellbeing and getting the economy right the first time around already exists in many countries in the global south. And of course this is something degrowth scholars recognise with their attention to Buen Vivir and other ways of thinking about development that do not conflate it with ever-rising GDP.

Degrowth may not on the tip of the tongue of so-called ‘development professionals’. But their job is certainly going to be made easier the more traction degrowth gets in the global north.

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Katherine Trebeck

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