How looking through a doughnut can test if South Africa is on track for inclusive and sustainable development

June 3, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam researcher Katherine Trebeck introduces some new work on doughnut economics, (whose inventor, Kate Raworth wpid-advice-homer.jpghas left Oxfam to write a book on it)

There is an African proverb that says:

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’

It could be taken as call for inclusivity, solidarity, and equality of people and communities. But it might also be read as a mantra for development that takes account of a broader set of priorities – both social and environmental, together.

So far, so sustainable development…?

Maybe, but I can’t help feeling that the ‘agenda’ of sustainable development seems to have lost a lot of vitality (in part through over-use and in part through use by folk who don’t really mean it). In many interpretations it still prioritises the economy as a goal in itself, rather than a means to the end of social justice within planetary boundaries.

So, in this year of all years, giving sustainable development a sugar boost seems timely. Fortunately, there’s something called the doughnut that has the potential to deliver a decent calorific hit.

It started in 2012 when Oxfam released a discussion paper that connected the concepts of social justice and environmental limits in a simple diagram that has become known as the ‘doughnut’. Its author, Kate Raworth, used the doughnut to show the importance of an economy that lifts all people above a social floor (the inner layer) while respecting planetary boundaries (the outer layer of the doughnut).

While the doughnut is fairly familiar SD territory, it doesn’t need to be conceptually different to be powerful. Instead, its value comes from:

  • its simplicity – one graphic providing an overview of sustainable development, above the complexity
  • its vision as a compass for successful development
  • its reframing of how we judge the success of economic ‘progress’
  • its convening power and creation of space for discussing ideas

From global to national

But proverbs and diagrams (even powerful ones) only get us so far.

Taking the concept to a national level and putting some numbers to it can reveal if the economy is delivering for people and planet and on what aspects economies fall beneath the floor or break through the ceiling.

The challenge is that mapping the extent to which economies operate within the doughnut involves a complex assessment of a range of social and environmental dimensions and Oxfam has recently published reports for the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Wales, that attempt to do this. Next up is South Africa.

This week Oxfam has released a report for South Africa that asks, ‘Is South Africa Operating in a Safe and Just Space?’

For the environmental ceiling the first nine Planetary Boundaries domains developed by Rockström et al were a starting point. We adapted these where necessary, depending on whether they reflected the key environmental concerns in South Africa. We also tested the social floors posited in the 2012 doughnut paper for national relevance, against four criteria such as ‘Is this relevant at the national scale?’ and ‘Are there sufficient reliable data for South Africa that are measured on a regular basis?’, and then through interviews with experts in South Africa.

What did we find? South Africa has crossed its safe environmental boundaries for climate change, freshwater use, biodiversity loss and marine harvesting and is within 10% of crossing the boundaries for arable land use, phosphorous loading and air pollution. The general story is one of an increase in environmental stress since 1990.

Trebeck fig 1On the social floor front, the report reveals that South Africa has not achieved its social floor in any of the 12 dimensions used. For example, almost a quarter of households lack access to electricity; 36% of adults of working age are unemployed; 17% of the population lack a ventilated pit latrine (or toilet); and almost a quarter of households experience hunger. In ten of the twelve, however, these results constitute an improvement in recent years, suggesting that the country is moving in the right direction for these aspects of the social floor.

Trebeck fig 2

Two dimensions of the social floor are moving in the wrong direction: safety and the proportion of the population living below the national poverty line.  Such dimensions of the social floor interact with each other, affecting people’s sense of security, trust, and, ultimately life chances.  Similar interactions between the social and environmental sides of the doughnut are not hard to imagine: for example, a collapse in fish stocks due to excessive marine harvesting would result in thousands of job losses. A changing climate is already impacting on farmers, and flooding can halt mining operations and disrupt transport.

Mapping the doughnut for respective countries doesn’t do the hard work for you in terms of specifying policy change. It is a useful visual tool to keep both aspects of sustainable development in the crosshairs. And it is a simple way to start a conversation about a different economy, beyond simply GDP growth.

So it may not, on its own, be a game changer (is anything?).

But it can be used to prompt a discussion about what changing the game would entail (for example, in Scotland it’s helping to frame civil society discussions about how the economy operates, and for whom). And that’s where taking it to the national level, where a lot of policy is made, implemented, tested, and assessed, can kick off some exciting, and potentially game changing, conversations about growth and the purpose of the economy.