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An Unquenchable Thirst for More: faith and economic growth

Our current economic system seems rooted in a pursuit of an unquenchable thirst for economic growth. In most parts of the world, including the global South, the need for growth, alongside the assumption of its inherent value, dominates policy making. This report argues that most of our language about economic ‘growth’ is an imprisoning picture.

National growth rates make news headlines. For poorer nations, growth is often seen as the single most important factor for economic development and poverty reduction.

In more than 70 years of working alongside some of the world’s poorest people, Christian Aid has witnessed how the health of an economy – including the extent to which it is growing – has an enormous impact on our ability to transform lives; but is never the full story.

Under the economic mask

Many of the countries in which we work have experienced high levels of economic growth and falling poverty rates. Yet, notional economic success can mask severe pockets of poverty, growing levels of inequality or the destruction of the natural world. And although market mechanisms, fundamental to economic growth, have been vital for lifting some people out of poverty, they are rarely able to address the needs of the hardest to reach.

Perhaps even more challenging, for some in the global South, far from being part of the solution, the dogmatic pursuit of economic growth is part of the problem: a form of neoliberal globalisation which “has already cost the lives of millions and destroyed much of God’s creation.”

There is a body of Christian reflection that suggests an urgent need to step back and question some of the fundamental assumptions of today’s dominant economic narratives. While, particularly for people living in poverty, material standards of living cannot be ignored, a truly good life cannot only (or even at all) be counted in goods or wealth. People should never be reduced to mere instruments of an economic system.

What enables a truly human life?

By asking the question ‘what enables a truly human life?’ we can see the economy as a tool that should exist to facilitate human and planetary flourishing. Our economic system should be judged by its potential for sustaining life, both of people and planet, in ways that support the common good.

These reflections have encouraged us to look for new expressions of economic life. One possible approach is to modify the nature of our economic relationships to be more inclusive and so more effective in tackling poverty and inequality. Another is to find ways of ‘decoupling’ our economies so they can continue to grow without exacting such a heavy toll on the natural world. More radically, we suggest that it could be time to abandon the goal of endless growth and increasing consumption – at least for those who are already prosperous by global standards – and seek to be more just and efficient at sharing existing resources and wealth.

While it is not yet clear for us which – if any – of these pathways, or a combination of them, will enable us to build an economy that will truly support ‘human and planetary flourishing’, we are heartened by what seems to be a growing movement dedicated to developing alternative models for economic progress, as well as those simply getting on with ‘doing economics differently’.

There are also things we can do now, through our consumption and investment practices, as well as how we engage in public conversation and debate, that are important growing points from which we might build a true ‘economy of life’.

Our conviction is that the church also has a key role to play in developing a new vision and fostering the kind of radical imagination, shaped by faith, that we believe can help create the world anew.

Beatrice (8) stands in a crop field in Mwea, Kenya, where her father works. Our partner, the SALI Project (Sustainable Agriculture Livelihood Innovation) works with farmers’ groups in Embu County, training members in farming techniques and advising on how best to grow crops. Photograph: Christian Aid/Matthew Gonzalez-Noda

Beatrice (8) stands in a crop field in Mwea, Kenya, where her father works. Our partner, the SALI Project (Sustainable Agriculture Livelihood Innovation) works with farmers’ groups in Embu County, training members in farming techniques and advising on how best to grow crops.