Thomas Varghese is a Freelance Development Consultant, living and working in India. He has wide experience in the field of sustainable development, working across research, consultancy and advisory roles with Governments, International Organizations (U.N) and Non-Profits. After graduating with a Bachelor’s from Delhi University, he completed two Master’s degrees from Erasmus University and Harvard University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
India | May 19, 2020 | Opinion Article
As people across the world reel under the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, this is an opportune time to pause, reflect and reorient our approach to development. One of the first lessons that can be drawn from the crisis is that human lives ultimately assume primacy over economic growth. When a choice had to be made between protecting human lives and sustaining economic growth, most countries, even if reluctantly, unanimously decided for the former. It took a pandemic of this scale and proportion to make this choice apparent, for many economic policies hitherto followed perpetuated doubts to the contrary, as the deterioration of environment and public health weighed less than the singular objective of clocking high rates of economic growth.
The development path traversed and propagated has relied heavily on technical and economic approaches with a focus on the financial bottom line. Such an approach gained preponderance in important governmental decision making, even as social responsibility, ecological balance and political participation have taken a backseat, though these were to be given equal importance along with economic capability in what has become defined as ‘sustainable development’. The singular and myopic focus on economic growth has overlooked and eclipsed the insights from other disciplines, thereby precluding an integrated and holistic approach to development. Fortunately, there are hints of change even in this direction in the times of this crisis, which I wish to shed light on with the hope of reorienting our response to development.
When the German federal government upon the recommendation of a 26-member expert group advised loosening of lockdown restriction post April 15, the committee drew from the expertise of philosophers, historians, jurists and theologians in addition to a handful of natural scientists, virologists and medical specialists. A healthy balancing act of reopening the society while simultaneously safeguarding the public health of its citizens, brought out the need for a holistic and integrated approach that viewed the complexity of the problem in all its entirety from multiple angles. This approach taken up in Germany has been in contrast with many other countries, especially those classified under the rubric ‘developed nations’. For example, in France the 11-member strong scientific council formed by President Emmanuel Macron relied heavily on disease experts, epidemiologists, disease modelers and medics, with the exception of only one sociologist and an anthropologist.
The holistic and integrated approach adopted by Germany, in these unusually challenging times, though hopeful, cannot yet be treated as the norm. However, extraordinary challenges call for extraordinary solutions and Germany seems to be offering a radical alternative, which they believe best reflects their society’s concerns and aspirations. Now the important question is, can Germany take the bold initiative to mainstream this approach, both within Germany and through its vast networks in international development cooperation? Can the viewpoints and expertise of philosophers, jurists, historians, theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, artists and others from the humanities and social sciences be given equal importance with those from fields such as natural sciences, engineering and economics? If sustainable development envisions holistic, inclusive and equitable development through a symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world, then the approach needed to achieve these should also reflect the adoption of ‘means’ that are consistent with the ‘ends’, of which the above mentioned multi-dimensionality is an integral part.
GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammerarbeit) – the international development arm of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development works in 120 countries, employing 70 percent of its workforce locally. Can a conscious effort be taken to mainstream a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to development across the countries where they are active? The countries themselves may be more receptive to such an approach than one thinks. For example, when the state of Kerala in the Indian Union released the report for easing lockdown restrictions on April 6, the 17 member expert committee had 5 medical experts, whereas the remaining included senior civil servants, journalists, educationists, theologians, jurists, academicians and an award winning filmmaker and a writer.
This shift in weltanschauung is a historic opportunity which also calls for a leap of faith as it requires going beyond the familiar, yet lopsided approaches to problem solving, which have not yielded the results that we anticipate. It is high time we lend our ears to voices otherwise ignored, yet critical, and be open to reorienting our response to development cooperation.
Further References on Expert Group:
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