It’s the Society, Stupid!

Adil Khan*

Queensland, October 2, 2015 (Alochonaa): Our societies are broken and yet as the phase of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are coming to a close by the end of 2015, the UN is promoting a new set of goals, namely the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the global framework of future ‘development’.

During the MDGs phase, some of the goals have indeed been achieved by certain countries but lingering poverty, growing inequality, significant environmental decay and breakdown of moral fabric of most societies indicate that all is not well. Furthermore, there is also no concrete evidence to prove a correlation between economic progress and MDGs. Many argue that given the global economic dynamics and numerous home-grown initiatives, such as micro-credit including local resilience, economic development and poverty alleviation would have had occurred regardless.  Moreover, one of the key and expected drivers of MDGs – foreign aid – never came anywhere near the agreed target and thus, is unlikely to have made much impact on MDGs. On the contrary, the donor community’s wholesale advocacy of neoliberal economic policies – the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ – established deeply the structural inequities that currently plague most societies.

In these circumstances and given the faltering track record of foreign aid and the West’s exploitative and extractive interventions in developing countries, exactly what the SDGs – that rely heavily on foreign aid and good behaviour of the ‘developed’ countries – would achieve is difficult to predict at this stage. All we can say is that a growth strategy that is inherently predatory is unlikely to deliver equitable and sustainable development outcomes; it is like asking Al Capone to do community work within the framework of extortion policies.

Furthermore, we also need to realise that regardless of whether we call it MDGs or SDGs, ‘development’, which is a post-colonial economic and geopolitical control tool that might have yielded some benefits to some countries, has passed its use-by date. What we need now is to shift our focus from development to societies.

We argue that economic growth is important but agree with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz that “Maximising GDP is not same as maximising wellbeing.” When referring to the devastating effects debt-led growth based on neoliberal economic policies have had on Europe, Irish President Michael Higgins also observed recently, “The current state of the European economy, with its high levels of unemployment, poverty and increasing inequality, is a source of concern, anxiety and even moral outrage for many of our fellow citizens. . . the problem might not lie so much in a lack of the right answers to this most recent crisis of capitalism as in an absence of the right questions.”

In the backdrop, in spite of significant progress in economic growth, most societies these days face intractable maladies in terms of rising inequities, crime, marginalisation of the disadvantaged, denting of democratic values, falling moral standards, etc. From the governance point of view, a rising nexus of vested interests between the state and corporations is making governments more corrupt and despotic, and societies more Orwellian. It is thus reasonable to ask – should we continue the way we are going or should we instead change our vision of progress from ‘development’ to what we call ‘good society’ and regard ‘development’ as a means and not as an end; ‘good society’ should be the end goal.

So what is a ‘good society’?

Gautama Buddha conceptualised “happy society”, in terms of (quoted in Prakrit), bahujanahitaya bahujanasukaya lokanukampaya, meaning, “Each work and life for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.” Utopia, perhaps, but Buddha’s notion of a ‘happy society’ points at two very important elements that are valid even today – well, especially today – and these are, firstly, the values of mutual empathy and secondly, compassion to nature. Buddha also believed that “happiness” is not about reaching a higher material state (for example in today’s terms, higher GDP, higher consumption etc.), it is about achieving a higher social and moral state.

Like Buddha, Aristotle also argued that virtues of “justice” that guarantee equity and social harmony help making people “happy” and “live well”, the same way, Islam stresses that principles of Insaaf (justness) in governance is essential to building societies that are spiritually nurturing, morally rich and socially just. Similarly, Hinduism talks about Prakriti (sensitivity to nature) and Guna (self-actualisation) as foundations of “human goodness”.

In sum, a “good society” agenda warrants complete re-orientation of our vision of progress from economic to social, from self to community and in terms of lifestyle aspirations from consumerism and materialism to conserving and with regard to living standards, from audacious to adequate.

Embracing these ideas into the very fabric of our societies may sound daunting but not impossible. These can be pursued through a number of secular tools though, as has been revealed above and also argued by some that re-invention and re-invocation of “constructive values of religion” in public policies may equally help in achieving norms that contribute to “shared. . .humanitarian welfare” and “ecological preservation”, implying that re-education and leadership are key to re-organisation of societies. Few examples such as those of Scandinavia and few other countries such as Bhutan, Costa Rica and Uruguay re-affirm what the recently elected British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn once famously said, “Alternatives are possible.”

Indeed we have wasted much time by asking what the society can do for the economy and we have suffered. We need to turn this theory on its head and put society ahead of the economy and ask ourselves what the economy can do for the society, and unite globally to develop norms, values and systems that make societies equitable, sustainable and most importantly, morally nourishing where economics plays only a complementary role to form ‘good societies’, both within and across!

*The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and retired senior policy manager of the United Nations. He can be reached at

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


Categories: Development, SDG

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