Road to Rio: The moral link to the global economic crisis

April 23, 2012
By Olav Kjørven
United Nations Development Programme

I was honored to host a discussion with Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in contribution to the post-2015 development dialogue on Friday in New York.  Our discussion, focused on the ‘ethos of inclusion’, took place as the global economy may be going through its worst crisis since World War II.

What we have is a global, multifaceted crisis that brings to the fore existing deficiencies in policy making. It highlights the weaknesses of measuring progress only in terms of growth, as the 2011 Human Development Report stresses, and divorcing economic rationale from the social and environmental considerations of development.

If these deficiencies are not addressed comprehensively and forcefully over an extended period of time, they threaten to reverse the impressive gains in human development the world has seen over the last few decades.

But how did we get here and what can be done?

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues that a key underlying failure in recent decades has been the almost complete decoupling of economics and policy-making from moral and conscientious reflection.

The framing of economics and economic policy as instruments to achieve broader human and social ends has been the subject of intense study by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and other classical economists, and has been carried forward in social choice theory by Kenneth Arrow and Professor Sen himself.  However, this aspect of economic theory largely fell out of focus as growth became widely seen as the sole end worthy of “real economists” and Ministries of Finance.

It is time to bring this thinking back to the fore. In this moment of upheaval, it is time to reflect on the norms, values and principles in which economic decisions should be grounded. It is time to reflect on what it means to advance people-centred economics, if we are to move towards a more inclusive and sustainable future.

This is particularly relevant ahead of the Rio+20 conference in June and, in the medium and longer terms, as we approach the 2015 Millennium Development Goals’ deadline and the discussions on what a post-2015 development agenda could look like begin in earnest.