A couple of weeks ago I was in Singapore for an expert hearing on “Asian Perspectives on Qualitative Growth” that was organised by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Austrian Government and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The organisers brought together an interesting collection of people – many very prominent – for a 'serious reflection on the nature of progress and qualitative growth in Asia'.
It was a refreshingly open discussion, and several people noted how difficult it will be to persuade the Asian region of the need to adopt a more sustainable development path, when the West, which has already enjoyed the benefits of economic growth, did not seem ready to make many sacrifices. There is a risk that calls by Westerners to go “beyond GDP” would be viewed by many in Asia as a not too subtle ploy to slow Asia’s rise to become the economic superpower.
If that is indeed the case it will be a great pity for those of us interested in rethinking progress. Not because Asia has much to learn from the indicators movement. On the contrary, because the indicators movement has much to learn from Asia. Though Asia is so diverse a continent, it is almost meaningless to generalise, several countries at least have a deep tradition of thinking about a more balanced, more sustainable development. During the various regional conferences the OECD organised in the run up to the Istanbul and Busan World Forums, 'Asia' stood out as the region to have thought most about progress. The Chinese, for instance, have a concept of ‘harmonious society’, while concepts of balance seem to be deep rooted in Buddhist and Japanese traditions. And the Bhutanese, with their Gross National Happiness, have arguably thought – and done – more than anyone to move away from GDP as the progress paradigm.
It seems to me that to many Westerners, “Sustainable Development” means continuing to let the economy grow as quickly as possible while using some of the spoils of growth to try to patch up the damage done to the environment or society in the process. In the East, many seem to understand the concept more as a development path that seeks greater balance. And that is more in keeping with what it ought to mean. So it is indeed a pity that countries like China and India have become so fixated on their latest growth figures, to a much greater extent even than the western economies: they are “GDP junkies” as one person at the meeting put it.
As Asia rises to dominate the world’s economy and population, whatever Asia does will increasingly determine all our futures. So if the work to reconceptualise progress is to have a real impact then Asia needs to be involved. Given the region’s pedigree of thinking about this, wouldn’t it be natural for Asia to take the lead and show us all what ‘progress’ really means and how we can measure it? I hope so.