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Buen Vivir: An old, but fresh perspective on global development

A guest post by Savannah Hicks

As I sat in my cap and gown, I reflected on the broad range of global development issues I had been exposed to my Masters in Development Practice from University of California at Berkeley over the previous two years. For the first year and a half, I had been exposed to a lot, from international political economy to program management for UN programs to global leadership in business to community-based participatory methods.

But then I arrived to Thousand Currents. To conclude my studies, I worked with Thousand Currents to complete a culminating capstone project. The goal? To better understand the concept of buen vivir and how it could be assessed. No other prominent development assessment framework or approach I had learned about in my Masters program reflected the deep and complex issues inherent in buen vivir.

Buen vivir has existed as a worldview for millennia and, at its core, is about communities living sustainably with mother nature. However, it is a much deeper, complex, cultural, and spiritual concept than most of us can initially comprehend – at least those of us who grew up only within a Western, linear worldview. In it is profound depth beyond my initial understanding of community sustainability.

Defining Buen Vivir 

In partnership with Thousand Currents, I conducted thorough research on what buen vivir means to some of the many communities who hold this worldview, starting with the presentation by Maria Estela Barco Huerta of DESMI (Desarrollo Económico y Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas, Asociación Civil or Civil Association for Economic and Social Development of Indigenous Mexicans) to the Thousand Currents team here in San Francisco. As Jennifer Lentfer’s blog reveals, Maria Estela eloquently described buen vivir as being based on a concept of a deep, great respect, or Ich’el Ta Muk in the Mayan language, that each person has for the spirit, or Ch’ulel, of every other living being, which includes humans, animals, nature, and the spiritual realm. This culturally ingrained respect obligates the responsibility to care for all other beings, to identify areas for social change and to work collaboratively improve yourself and your community however you can. It allows for a plurality of perspectives, opinions, and ways of life; if you respect the spirit of everyone and everything else, you are obliged to acknowledge their inherent dignity and honor their personal life experiences and perspectives.

Further exploring the literature around this concept, Professor Mauricio Phélan of the Central University of Venezuela, who has studied this concept for years, granted me an interview and explained three distinct harmonies which exist within communities practicing buen vivir:

  1. Harmony within yourself: physical, mental, and spiritual components
  2. Harmony between communities: between yourself and your family, your community, your neighbors, your colleagues, institutions, and markets
  3. Harmony with nature: mutual balance between human activities and environmental health

When harmony within and amongst individuals, communities, and the natural world are achieved, then buen vivir is achieved.

Another academic perspective from Pablo Dávalos, an Ecuadorian economist, states that this alternative way of relating nature and society in a respectful manner can be achieved through a pluri-national state and intercultural society, as proposed by many indigenous communities.

Sumak Kawsay proposes a different relationship between human beings in which egotistical individuals should submit themselves to social responsibilities & ethical commitments and a relationship with nature in which nature is recognized as a fundamental part of human society. [It permits] a new vision of nature, without disavowing technological and productive advancements, but proposes a new contract with nature in which society is not separate from nature, doesn’t consider it external, a threat, a radical Other, but part of society’s dynamics and a fundamental part of future existence.

In order to accomplish this, Dávalos claims that we need to abandon our traditional concept of development “because it implies violence, imposition, and subordination. You can’t develop others because each society has their own worldview that you have to respect and, if in this worldview development nor linear time exist, then you can’t develop them thinking that you’re doing a social good when in reality you’re radically violating that society.”

How Buen Vivir is Unique

Through my research I came across countless variations and translations of buen vivir. Some of the more widely used terms in Latin America are:

  • Buen Vivir (Spanish)
  • Sumak Kawsay (Quechua)
  • Suma Qamaña (Aymara)
  • Lekil Kuxlejal (Mayan Tzeltal)
  • Ñande Kaui (Ahcuar)
  • Balu Wala (Kuna)

As this breadth of different languages reveals, the plethora of different cultures that hold worldviews similar to the concept of buen vivir each have, necessarily, their own unique definition.

Image from UNAM: http://bit.ly/26TpzW2

While many different terms and definitions exist, several cross-cutting commonalities emerged through my research:

All of these worldviews have roots in indigenous communities, focus on harmony with humans and the environment, prioritize well-being (both human and environmental) over economic growth, and are based in community living.

Additionally, aspects became apparent which distinguish buen vivir from other approaches: Most development frameworks address global-scale problems that seem daunting and unachievable to any individual. With buen vivir, each individual is responsible for living in harmony and with respect to all of the people and natural elements around them, as identified by Barco Huerta. From this internal balance, then, larger-scale change toward balance and well-being will occur. Without individuals first prioritizing internal well-being, it will be impossible for them to advance well-being in broader systems external to themselves. Accordingly, it is not reliant on government handouts, large corporations, or NGOs to spark change. It recognizes the independence and dignity of people and communities and their ability to improve themselves, as exemplified by the Culinary Sanctuary example. Phélan also re-iterates this, noting that the concepts of development and dependence are decoupled by buen vivir.

In addition to research on the definition of buen vivir, I also investigated other common development frameworks in use today including Amartya Sen’s Human Development Index, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, the Genuine Progress index, and Ecuador’s Multidimensional Poverty Index among others. Through comparison of these frameworks to buen vivir, the above-listed unique aspects were further solidified; even if some of the existing frameworks address one or more of these points, it is not in a holistic or thorough manner.

Applications of Buen Vivir

Knowing what buen vivir is and why it is different, we can think about how it might be applied. Two countries in South America – Bolivia and Ecuador – have incorporated buen vivir into their constitutions. Bolivia adopted their new constitution in 2008, acknowledging buen vivir as an ethical principle in Article 8. Going one step further, Ecuador founded their new constitution in 2009, stating that buen vivir constitutes a complex set of rights that should be guaranteed and fulfilled in a manner that respects diversity and balance with the rights of nature. Ecuador has created a national plan and a multidimensional poverty index to accompany this new constitution with the end-goal of upholding buen vivir-based rights of people and nature. This is a fantastic step, but the transition is not an easy one and there is still progress to be made to achieving buen vivir throughout the country.

Considering these examples, it’s crucial to ensure that policies are not being enacted in a superficial way that merely use the concept of buen vivir as a front for post-neoliberal agendas or continued mechanisms of colonization and capital accumulation, according to Dávalos. In this spirit, Thousand Currents has grounded their Buen Vivir Fund in this concept in an authentic manner with the understanding that by using buen vivir as inspiration, it should not be idealized or romanticized, but considered as a legitimate alternative approach to development.

My goal as I enter the professional field of development work, Masters degree in hand, is to honor local perspectives and priorities for development, as buen vivir does. While top-down development will not disappear anytime soon, I hope to help grassroots development initiatives influence these larger movements to ensure more appropriate and effective projects for individual communities are implemented. In the words of Eduardo Gudynas, I strive to support the creation of a society which “allows for plurality without hierarchies, dissolves the society-nature opposition and instead combines them.”


[i] Phélan, M. (2011). Revisión de Índices e Indicadores de Desarrollo. Aportes Para La Medición del Buen Vivir (Sumak Kawsay). Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 6(1). Pg 69-95.

[ii] Dávalos, P. (n.d.) Sumak Kawsay (La Vida en Plenitud).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Niel, M. (2011) El Concepto del Buen Vivir. (Doctoral dissertation). Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Madrid.

[v] Gudynas, E. (2012). Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow. Development, 54(4), 441-447. Doi: 10.1057/dev.2011.86

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