Main Site         

Can global development deliver us a new paradise?

2012 May 20
by Paul Vallely

Paradise Lost and Found



83 London Wall, London EC2M 5ND

Sunday 20th May 2012


Can global development deliver us a new paradise?


Paul Vallely


This is not a parable, but a true story (though, of course, it is could be both). It was told to me by Charles Elliott from his time as director of Christian Aid.

An aid worker went to an African village and asked what the community needed.  The elders were asked whether they would like a well, or a school, or a clinic, or latrines.

After conferring they said: “We would like a new graveyard”.

The aid worker was perplexed. “We don’t do cemeteries,” he replied, “it’s not part of our development brief. Would you like something else?”

The elders deliberated again and then replied: “No, if we can’t have a graveyard, we don’t need anything else thanks”.

Can global development deliver us a new paradise? That depends on what your idea of development – and paradise – is.

The received wisdom about development is that it is the same thing as raising economic productivity. Development is about maximising our personal wealth, freedom and choice. That’s the modern idea of what it means to live a good life. It has its roots in the Enlightenment notion that progress is linear – and that moral and material progress go hand in hand. It assumes that all traditional societies are alike and that progress is only possible if they can be purged of their “primitive” attitudes.

Now, we don’t want to be puritan about this. The decade leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis saw extraordinary economic growth which has lifted millions of people out of poverty in countries like China and India.  But this growth, which was generally arrested by that international financial crisis, has been accompanied by: greater environmental damage, greater inequality and increased fuel and food instability.

Worse still,  the vision it embodies is fundamentally individualist rather than a communal vision. It is thoroughly materialistic and acquisitive. Yet in acquiring more and more stuff we in the West have also acquired overwork, stress, addictive activity, depression, anti-social behaviour and family dislocation. The incessant quest for more – higher incomes, faster growth – is robbing us of the good life rather than helping us attain it. Poverty can be spiritual as well as material.


So it is worth asking – before we blithely recommend pulling the world’s poor aboard the escalator of Western material progress – whether we are offering poor countries what the present Pope calls a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”[i]. What place do we have – in practice – for the spiritual, the cultural and the communal in our vision of paradise.  Or as one African bishop put it: “Is that what you think of the Kingdom of God – that it is a kind of universal Marks and Spencers?”[ii]

Development, like paradise, then, is more than a process of enlarging human choices.

Notions of what development means have altered according to the times.

During the Cold War Pope Paul VI declared “Development is the new name for peace[iii]”.  What had started as aid agencies focused on relief turned into development bodies which famously wanted to teach people to fish rather than doling out handouts of fish to the poor. This was the era when we moved from charity to justice as we realised that poor people are kept in poverty by the very structures of international trade and finance, the structures of sin, as the Liberation theologians called them. Poverty grew from powerlessness.  As the next Pope, John Paul II, put it: “Obstacles to development have a moral character”[iv].

Some went further – and declared that people are poor because the rich are rich. And insisted that would have to change, quoting Mary’s prophetic song:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty[v].

But there was a step beyond justice – and that was to empowerment and participation. True development allows people the dignity which comes from controlling their own lives. Ultimately that is a question of power. It cannot be a relationship between unequals. And we must go beyond co-opting a local elite to into the lifestyles of the West; we must find ways of fostering true development that reaches the poorest.

Religious people involved in development ought to have an added insight into this. It is not about democracy or rights so much as recognising in others the image of God – that’s how we truly recognise intrinsic human dignity. Charity and justice both have about them, philosophically and theologically, a touch of a one-way process – in which we give to them.

That is why Dom Helder Camara asked: “Can there be a new international economic order without a new international social order?”  His answer was clear.


For development to move us closer to paradise requires us to understand that. The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Commission on Relief spells out what that means in practice. As one of its staff put it:

“When we go to a village to drill for water, we do two surveys. We do a socio-economic survey to find out where the poorest and most marginalised people live – the outcasts or dalits. Then we do the physical survey, to find out where the water is located.


“If the result shows a water source where the dalits live, we drill the well there. That means that the higher-caste women will have to come to this community to get their water. If we drilled it in the high-caste area, they would fence it off and not allow poor people to touch it.


“It’s a powerful tool. At first these women are quite upset, but they often begin to see that they have to forget their old prejudices.” 


The Zulu word Ubuntu offers an insight here. It means, as Desmond Tutu puts it, “a person is a person through other persons[vi]”. “I am myself because of you”. What is good for me is somehow woven into what is good for others.

Everyone has something to give into the common life. And, more than that, if one person is prevented from giving, then everyone is poorer. We are impoverished by injustice. It makes us all less human. As John Donne put it: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind”.

It is what both Aristotle and St Paul meant by koinonia – a real sharing of goods, material and spiritual. For Christians it is there at the heart of the theology of the Trinity. It is about relationship. In development, to quote Rowan Williams, “we are not trying to solve someone else’s problem but to liberate ourselves from a toxic and unjust situation in which we, the prosperous, are less than human[vii].”

True solidarity flows from that.  Sometimes the poor understand this better than the rich. In November 2000 the worst floods for 400 years hit the city of York. TV news flashed footage round the world. Soon after Christian Aid received an envelope stuffed with Mozambique currency and with a request that the money be forwarded to those affected in York. Earlier that year Mozambique had suffered a devastating cyclone that led to widespread loss of life and livelihoods, and the country was the subject of a massive international relief effort.

The donation was despite that. Or perhaps because of it.

Wealth by no means equates with well-being. We know that. But to see how big the gap is, consider this:

A few years ago there was an interesting experiment in which a group of psychologists descended on Slough – “come friendly bombs” – to try to make people there happier. The good folk of Slough were told to do several of these things every day:

  • smile at a stranger
  • phone a friend you have not spoken to for a while
  • give yourself a treat every day – and take the time to really enjoy it
  • do a random act of kindness for someone
  • and count your blessings at bedtime – at least five that day

You should take more exercise, they were told, get more sleep, cut your tv viewing by half, spend more time with your friends, and make sure you have a good laugh each day.

You should plant something and watch it grow, and have an hour-long uninterrupted conversation with someone you love one each week.

Well-being is about far more than wealth. It is about sharing. And discovering joy – and savouring it – in what we already have, rather than wanting ever more.

No concept of development, as Rowan Williams has said, is finally workable “unless it allows for the transcendent and the gratuitous in human nature[viii]”.

In these ways do we inch towards paradise. On earth as it is in heaven.

To steal a phrase from the Catholic novelist Mary Flannery O’Connor: “The life you save may be your own[ix]”.


[i] Caritas In Veritate §51


[ii]  Bishop Cyprian Bamwoze of Jinja in Uganda, quoted in Comfortable Compassion, Charles Elliott


[iii] Populorum Progressio §76


[iv] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis §35


[v] Luke 2:52-53

[vi] “A person is a person through other persons; we belong in the bundle of life; I want you to be all you can be because that way I can be all I can be”, Desmond Tutu, Semester at Sea, 2007

[vii] New Perspectives on Faith and Development, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, lecture at the RSA. Thursday 12th November 2009


[viii] Ibid


[ix] Title of a short story from the volume A Good Man Is Hard to Find,  1955

Comments are closed.