International Development and Lifestyle Choices


The ‘Middle Belt’ stretches across the country of Nigeria, dividing the north and south of the country. It is a diverse area, with no one predominant ethnic or religious group: and it is an area where coexistence has become fraught, with increasing tension and conflict over land, resources, identity and political power – exacerbated by the spread of Boko Haram from the north and the movement of Fulani herdsmen and conflicts between herdsmen and farmers. At its centre is the city of Jos – a hub for the region, and for Plateau state, and an entry point into the north of the country.  It is where Tearfund’s Nigeria office is based.

Our work in Nigeria combines a number of different approaches, including peacebuilding, disaster response and risk reduction, to increase resilience among communities affected by Boko Haram; church and community transformation, in which churches work with communities to identify problems, needs and solutions and to develop those solutions themselves from their own resources; and advocacy, training churches and communities to advocate and campaign in support of their rights and to meet their needs.  And as a part of this, we are working with a group called the Jos Green Centre: it’s a centre for eco-entrepreneurship, supporting young people develop businesses that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. They are developing recycled crafts and jewellery, exploring new ways of making charcoal from corn-cob husks, and many other projects – but as well as changing how people make money, they are also changing how people think and how they live.

Everyone participating at the Jos Green Centre participates in a course called Live Justly, which helps them to explore the biblical idea of justice and to understand that their faith is expressed in all areas of their lives – and from this the way they live begins to change. For young people in Nigeria this is expressed particularly clearly in the employment or businesses they pursue, and in how they grow and cook food – the consumer choices they have are very different to those we have in the UK. But they come to recognise that sustained development, or growth or change, is closely related to their own lifestyles: and they also come to see this a part of their Christian faith.

This evening, I want to look at how Christianity and Christian discipleship intersects with international development and to suggest, for discussion, some ways that I think our own lifestyle choices connect with successful, sustainable development.  I want to make the argument that, no matter how much we might support international development in our giving and in our politics (for example, by campaigning for the government to maintain its commitment to devoting 0.7% of the budget to aid and development), if this support isn’t grounded and reflected in our own lifestyles and choices, then it is at best undermined and at worst, fruitless.  I also want to leave plenty of time for discussion at the end as the kinds of choices we are facing and making aren’t simple, and will not be the same for everyone.

Some definitions

I’ll start with a definition of international development and description of some of its key principles.

There’s no ‘one’ definition – but broadly, development aims to reduce poverty and inequality - with international development involving international institutions, systems and dynamics such as governance and trade. It has often been largely synonymous with economic poverty and inequality, aiming at improving the economic and physical wellbeing of individuals, communities and countries. More recently development has been understood holistically, engaging with emotional and spiritual aspects of life, culture and quality of life as well.  While humanitarian aid and disaster relief focus on responding to emergencies and meeting immediate need, development is long term and aims to be sustainable and sustained.  Currently, international development is focused on 17 sustainable development goals[1] - with sustainability incorporating stewardship of natural resources and the environment and inter-generational rights.  In practice, there is a strong focus on empowerment and capacity building, on what is called ‘localisation’ – that is the idea that development activities and aims should be shaped at the local level by those most affected – on impartiality, proactive targeting of those most at need, on accountability, and on enabling inclusion, protection, and resilience in communities.

Poverty, often understood as lack in many areas of life, is a consequence of ongoing broken relationships and systems at every level (personal, local, national and global). Theologically, it can be understood as a consequence of the fall, in which the good relationships of creation – between God and humanity, between people, and between people and wider creation – were broken.

In Genesis 3, we see the breakdown of humanity’s relationship with God – and the damage this does to life in creation. The consequences include distorted understandings of self – and of others - including a failure to recognise the image of God in ourselves and others, and a failure to honour the wider creation as God’s. These things are reflected in human behaviour and actions: in selfishness and greed, unjust relationships between people, and exploitative relationships with the environment. These broken relationships not only affect individuals’ lives, decisions and actions, but also lie behind broken systems, leading to problems such as inequality, power imbalances and corruption. These fractures are made worse by conflicts and natural disasters, many of which also have roots in the broken relationships between God, humanity and wider creation.

In our broken world, unjust systems and power structures make it easy for us, as individuals and groups, to become complicit in sin and in exacerbating poverty – however unwittingly at times. Our decisions and choices can so easily condone, even shore up these systems. Justin Thacker describes this systemic aspect of poverty using a vivid metaphor: ‘As the strings in one part of a net are strengthened or broken, so the tension in other parts of the net is changed… Collective purchasing decisions in London can impact whether a child in Bangladesh gets to go to school.’ Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Latin American theologian, writes: ‘Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of humans by humans, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.’

We see this in the world around us in

  • national and international politics and economics
  • our histories – particularly those that involve imperialism and colonisation
  • racial, gender or class oppression and injustice and the legacies of this oppression
  • competition for resources and the desire for security and stability above all things, reflected in the growing numbers of crises, including war, and those provoked by environmental changes
  • ongoing cycles of violence and trauma, within and between countries;
  • divided societies, self-serving leaderships, and disenfranchised young people.
  • climate change – a long term consequence of broken and unbalanced relationships and self-interest.

International Development seeks to tackle and overcome these challenges.  But it is also a concern of Christianity. The Bible tells us that God is working to redeem and restore his whole creation. In John 10:10 Jesus says: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,’ and in Revelation we see the promise of the coming kingdom – described as a place in which there will be no more hunger or thirst (Rev. 7) and no more mourning, or crying or pain (Rev. 21). And the New Testament describes the early church as a community concerned with showing God’s love in the here and now, revealing what the kingdom will be like, and inviting people into it.

A life of ‘wholeness’ encompasses all aspects of life: ‘being’, ‘having’, ‘doing’ and ‘interacting’. It is inherently relational. Whereas discussions of well-being in our contemporary culture are often linked to maximising one's own potential, the biblical notion of shalom is about the well-being of the whole community, and the individual within it. Shalom cannot exist where there is no justice and righteousness – locally and globally.

And in some ways, you could say that secular development work has come to accept some of the things that are important in the Christian faith, in recognising that flourishing means more than increased opportunities and more choices in the physical and economic world; it means the life in all its fullness (John 10:10), the ability to be creative and productive and sustain relationships - to fulfil the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28, 2:15), and the opportunity to express one’s faith and religion. It means recognising that everyone is made in the image of God – the idea that is foundational to human rights, which are, in turn, foundational to contemporary development practice. And it involves belonging to local and global communities.

What we are looking for, through development is for more people to be more fully able to express the image of God that they bear: to be more creative, more productive, more generous, more loving, more caring of and responsible to each other and the whole creation. We want to see more dignity, more self-worth and self-belief, more strong relationships with other people and more diversity and inclusivity in communities made possible by these relationships, and more sustainable lifestyles – in relation to economics and to the environment.

This is true for everywhere, but obviously, those currently living in poverty also need more ability to access the resources in God’s creation than exist in the unequal world in which we currently live – and that does mean less for those who currently have more.  Here, at least, there is something of a zero-sum game.  If power is currently unbalanced, rebalancing it means that some will lose power; if resources are not infinite, then greater equality of access to them will mean less for some.

And this brings us to the conversation of how we, in the richer, global north, live. 

Making lifestyle choices

I’ve already mentioned some of the challenges that international development is seeking to overcome. Churches, and other faith organisations, businesses, governments and wider civil society all have important roles to play in bringing about change. Currently those of us in the UK live in a country that has an above average commitment to international aid and development – the latest OECD figures from 2016 show that only seven countries met the UN’s target of 0.7% of GNI to development.[2] We’re home to a number of well-regarded international development organisations, and in the UK, churches and faith communities are very active in local poverty alleviation and social benefit. But that doesn’t mean that the work is just up to them.

All communities and systems are made up of individuals and are shaped by them (just as individuals are shaped by systems and their communities). Individual beliefs and values expressed through behaviours and actions, have a knock-on effect on communities and systems. The choices we make matter.

Engaging in political action (including campaigning and voting) – for example to encourage state-funded development activities and positive forms of international trade and finance is one way of participating in sustainable development. So is giving to international development organisations, each of whom have different specialisms and focuses for their work. And doing these things is a part of our making choices about how we live – what we do with our money and our political capital as voters (however limited it can sometimes feel!).

But there are also other things that we can, and I would argue, should think about in our daily lives to support the work of international development and help ensure it can be sustainable. Things like what we buy and how, how (and how much) we travel, how we eat, cook, heat – and live in – our homes.

Let’s look again at some of those challenges that international development work is facing, and think about how they relate to our individual lifestyles:

  • changing climate and environments contributing to food insecurity and instability;
  • increasing political tensions and conflicts, flaring into civil and international wars;
  • complicated, often opaque, international laws and agreements and the rise of global businesses and organisations – that sometimes leads to explicit corruption;
  • the ongoing struggle to make ends meet by those living in both absolute poverty (on less than $2 a day) and relative poverty, that comes from low wages, long hours, and job insecurity.

Poor families, communities and countries are by far the most exposed to extreme weather, to food price spikes (two of which have happened in just the last six years), to agricultural land grabs and to the ‘consequences of consequences’ that come with these changes, such as increased risk of armed conflict. Poor people also have much less capacity to adapt to the changes we will encounter in coming decades, and inequality is on the rise.

It can perhaps be very simply summed up by saying that competition for the world’s resources has increased and intensified – and that while we live in a good and abundant creation, it is simply not sustainable to keep using the world’s resources in the way that we have been to maintain the kinds of lifestyles that are common and commonly presented as desirable in the ‘developed’ world.  In a struggle for security and prosperity, those who started out ‘ahead’ are getting further ahead while those who started out ‘behind’ are only slipping behind further, and the world is getting less stable and less predictable.

It can feel as if we as individuals are powerless to have an impact on these kinds of forces and yet when large enough numbers of people all begin to live in particular ways, change can happen quite rapidly.  It can be helpful, therefore, to start to break down how some of our lifestyle choices interact with these forces. For example, we are all supposed to pay taxes, the things that we buy are all produced by other people in some way – or if they’re not then perhaps people have been replaced in the process of production - and we all have an ecological footprint.

Let’s start with this last one. A country’s ecological footprint is measured as the total land around the world that it needs to grow its crops, graze its livestock, supply its timber, carry its buildings and infrastructure, and provide forests to soak up its emissions. The UK uses around 5.45 hectares per person, middle-income countries such as China 1.92 hectares, and low-income countries 1.14 hectares. The earth can currently provide 1.78 hectares per person and that is shrinking as population rises – so to live within our fair share of the planet, each of us in the UK needs to consume about a third as much energy and resources as we do today.

In practice, our individual ecological footprint is determined by our choices in four areas: food, travel, home and ‘stuff’ – so let’s have a look:

Food: Everything we eat has been produced using land, water and other inputs such as fertilisers and fuel (to transport it to our tables). Some types of food are more resource intensive and carbon producing than others and cutting down on these types of food can help to reduce our impact upon the environment. It’s worth being honest that there are no easy answers here: some types of meat and dairy do have a high carbon footprint – but equally, some of the foods we might replace them with have a high impact upon the environment and on the lives of people who farm and produce all kinds of food.  Perhaps more crucially, wasting less and eating more local and seasonal produce reduces our ecological footprint. So, we can make choices about how and what we eat.

Travel: think about whether you drive a car, how far you drive and your car’s engine size and fuel type; how much you use trains or buses, or whether you cycle or walk instead; and – above all – how many flights you take – including the changes you make during a journey.

Home: Here, the biggest impact, aside from food, is how much energy you use – and where that energy comes from. You can make choices about types of fuel (to some extent), about suppliers and sources, and about investing in materials that help to reduce energy use.  It can also be helpful to think about the kind of households: in the UK, we like to live independently, people value space, and spare rooms (which do enable hospitality) – but might it reduce waste and energy if we chose to live in larger households?

Finally, stuff. This word covers everything from purchases of goods (things like such as furniture, white goods, electronics and clothes) through to recycling and composting. Buying or using less reduces our environmental impact.  For example, not buying a cotton t-shirt could save 2,500 litres of water, the amount needed to grow the cotton to create the shirt. We can choose what to buy, how much, and where from – what we might share, what we can reuse or recycle.

I’ve talked primarily about ecological or environmental impact in these four areas – but the choices we make here can also have positive or negative impacts on people who live in poverty and thus on sustainable development in other ways. This is perhaps most obvious in thinking about food and stuff – where we have purchasing power and also the ability to make numerous small choices that can be cumulative. For example, paying more for well-made and traded items (food or stuff), covering production costs and fair wages, or buying locally, can not only reduce environmental impact but also help farmers and producers around the world who struggle to make ends meet.  We can choose to use businesses and companies who pay taxes in the countries where they operate, because this means more money for development (national and international), and we can choose to use those who operate transparently and in line with our ethics – for example in hiring practices, or resourcing supplies – which can also support sustainable development.

Making these lifestyle choices does not have to be just a duty or an unpleasant sacrifice for us: if we understand them as an expression of our faith and reflection of our desire to seek the kingdom of God, then they become a part of our worship – something more joyful more painful.

Belief and behaviour operate in tandem: belief driving behaviour and behaviour expressing and reinforcing belief.  As humans, our understanding of ‘the good life’ – be it heaven, or another vision of flourishing – drives our behaviour by pulling us towards it: we do the things that will help us reach this future.

In Revelation 7, John describes a moment in his vision:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (v. 9-10)

Revelation is a promise for the future of the whole of creation – but it also demands something of us. The kingdom is a promise to which we hold and which holds us captive – and its pull on us exerts a pressure on us that is formative for our mission and our ways of being. While the kingdom seen in Revelation is yet to come and while we understand that, until it does, the consequences of sin - including poverty and injustice - will remain, we also know that through Christ we are already the people of this kingdom, living under its king, Jesus.  This means that we are called to live in its ways in all areas of our lives.

Understanding that we are living in this story is helpful – because all stories help people ‘to make sense of where they are, how they got there, where they are trying to get to and how to achieve change [because] Stories define our worldview and have the potential to create our reality as much as they describe it.’ Humans respond positively to promises of security and community, and this is the kind of story that the Bible provides: one in which despite insecurity and brokenness God is moving and offering a certain hope of a better future.

The Bible’s story of God’s creation, salvation, and kingdom reminds us that everything we have belongs to God and is given to us as a gift. It challenges the narrative of contemporary western capitalism, of acquisition and security that leads to the concentration of power and resource, and reminds us that our truest security lies in God’s love for us.

One of my colleagues is a white, South African man. Over the past few years at work we have been reflecting a lot on the concept of jubilee – a consequence of the fact that we celebrated our fiftieth birthday last year. As a result of his reflection on jubilee and his experience of recent student protests in South Africa, he shared a growing recognition that the spiral of success, failure and increasing inequality we see in the world is damaging to those who seem to win as well as those who seem to lose.  He points out that yes, those with fewer resources end up with a broken understanding of their own value and self-worth, coming to see themselves as the ‘slaves’ they have been forced to become but so do those who ‘win’. The confidence, superiority and entitlement of the successful and powerful are also a false understanding of their self-worth, bringing a belief that they are gods, rather than humans who bear the image of God and express it in the way they live.

Deliberately choosing to give up what has been acquired and accepting less goes against everything the vast majority of us in the global north in the age of capitalism have learned to think of as the path to happiness, security and a flourishing life. We work hard and earn our salaries and rewards. We seek to be responsible and provide for those who depend on us. We seek to mitigate against change and create stability, and rely upon ourselves and on our systems, including governments for independence, security and stability: and when systems seem to be failing us, we rely even more on ourselves.

However, the liberation and restoration that God offers are not just for those who currently have less and so lack the opportunity to flourish, they are also for those who have acquired more, and grown attached to the security, opportunities and power that this acquisition has provided. ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness,’ is a very old adage, but current research does seem to suggest that the acquisition of resources, including power, and the abundance of opportunities and choices they make possible not only do not free people to thrive but stymie them, creating mental and emotional pressures as well as increasing fears of insecurity, instability and the loss of resources.[3]

The desire for self-maintained security rooted in the ownership of resources deepens the fractures in broken relationships and calls us to trust ourselves, not God. Christian thinkers from St Francis to Rowan Williams have reminded the church throughout the years that while material poverty is degrading, too much wealth also degrades the quality of our lives. It insulates people from the real insecurities of the world and from each other. This starts as the accumulation of individual riches means people no longer need other; eventually they forget that we can trust and depend on other people and on God, and become afraid of those who they suspect of coming to take away their wealth.  This isolation and fear prevent us from experiencing many of the good things that God wants for us and also limits our ability and desire to reflect the generosity, love, and shalom that are essential aspects of the kingdom.

However, if we are living in God’s story, growing as disciples, we deepen our recognition of all people as being made in the image of God, with dignity and potential, and our ability to see all people through God’s eyes, with none - including ourselves - as more or less important than others. This releases those of us with more from that false sense of security, to keep less for ourselves in order to see those who have less flourish more.  If we start from this place the way that we live changes in a way that is motivated by hope, not pity or fear, and sustained by the Spirit not just success.

Having the courage to break the chains that bind us to riches and security and keep us at a distance from God is hard work that needs to be done daily. It needs to be continually connected to a deep knowledge that we are created and loved by God and that our life is a gift from him and for him. This connection is forged in all the various practices that deepen our relationship with God.  It is important that we do this individually, so that our own choices and behaviour are rooted in God, and in community, where we learn and are formed together and where we encourage and sustain each other. When we are rooted in God in this way, we are able to hear his call on our lives – and this, as we know, demands something of the way we live. However, it won’t demand the same of all of us, and each person will make different choices: everyone comes from different places and will have different priorities or concerns or passions that shapes these choices.

[1] GOAL 1: No Poverty, GOAL 2: Zero Hunger, GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being, GOAL 4: Quality Education, GOAL 5: Gender Equality, GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality, GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, GOAL 13: Climate Action, GOAL 14: Life Below Water, GOAL 15: Life on Land, GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions. GOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal

[2] The other countries who meet this are: Sweden, Luxembourg, UAE Turkey, Denmark and Norway

[3] See, for example, Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson who argue in, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, that societies with high levels of inequality are quantifiably less happy and flourishing than those with lower levels. The World Happiness Report monitors and quantifies this, and the 2018 report finds that happiness in the UK and USA have declined in the past three years.

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