Human Development and Buen Vivir. Interview with Catherine Walsh

'Human development' is a concept conceived in the Global North within a design of (international and national) social policy. Buen vivir, roughly translated in English as living well or collective well-being, comes from the cosmologies of the indigenous and African descendent peoples of the South.

Interview with Catherine Walsh on the occasion of the online launch of Development 53.1

Q. What is the relationship (or dichotomy) between the concept of human development and that of Buen Vivir (living well or collective well-being)?

A. 'Human development' is a concept conceived in the Global North within a design of (international and national) social policy. Buen vivir, roughly translated in English as living well or collective well-being, comes from the cosmologies of the indigenous and African descendent peoples of the South. It is not a policy to be applied but a philosophy to be lived. As such, my first response is to say that there is no relationship. Yet with the incorporation of buen vivir as the transversal axis of the Ecuadorian Constitution in 2008 and as the driving focus of the National Plan of Development in 2009 (also called the National Plan of Buen Vivir), a correlation is beginning to emerge which I find tension ridden and problematic. In its elaboration as a policy frame, human social development is based on two key principles: the individual and the quality of life. Human social development can best described as a new strategy of colonial-imperial design. It is a strategy that portends to insure inclusion and social cohesion and manage ethnic diversity (and its potential threat to state security); a strategy that serves well the interests and needs of the neo-liberal project, now in a more 'humanized' form. Buen vivir, in its most general sense, organizes and constructs a life-system based on the communion of beings (human and otherwise) and nature, on the intimate ties and harmonious co-existence among beings and nature, between the tangible and intangible, the organic and inorganic, the divine and the human; among knowledges, the earth, ancestors, and the cosmos. It points toward a correlation, complementariety and reciprocity with the rest in harmony, respect, dignity and continuous relation. In this sense, the individual as such has little significance. He or she is not separate from but an integral part of nature.

Q. What are the risks that Buen Vivir becomes another discursive tool and co-opted term which is functional to the State? Is there some indication that this is happening already?

A. This in fact is the problem and concern. In the new Ecuadorean Constitution developed in a National Assembly with participation of all social sectors and overwhelmingly approved in a popular referendum in September 2008, buen vivir (or 'sumak kawsay' in the kichwa indigenous language), is the transversal axis. Here the motivation was to take distance from capitalism and the Western neo-liberal model and rationality of thought. In a nation self-defined as 'white-mestizo' which historically has looked to the West (the Global North) and not to indigenous communities for its models, the inclusion of buen vivir can be understood as a major advance. It is an important step forward in the new national project of 'interculturality'. The problem and concern emerges when buen vivir begins to be signified and applied in government policy as 'development'. Government policy -most clearly reflected in the National Plan of Development or Buen Vivir- assumes much of the same language, meaning, and focus as are present in human development. Throughout this Plan buen vivir and development are used as interchangeable terms which is problematic (particularly since the word 'development' does not exist in Andean indigenous cosmologies or languages). But of even more concern is the association of both with the State; buen vivir as development is the State, signified in technocratic, economistic, and humanistic terms. Thus it seems that what in reality is in force is the paradigm of human development. If such focus continues, buen vivir will become -and in fact is already becoming- a discursive tool and co-opted term.

Q. To what extent the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia, which have included the concept of Buen Vivir in their constitutions and national plans, are disentangling themselves from traditional development models?

A. The case of these two countries is distinct. While the Bolivian Constitution mentions vivir bien, it is not the transversal axis of the Charter. In fact, its presence is mostly limited to the area of economy and to the conceptualizing of a non-capitalist economic model. In this sense, Bolivia is in fact disentangling itself from traditional development models. Bolivia — in contrast to Ecuador- is not using vivir bien as synonymous with development. In the Ecuadorian case, we are rather witnessing an adaptation that does not necessarily take distance but rather hybridizes the concept. Rather than disentanglement, we are witnessing what could be new entanglements; that is to say a new envelopment of development. The fact that this is occurring in what the government refers to as the 'Citizen Revolution' and a Twenty-first Century Socialist State is even more entangled and problematic.

Q. As we are approaching the Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, what are in your opinion the prospects for the indigenous movement in the Andean region?

A. The new Constitutions and changing models of State in Ecuador and Bolivia are products of the historical struggles of indigenous movements, and the demands and proactive work of these movements, particularly since the 90s, towards the idea and construction of a Plurinational and Intercultural State. In Ecuador, the indigenous uprising of 1990 —the largest and most powerful in the Andean region in contemporary times- initiated a process that, in essence, altered the perspectives and thinking of many Ecuadorians and opened and defined the path for the social and political but also epistemic transformation evidenced in the 2008 Constitution. Yet in the current climate, the Ecuadorian government has not only made clear its distance from and discordance with this movement but, more critically, its inconformity with the continued presence and existence of an indigenous movement. What we are witnessing then are divisions within the movement between those groups allied with and those critical of the government, divisions fuelled and promoted by government officials. In this sense the prospects for the indigenous movement in the Andean region are complex and multifaceted. What I mean here is how to ensure not just the inclusion of indigenous concerns, but also processes that enable articulations, convergences, and inter-relations —interculturalizations- that build and mould a radically different society for all Ecuadorians. This does not mean the elimination of the indigenous movement; rather it suggests the strengthening of its leadership. In relation to the Bolivian context, the emergent divisions between indigenous intellectuals —those aligned with President Evo Morales and those who are taking more of an 'indianist' stance- give more flame to an already volatile situation. In Bolivia it has never been possible to speak of a singular indigenous movement, or clearly delineate peasant from indigenous struggles. Yet the partitions present and emerging with force at the intellectual level today threaten ruptures that will only strengthen the interests and political positioning of the Right. In both the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador then internal divisions put in jeopardy not just the movements themselves but also the prospects for building and consolidating the project of a plurinational and intercutural state and society. Finally and in a very different context, we can briefly mention the growing force of the indigenous movement in the south of Colombia, made visible in the last year in its national march referred to as the 'Minga'. In Colombia's recent history, and particularly under the government of Uribe and its 'para-politics', the public emergence of an indigenous movement demanding not indigenous rights, but a different Colombia for all, and thus seeking alliances among social sectors, is transcendental. What these three contexts make evident is, firstly, the emergent and changing role that indigenous movements are playing in the region. Their agency today goes beyond defensive resistance, marking a proactive offensive away from the capitalist project of death and destruction. Secondly, they bring to the fore the continued complexity of alliances, and the thorny issues of State and government. Finally it is important to maintain present the shifting strategies and ongoing interests of the still dominant modern-colonial world system. Indigenous movements need to be ever vigilant of the role of international organisms, multilateral institutions, and international cooperation, including their new discourses, policies, and 'paradogmas' of social inclusion and cohesion, and integral human development. 

Interview by Laura Fano Morrissey

Click here to read the abstract of Catherine Walsh's article in Development 53.1. 

Catherine Walsh is an activist-intellectual long involved in social movement struggle, first in the USA and in the last 15 years in Ecuador and Latin America with indigenous and afrodescendent organizations. She is currently Senior Professor and Director of the Doctoral Programme in Latin American Cultural Studies, Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Quito, Ecuador. 


Photo: NeilsPhotography/flickr