Small is Beautiful

 I ran my hand down the shelf, finger passing spine after spine to get to HB171 .S384 1973b.  The library has ten floors, and this was my first time checking out a book, so it took a while to find. A professor had recommended this book, and I was expecting a glossy just-published bestseller. What I finally found, deep in the library labyrinth, was an aged hardcover with a blank cover and worn spine.

I opened it up to see if this was indeed the book:

Small is Beautiful
A study of economics as if people really mattered
E.F. Schumacher

It had that old book smell, with thick rough pages like the books at my Grandma’s house. A flip through revealed faded pencil marks in many of the margins.

My curiosity piqued, I took it home. Small is Beautiful was the first real ‘development’ book I ever read. The content turned out to be as fascinating as the appearance. Schumacher asserts that infinite growth is impossible with finite resources, and asks that instead of chasing hi-tech solutions, we examine how to improve people’s lives in a way that matters for them, which meant asking tough questions:

“No system or machinery or economic doctrine stands on its own feet: it is invariably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon man’s basic outlook on life, its meaning and its purpose”

As interesting the the book itself is the story behind it. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was German who had moved to England to escape Nazi rule. Upon the outbreak of World War 2, he was sent to an internment camp as an “enemy alien”. In between his shifts working in the fields, he wrote economic papers. One caught the the eye of John Maynard Keynes (Probably the most influential economist of the last century). Keynes got Schumacher out of the camp, and landed him a teaching position at Oxford.

This is important because Keynesian economics tells us that we can keep growing the economy forever if the state allocates resources in the right way. Over the years, Schumacher’s ideas diverged from Keynes’, with Schumacher contending that the resources we have are scarce, and rather than being used to promote growth, should improve well being for both the current and future generations. He writes: “Needless to say, wealth, education, research and many other things are needed for any civilisation, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve”.

Schumacher died in 1977, but his ideas are eerily relevant. Since World War Two, the consensus on what good development looks like has shifted and evolved, most recently culminating in the Millennium Development Goals, a set of 8 goals that delineated what we as a world wanted to achieve by 2015. The MDGs were exciting because they were the first real global agreement on development priorities. At the forefront of this charge was today’s Lord Keynes: Columbia economist Jeff Sachs. His book, The End of Poverty, outlined how holistic interventions in health, education, sanitation and environment could end poverty. The MDGs were the vehicle to make this happen.


It’s now 2015. We didn’t achieve every goal, but we made a lot of progress. The big question now is “What’s next for development?”. The UN is hammering out a big new set of goals to be unveiled this fall, but the panel seems unable to prioritize, leading to a ridiculous 17 goals accompanied by 169 targets*. At the same time, Sachs’ new book, The Age of Sustainable Development, isn’t really making a splash. Unless Ban Ki Moon delivers something really impressive in September, I don’t think that these new goals will be the driving force behind global development.

So, what’s really next for development? In his fantastic essay, Stop Trying to Save the World, Michael Hobbes traces the tragedy of the PlayPump, an idea that began with millions in funding but ended with rusting broken pumps. Hobbes contends that in the same way that fad diets go viral and then disappear, so-called big ideas are destroying development. Instead of a “success, scale, fail” cycle, he asks whether we could expand our great ideas just a little bit at a time, testing them in each new environment to see what fits best.

Hobbes revives the power of a small idea. The development projects that have gained the most traction in the last few years are those that have done randomized control trials to ensure that intervention does have an impact. The newest trend is ‘unconditional cash transfers’, which do away with the whole project component and simply give money to the beneficiaries to invest as they please. The idea is working, and growing bit by bit.

40 years after his death, we’re realizing that Schumacher may have been on to something. The future of development will be smaller, simpler. Instead of more development, Schumacher asks that we pursue better development. He concludes:

“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”

*These goals were eloquently compared to a ‘100 times good’ cake in the New York Times

Do you keep up with development trends? Is this an adequate reading of where you think we’re headed, or am I silo-ed in what I’m reading? Do you have high hopes for the sustainable development agenda- I’d love to hear!


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