“Buen Vivir”: Rethinking Development and Prosperity

Photo by ia huh on Unsplash

Written by Depali Rai

How one school of thought is reconceptualising development beyond the western-centric confines of neo-liberal capitalism and individualism.

International development has been a key tenet of global politics and foreign relations since the earlier half of the 20th century. Following the Second World War, the American-backed Marshall Plan pumped capital into war-torn European nations. The journey towards post-war recovery prompted the conception of a Marshall Plan for the so called “Third World” to tackle their troubling conditions of poverty and “backwardness”. A model of development and modernisation emerged where achieving “First World” status of wealth and prosperity was seen as a science to be applied onto the global south. Neo-liberal reforms soon crept onto the agenda of every “Third World” nation.

As philanthropic as international development may at first seem, the effort to alleviate global poverty and “emancipate” the “Third World” or Global South is far from a neutral endeavour. Escobar, an anthropologist of development, argues that while development projects aimed at lifting the “Third World” out of poverty are presented as intrinsically positive and altruistic, the developmental agenda continues to fail and even damage third world environments through its colonial ideologies.

The debate surrounding western motivations behind development aid is ongoing and deeply layered. Where some cite ego-centric neo-colonialism as the underlying force, others emphasise the role of cold-war geopolitics and diplomacy. Whilst the debate over motivations and intentionality is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, what is explicitly clear now is the strong backlash against this long-standing, traditional model of development.

Buen Vivir: Reimagining Development

Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien, are the Spanish words used in Latin American countries to describe alternatives to the development model that has so far been propagated by western-dominated institutions. Meaning “good life”, the term has been actively used as a part of a wider social movement which advocates achieving a “good life” through societal harmony and collectivist principles. This culturally sensitive philosophy follows closely from indigenous traditions and world views of Latin American countries including the “harmonious living” principles of the Guarani people of Bolivia and the “sumak kawsay” (good life) of the Quechua indigenous people of Ecuador. While there are no strict definitions of what Buen Vivir is, the importance of seeing human beings as part of the natural world is fundamental to the Buen Vivir principles of community and reciprocity. Community for one is reimagined beyond just humans to include plants and animals in this horizontal dynamic. Key issues that Buen Vivir holistically tackle are food security, ecological balance, and environmental justice. Certainly, one clear commonality between the diverse adoption of Buen Vivir across Latin America is the emphasis on the failures of the traditional economic metrics of development and wellbeing such as GDP per capita.

Buen Vivir reflects a wider critique from the “Third World” in which developing nations are rejecting the ethnocentric, restrictive, and even damaging nature of western developmental projects as well as general capitalist degradation to natural environments and indigenous livelihoods.

Its popularity has been clear since its initial conception in the mid-2000s and has reached government level through its inclusion into the Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009). The preamble to the Ecuadorian constitution reading: “We decided to construct a new form of citizen co-existence, in diversity and harmony with nature, to reach ‘el buen vivir, el sumak kawsay’”. As such, Buen Vivir offers a culturally appropriate, ecologically responsible, and decolonial approach to development and wellbeing.

Associación ANDES (Association for Nature and Sustainable Development) in Cusco, Peru is one example of how communities are coming together with the Buen Vivir principles of sustainable rural living, biodiversity conservation and maintaining indigenous knowledge and practices. The Potato Park is one such innovation that isnot just a conservation initiative for various varieties of potatoes. It is, above all, a bio-cultural territory dedicated to the conservation of the heritage of six indigenous communities that live here (…), the landscape and its elements that also include knowledge, traditions, innovations and the worldview of the more than 6000 inhabitants”

Prospects: what can we really make of Buen Vivir?

Indigenous worldviews such as Buen Vivir have proved to be vital to reimagining and reconstructing ideas of wellbeing and prosperity beyond economic criteria. Long established indicators such as the Human Development Index clearly fail to account for ecological concerns.

Critics of Buen Vivir question if it could have any impact beyond indigenous places of origin – if it only works within the cultural contexts of Latin America. Is Buen Vivir just another small-scale example of bottom-up development that has no impact beyond its locality? Such concerns reflect the arrogance of institutionalised ways of thinking. Casting doubt on decolonial approaches to sustainability demonstrates the narrowness of contemporary development discourse.

The Potato Park in Peru has clearly had an impact beyond Peru. Agronomists working on the farm have been consulting the ancestral knowledge of the local farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods, and frosts. Such research in the face of growing concerns over food security due to land degradation and crop resilience may indeed “play an important role in feeding the rest of the world.

Even so, probing to see if Buen Vivir constitutes a new universalising model misses the point entirely. We need to look past international development’s historical tendency to search for a silver bullet. No countries have identical histories. Much is lost when we aim for uniformity.

In the long run, Buen Vivir demonstrates the failures of historical and existing approaches to development by “First World” institutions and practitioners. Buen Vivir initiatives constitute a challenge to the traditionally western-dominated narratives in global politics and thus, add socio-political value beyond the farms, homes, and communities of South America.  

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