Development as Service

Dorine E. van Norren

Initiatives of the Global South have much to contribute to the discussions on development, sustainability and climate change, especially when it comes to changing our behavior. The world is constantly making new agreements on how to combat climate change, restore biodiversity and ensure respect for nature, whilst also ensuring a decent standard of living for all. Yet, it is rarely specified how we should achieve those changes. The world is committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030, although due to Covid the progress is substantially slower than before. However, the framework does not specify how the goals should be achieved. The language is mainly centered on targets and indicators, and occasionally refers to concepts such as harmony with Nature or responsible production and consumption, yet striving for 7% economic growth at the same time. This is symptomatic for the age of the “death of ideologies”, which started with the new millennium, when the millennium development goals were agreed upon. Since the fall of the Berlin wall the faith in communism has dwindled, many have turned against capitalism and globalization, and theories of Good Governance in development did not deliver as promised. Inclusive development is supposed to give answer to the failure of realization of many of the conventional human rights, especially the socio-economic ones.

In light of this reality it is interesting to look at traditional paradigms that have existed in indigenous cultures for thousands of years but at the same time are being adapted to modern times to address the current challenges we are facing. These world-views question notions of sustainability, development, goals and individual rights. All of them have a core concept in common, namely: service or reciprocity. Nothing happens in isolation, and all is related. Therefore, it is better to speak of Service than of Development, just like Amartya Sen argued that it is important to look at how to realize individual rights and freedoms (Development as Freedom), it is equally important to look at how to achieve collective wellbeing through reciprocity. That is with all living beings.

African Ubuntu

The philosophy of Ubuntu is known in all of Sub Sahara Africa, though it features under different names, and Ubuntu has been a traditional belief in Southern Africa. “Life is mutual aid” summarizes its core tenet. This is also expressed in “I am because you are”; “I am a person through other persons.” “I can only realize my humanity through respecting your humanity.” My humaneness is intrinsically tied to others – their being able to realize their own dignity.” This dignity also extends to the unborn and to the ones who passed before us (living death- considered living since they are remembered as ancestors). At the same time, this dignity extends to Nature and the Earth. Not only are the future generations dependent on our shared natural resources, we have also inherited these from our ancestors who have returned to the Earth and spirited the land. A violation of Ubuntu, disrespectful behavior, therefore encompasses both disrespecting living humans, as yet-to-be-born, living death and Nature. By respecting the principle of sharing, I can make sure that the other is also respected in his or her humaneness.

Basing economic principles in self-interest, individualism, and materialism is an antithesis to Ubuntu, just like ideas of ‘cogito ergo sum’, I am because I think, the supremacy of reason (and science). Ubuntu departs from that postulate by thinking from the heart. Human relations are seen as infinitely more important than the abstract concept of ‘development’.

Some criticize Ubuntu as being a romanticization of the past, others for paternalistic features of traditional cultures. Some argue that as we all climb the ladder of modern development, based in individual merit, it is bound to be lost. Ubuntu is, however, still very much alive amongst ordinary people, not only as a method of survival and solidarity, but also as a spiritual culture of doing what is right. That this may not benefit the individual in advancing individual progress in terms of living standards (the extended family will always ask for its share), is exactly what ‘I am because we are’ intends. We advance or fail together.

South Africa has used the concept of Ubuntu to not only install its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (articulated in its draft constitution), but also as a foreign policy (Ubuntu diplomacy), an administrative policy of good governance (Batho Pele- People First) as well as in court. This has led to an extensive jurisprudence on restorative justice in the important issues of the death penalty, criminal law, eviction from housing (private property no longer being sacrosanct) and family law. Harnessing its indigenous philosophy in other spheres such as the economy may benefit its transition to sustainability and inclusion further.

Buddhist Happiness

The philosophy of Gross National Happiness was invented as an antidote to Gross National Product. The, then, absolute monarch of Bhutan in the 1970’s was asked what the GNP of his country was, to which he responded that he was more interested in the gross national happiness of his people. Happiness should be understood as “inner balance and harmony” rather than the hedonic happiness that Westerners associate it with. Gross National Harmony may be a better word to describe the vision of the Bhutanese government. It is rooted in Buddhism, walking the Middle Path, the eightfold path and the four noble truths. It has been modernized by the Centre for Bhutan Studies into a policy based on four pillars: culture as a basis for development, socio-economic wellbeing, environmental care and good governance. As it counter-argues the GDP logic of eternal growth, it was also captured in an index, the Gross National Happiness Index. This captures nine domains of wellbeing such as education, health, cultural diversity, ecological diversity and time use. Compassion is a central idea in Buddhism, extending to all life and spirited Nature. This is often combined with beliefs of traditional “Bodism” (or traditional Bon beliefs) attributing sacredness to Nature and nature spirits. Ideas are also rooted in the belief of Simple Life, taking only what one needs. Wellbeing and cultivating spiritual discipline is seen as development rather than accumulating economic wealth.

The Bhutanese constitution of 2008 has made Gross National Happiness a central tenet and all policies are based in this logic. Despite the fact that Bhutan like all other “developing” countries is struggling with keeping the youth interested in traditional rural life, it does make an explicit effort to maintain its culture. Guardianship for nature plays a crucial role in it, as the constitution demands a 60% forest cover (currently 72%) and gives all citizens duties towards the environment. Respect for all sentient beings is still a central tenet of Buddhist culture. It expresses itself in frequent tree planting, clean-up actions and zero waste targets, as well as in wildlife preservation and hydro-electricity, which does impact the country’s biodiversity aims. Due to the heavy influence of India and other donors, it has not preserved all traditional features though, such as the commons and traditional governance of villages by households.

Andean Buen Vivir

The political and philosophical idea of Buen Vivir is rooted in the Andean concept of Sumak Kawsay, a Quecha word. It resonates with cultures of other indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and centers on the idea of Living in Harmony with Nature. Literally it means Good Living, or living in plenitude (to the fullest extent) or the right way of living. The concept of community is extended to all life forms, and thereby it is a biocentric view of life. Humans are seen as equal to other life forms. Nature is no longer an object but a subject to which one relates, in one big family. It aims at radical equality, and gratitude towards Nature and Mother Earth is a central tenet. Mother Earth is the life giver and as such referred to as a parent that one owes respect to. The concept of sustainability is seen as ridiculous as all life grows and decays in an eternal circle. Life is seen as cyclical or as a spiral. Linear development does not exist, and infinite growth is an illusion, only bound to deplete the earth. Buen Vivir strives at an alternative economic model including food and energy sovereignty, participatory democracy and many forms of exchange (reciprocity). Integrality (holism), complementarity (male-female), correspondence and reciprocity are central in Sumak Kawsay.

Buen Vivir is criticized for many of the same reasons as Ubuntu, and is often wrongfully associated with communism, too. However, communism and communalism are two different concepts, in which the former centers on the power of the state (and anti-bourgeois struggles) and the latter finds its inspiration in autonomous communities and collectives. Buen Vivir is closely linked to the struggles for autonomy of indigenous peoples, called Plurinationality (the state consisting of many nations) and respect for interculturality.

The governments of Ecuador and Bolivia encapsulated Buen Vivir in their constitution in 2009. The former based all its policies in Buen Vivir, and a lively exploration in jurisprudence ensued. Nature could be defended by anyone, and establishing personal interest or damage was no longer required. As Buen Vivir is also not free of politics, judges were influenced not to forbid large-scale mining and oil exploration, as that income was needed for social programs aimed at reducing inequality (another tenet of Buen Vivir). At the same time these policies split the indigenous communities and went against the principle of harmony with Nature. Now that the independence of judicial system has been restored under a new president, more positive rulings on the rights of Nature have ensued.


When one analyzes sustainability frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the discussions within the Convention on Biodiversity or the Paris Climate accord, targets are often still formulated within a modernistic mindset. Humans are above Nature and in control of it. Science and reason are going to solve current issues of underdevelopment, inequality and climate change. Materialism reigns and meritocracy is still seen as the means to elevate everyone out of poverty (including nature). The emancipation of Nature through Buen Vivir offers an alternative perspective. This also resonates with African beliefs of humaneness and Buddhist philosophy of guardianship of nature, as well as other indigenous beliefs such as those of the Maori or the indigenous Australian. No longer is Nature a slave of human possession and exploitation but an entity in its own right with intrinsic value to which one owes gratitude and respect. Taking this as the point of departure, instead of egocentric humans striving for development, leads to a radically different society rooted in solidarity with one another and one’s living environment.


Dr. Dorine E. van Norren is an associate researcher at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society, Leiden, Netherlands.

This article is based on the PhD Thesis (2017) Development as Service, A Happiness, Ubuntu and Buen Vivir interdisciplinary view of the Sustainable Development Goals. See also: The Sustainable Development Goals viewed through Gross National Happiness, Ubuntu, and Buen Vivir | SpringerLink

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1 thought on “Development as Service”

  1. I got a chuckle when I read the title of this article as I was reminded of the book review I did of Alpah Shah’s book ‘Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerillas’ as I titled my review Revolution as Selfless Service!

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