Responsible Development in a Polycentric World


By Jürgen Wiemann , EADI Vice President and Chair of the Organising Committee

The United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda sets the ambitious goal of eradicating absolute poverty by 2030 within the limits of the global ecosystem. EADI’s 2014 General Conference will take a closer look at the dynamics of the global system in order to identify tangible ways for the international community to bring together its development and environmental goals. Whether these goals can be achieved depends in large part on the middle classes. The rising middle classes in emerging economies want to imitate the energy-intensive lifestyles of consumers in ”old“ industrialised countries. This desire is perfectly understandable and indeed those rising “middle classes” may not yet be fully secure from poverty nor necessarily leading “middle class” lifestyles in the OECD sense of consumption. Nonetheless, the increasing prosperity of several hundred million Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Brazilians, Mexicans and others creates new challenges both for development policy and global environmental policy. Aid budgets in some OECD countries are being cut when citizens question the justification for development cooperation with countries whose rising middle classes seem not (yet) to accept responsibility for their poorer neighbours. What does it mean for the goal of reducing poverty worldwide if OECD member states are cutting back on aid while the middle and upper classes of the affected recipient countries are not stepping in and pressure their governments to increase social security payments or organise their own poverty alleviation programmes as civil society? Can the gap be closed with new global taxes (like a tax on international financial transactions) or by curbing tax evasion in the OECD, in emerging economies and in poorer developing countries?

There is a similar need for sharing responsibility for the global environment between old and new middle classes. Steering the global economy onto a more sustainable path of development depends in large part on the ”new“ middle classes. They must review and modify their consumption habits as quickly as possible in order to prevent environmental damage and social catastrophes. Authoritarian governments like the Chinese will likely find it easier to implement sustainability imperatives and environmental agreements in the public and private sectors. They are also better equipped to reign in their citizens’ energy intensive consumption habits. It is more difficult for democratic governments to convince the middle classes to change their behaviour in the interest of sustainability. But in order to slow climate change and prevent further loss of biodiversity, it is vitally important that all people above some reasonable expenditure line bring their consumption within the limits of the global ecosystem. It remains unclear who should ensure an equitable distribution of resources, both within societies and internationally, and how this should be done. The super-rich also have a role to play, though they often escape the scrutiny of empirical research.

The parallels between socio-political and environmental challenges in industrialised and newly-industrialising countries will be a central focus of the EADI conference in Bonn. More equitable and sustainable development can only be achieved worldwide with the help of the new middle classes in emerging economies. The ”old“ middle classes in OECD member states must take a leading role and provide a model of sustainable production, consumption and lifestyle choices. The conference’s concluding plenary will address possible forms of international cooperation. The speakers will discuss how the old and new middle classes, their governments and civil society organisations can work together and share expertise in order to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable economic development.

These issues will not be the sole focus of the EADI conference. 23 working groups will examine a wide range of development topics and share and invite comments on their findings during the event.

Jürgen Wiemann is EADI Vice President and Economist, Associate Fellow, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Bonn, Germany