The doughnut model of development

by khristian méndez //

Two words seem to be hanging with strings from the clouds over Rio de Janeiro these days, making their way into everyone’s mouth: Sustainable Development. They are in there because they have been placed as the center concern for both Rio+20 and its alternative forum. Known as Cupula dos Povos or People’s Summit, the counter part to Rio+20 is taking place next to the shoreline in Aterro dos Flamengos (also known as Flamengo Park.)

I spent two days there, and I got a sense of what are some of civil society’s views on the topic. There are quite a few Brazilian and International organizations nesting along the beach with some of their representatives, and copious amounts of material ready to be given out to curious eyes or clingy fingers.

The first workshop I attended was already a lot of food for thought, and it included a model of development curiously shaped after a food item: a doughnut.

I was a bit sad because I missed another version of this workshop at the World Youth Congress last week, so you can imagine my happiness when I found out that not only it was the same workshop, but the author of the paper was sitting in a corner of the tent where I was waiting for it to start.

Oside one of the tents at the People’s summit. You can tell the difference between there and RioCentro

Kate Raworth is a British Senior Researcher for Oxfam, and I find her model particularly suitable for an analysis inside the Earth in Brackets blog because at least half of it is based on different countries submissions to Rio+20.

For the sake of your time though, I will save the nitty gritty details of the explanation, and direct you to her own video* explaining the model. You can also find her blog where she explains more of it here. In summary, the model captured the imagination of the people sitting at the room as she was describing it to us, since it both explains and articulates how the many social and environmental problems are linked with each other in their respective plains. The outer limit of the doughnut is the environmental limits that we should not surpass in our search for sustainable development. The inner circle, on the other hand, corresponds to the bare minimum social conditions we need to have a decent living.

The range of space between both limits of the doughnut is where we are to make our living. Probably the thing that captures my imagination the most about Kate’s model is that it is both simple and human ecological at the same time.

The parts that compose the outer limit were based out of scientific evidence gathered by a Swedish scientist and many of the leading Earth Scientists around the world in 2009. The inner parts were a distillation of all 193 countries’ submissions to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the concerns these submissions were carrying inside.

Another thing that I really appreciate about the doughnut (rosquinha as our Portuguese translator referred to it), is that it provides an articulated, if vague, ideal of what we should be striving for as a society.It achieved this by bringing together both environmental and social concerns based of the information I mentioned above.

That being said, all doughnuts have their part that is left without frosting, and that we have to eat. The parts I feel Kate’s doughnut model left out (and that I intend to write to her and ask her more about) can be comprised into a couple of bites:

1. Does this model apply to indigenous communities?

2. Does the reliance on quantitative factors exclude some of the critical parts of development?

3. Who sets the specific boundaries?


So, does this model adapt to existing indigenous cultures? There are communities that have organizational systems that are well within the boundaries of the doughnut (except they probably don’t conceive themselves as living inside a pastry item). When I raised this question to Kate in her workshop, she acknowledged the same thing, but she did not mention how the two would integrate together. The reason I would be concerned is that, much in line with the kind of scientific thinking and politics that are in its recipe, this is very much a Western conception of development.

Note that always use the word “Western” as a synonym for the devilish, but as Richard Levins wisely told us back at COA in our last week there, “Horrible things are done for great reasons”. I worry that this model of global development might be characterized as neocolonialism if carried and introduced by folks that underestimate already existing knowledge. I do not think Kate’s thinking is that it would be imposed on to all communities around the world; she rather wants us to develop it together. The model should carry an addendum of how it would merge with already existing knowledge for those who don’t see such knowledge as a priority.

The other aspect of the doughnut model that I find equally worrying is that it relies heavily on quantification and indicators to measure where in the doughnut we are. As Francisco Cali said on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, that Major Group is advocating for the inclusion of a fourth pillar of sustainable development, Culture, into the negotiations’ discourse. Culture cannot be measured, and that is the case with many other things that I find equally important about development. How can we integrate culture into all of this? There are aspects of people’s lives that are hard to measure, academic progress being a great example. If education is to be one of the 11 aspects to be considered as part of a decent living, we cannot just limit ourselves to children enrolled in primary schools similar to what the MDG indicators are. How much are the students learning? How often do they actually go to school? Is their education contributing to a more sustainable world?

This problem is not exclusive to Kate’s doughnut though, and even the UN has this problem within the Millennium Development Goals. That raises the larger of question of whether we should measure progress through numerical indexes, or are there other ways of seeing how we are doing?

My last concern with the rosquinha model is that the boundaries are being set either by science, or governments. Neither of these usually respond well or can fully take into account individuals concerns, like my concern that Gender and Sexuality rights should be included into these standards. Also, the fact that some communities around the world have worshiped or held nature as sacred to the extent that they would find it sacrilegious that anyone would set an acceptable range of how much we can pollute.

I look forward to writing to Kate with my questions, and I hope she takes my criticism as constructive and in good spirit! Till then, I will sit down and continue devouring my copy of her paper as well as the other morsels I got at the People’s Summit between yesterday and today. Hopefully, the words Sustainable Development will not just be in people’s tongues as words, but one day we will all be able to benefit from the taste they will bring. This doughnut seems like a good component of that recipe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.