The Real Meaning of Sustainable Development is "Lasting Community Transformation"

The real meaning of sustainable development is “lasting community transformation”.

What follows has been adapted from an excellent book entitled “When Helping Hurts”, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

If we are going to ask ourselves the meaning of sustainable development, then we need to look at the causes of poverty, or, more accurately, our perceptions of what poverty is and the nature of our efforts to alleviate it.

How we perceive poverty and its causes will determine the approach and, ultimately, the effectiveness of our efforts to alleviate poverty. Westerners almost always equate poverty with a lack of material things, like food, money, clean water, medicine, clothes, housing, etc. (pg. 53).

The World Bank, however, in a survey published in a book called “Voices of the Poor”,, asked the poor, themselves, in countries all over the world, to describe their own situations (pg. 52-53).

The poor typically expressed the condition of their own lives “in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” (pg.53).

Our efforts to alleviate poverty and, to define the meaning of sustainable development, ultimately stem from our perceptions of the causes of poverty.

* If we perceive the cause of poverty to be a lack of knowledge on the part of the poor, then we will primarily try to educate the poor.

* If we perceive the cause of poverty to be oppression by powerful people, then we will primarily work for the cause of social justice.

* If we perceive the cause of poverty to be the personal sins of the poor, then we will primarily work to evangelize and disciple the poor.

* If we perceive the cause of poverty to be a lack of material resources, then we will primarily work to provide those material resources to the poor (pg. 56).


The main premise of “When Helping Hurts” is that the causes of poverty are much more complex than those listed above and that they stem from humankind’s broken relationships.

“…God is inherently a relational being…and…being made in God’s image, humans are inherently relational as well. Before the fall…God established four foundational relationships for each person: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with creation. These relationships are the building blocks of life. When they are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended because we are being what God created us to be. In particular, for our purposes, when these relationships are functioning properly, people are able to fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”(pg. 57).

Relationship with God: This is our primary relationship, out of which all other relationships flow. Our primary purpose is to “glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This is our calling, the ultimate reason for which we were created.

Relationship with Self: We are uniquely created in the image of God and thus have worth and dignity. We have the high calling of reflecting God’s image to the rest of the world.

Relationship with Others: We are not islands. We are created to love one another, support one another, and encourage one another. The institutions we create should reflect this care and support and not take advantage or undermine any person’s dignity.

Relationship with Creation: God created us to be stewards, people who understand, subdue, and manage the world that God has created. God did not create the world “incomplete” but has called us to interact with it, to turn dreams into possibilities and possibilities into realities, and to be able to sustain ourselves through the fruits of our stewardship.

So, if you think about it, all of us are poor to one extent or another. We all lack something when it comes to these four relationships. That is the nature of "The Fall”. Christ came to reconcile our relationship to God and has given us all the ministry of reconciliation.

This is the real meaning of sustainable development. It is the transformation of a community through the reconciliation of these broken foundational relationships.


Still, although all human beings are poor, in the sense that our relationships are broken, Corbett and Fikkert point out that material poverty is uniquely devastating.

Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation, and desperation that the rest of the world does not experience (pg. 70).

Alleviating poverty is a ministry of reconciliation. The meaning of sustainable development can be found in the process of transformation.

It is the process of reconciling the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.

We move from the meaning of sustainable development to "community transformation" when we perceive the true causes of poverty and work in a holistic manner toward reconciling those foundational relationships.

Sustainable development must be transformational.

It can only be approached:

When people identify and recognize their need for Christ and the special calling He has given to them (relationship with God).

When people recognize their worth and dignity as God’s special creation (relationship with self).

When people love and support each other and create institutions that do the same (relationship with others).

When people take dominion over the creation that God has set about them, and interact with it in ways that allow them to sustain themselves and their families through the fruit of their stewardship (relationship with creation).



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