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The Importance of Sustainable Economic Development

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

By: RDG Director of Innovation and Global Research Doug Radcliff

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

The definition of economic development can be very broad, and it is of upmost importance to keep this in mind when considering the concept of sustainable economic development. I like the definition provided by the Cambridge Dictionary – economic development is “the process in which an economy grows and changes and becomes more advanced, especially when both economic and social conditions are improved.” Of particular importance is the second part of that definition – “especially when both economic and social conditions are improved.”

Meaning, economic development involves a plethora of ideas. Naturally, it includes the classical economic development terms such as job growth, expansion and retention, stable tax bases, etc. However, more importantly, to create sustainable economic development, as in economic development where future generations will reap benefits, much more is involved.

Through my Master’s degree studies in Prague, living in France, and working for RDG, I have developed a stronger understanding of what this includes. I have enhanced my understanding by combining my academic comprehension and practical experience. During my studies, I examined the ethical limitations of economic development through studying the philosophical crossover of economics and politics. For example, there is always a certain, usually unspecified limit, where economic development can become more damaging than helpful. It is necessary to be aware of this limit when creating and undertaking economic development projects.

Further, in France, economic development is significantly more government funded and implemented. As such, social constructs are included in economic development policy development; for example, the equitable and environmental impact of policies are always considered. From these experiences I am developing a more expansive, perhaps even global view of the concept, and specifically gaining a deeper appreciation of sustainable economic development.

First and foremost, the cornerstone of sustainable economic development is increasing and solidifying human rights of all kinds – minority rights, gender rights, women’s rights, etc. These are the foundational social conditions that must be addressed in order to build sustainable economic development. Continuing, sustainable economic development must be equitable. The benefits of economic growth must be felt by all members of society, regardless of their neighborhood, their income level, race, gender, etc. If growth is not equitable, certain parts of the community will inevitably develop, but others will fall behind, making for a weaker overall community. For example, the Brookings Institute finds that “children born to families with low incomes are disproportionately likely to earn low incomes themselves in adulthood.” Therefore, in order to reach the highest level of economic development, the entire society must develop, creating a stronger overall economy.

Moreover, sustainable economic development includes environmental considerations. Development must occur within the environment’s capacity to accommodate said growth. If future generations have to reverse economic progress due to environmental degradation, this is not true economic development.

Therefore, what is the goal of economic development? To me, it is to create and maintain sustainable economic growth. This should be the ultimate and primary goal of economic development: the aggregate of unabridged, (community) universal, environmental, and equitable development.

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