Illustration by Iris Relinde

What we can learn from Ubuntu, Buen Vivir and Happiness on harmony with Nature

Dr. Dorine van Norren


Asked about what they value in life, (South)Africans often explain the concept of Ubuntu. With this they mean brother/sisterhood, sharing and compassion; being a person through other persons. They also said that this care extends to nature too. When asked the same question, the people in Bhutan emphasize Buddhist culture and finding inner peace and harmony. They have declared this as a national policy: Gross National Happiness (GNH). In this guardianship with nature also plays an important role. The (indigenous) people in Ecuador responded that for them the right way of living is living in harmony with nature; they call that Good Living, or Buen Vivir.

AnthroArt Podcast

coming soon

Dr. Dorine van Norren


Dr. Dorine van Norren is Associate Researcher Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society, Leiden University, Netherlands; and Associate Researcher University of Pretoria, Decoloniality Research Group, South Africa. She did research in Ecuador, Bhutan and South Africa. She also conceptualizes her science into art work. Besides her work as researcher, she is a fulltime strategic advisor at the Dutch MFA and former diplomat for almost 30 years. She lived and worked in the USA, France, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey and The Netherlands. She is also a public speaker.

Iris Relinde


Iris Relinde is working as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. She studied Fine Arts and doesn’t like to be limited to a medium. Linocuts, photography, line drawings or collage, Iris loves it all. Her main subjects are nature, sustainability and education. With her work she hopes to inspire others to see the world a little different, to see the beauty and the possibilities.

The development community has had many theories on what is needed for successful development. Every decade had a new theory. By the year 2000 all theories failed. The world community decided it was enough to formulate goals for the future, and leave the strategy in the middle. A new hopeful Millennium was on the horizon, so they called them the millennium development goals and adopted them at the United Nations. They mainly dealt with issues such as poverty, education, health, gender and environmental standards and global cooperation. In 2010, I wrote a review of the Millenium Goals from different angles of wellbeing for the Advisory Council for International Relations. When the report was finished, the idea struck me that we never talk about cultures of the Global South and how they perceive what is good living. I had learned about that during my many years living abroad. I decided to do my own PhD research on that. The research looked at several philosophies: (pan-)African philosophy, Bhutanese Buddhist philosophy and indigenous Ecuadorian philosophy. I looked at how it was implemented in the law and policies and international diplomacy. Then I carried out interviews about what people thought of that implementation and how they related to issues of sustainability and development. Finally, I asked them what they thought of the Sustainable Development Goals.

During my stay in Cape Town, as a young student in 1994, I learned for example about the importance of ‘ubuntu’ from local people. People told me that it was about sharing, compassion, humaneness in relating to one another. They said I am because we are, so I cannot be ok, if you are not ok. During my research in 2015, people that I interviewed also explained that Ubuntu does not only apply to humans, it also is about how we relate to the earth and all other living beings. In other words, I am because the planet is. ‘If I violate the land, I am also violating Ubuntu, because I am not treating it with care.’ Furthermore, they explained to me that the ancestors are very important. In the South African view of life, the ancestors do not go to heaven, they go to the earth, and live in trees, lakes or are attached to the land. The ancestors are in a way still alive and communicate with us. If you don’t treat the land well, you are not treating the ancestors properly, they explained. And the same counts for the future generations, we also see them as part of our community, because we need to take care of them so they will have a bright future as well. Whenever the harmony is disturbed between people or between people and the earth, it needs to be restored. That is more important than punishment. We need to keep the relations going. Everything in life is about (human) relations.

I asked people whether they felt that Ubuntu was now part of the policies of South Africa. A judge told me, it once was part of the constitution but it was left out in the final version. They had used this draft provision to start the truth and reconciliation commission to reconcile different groups in society around the apartheid crimes. After that however he and other judges had used it to decide court cases on the bases of Ubuntu or humaneness, for example to abolish the death penalty. Another person pointed towards the official policies to put ‘People First’ which also used the word Ubuntu. It was meant to restore proper relations between the government and the people, in which the people could now complain, contrary to the oppression during apartheid. Recently I discovered that even the biodiversity policies of South Africa now make a reference to Ubuntu.

Then I asked people the question whether the development goals of the United Nations, represented their view of life. These were now called Sustainable Development Goals (replacing the Millennium Goals after 2015) including 17 goals. One South African consultant laughed and said: ‘You know, people in the West like these kind of goal frameworks, we think human relations are important, so in order to keep the relationship with Western countries going, we sign up. At the same time, we do our own thing locally.’ A very pragmatic view. Most people I interviewed felt that the social goals represented Ubuntu the most (such as education and health) and also the idea of an inclusive, peaceful society (present in goal 16) and global partnership.

After talking to the South Africans, I travelled to Ecuador. I had heard that indigenous groups there had a new concept of Good Living and wanted to know what they thought of the sustainable development goals. First of all, they told me they didn’t like the word development. It should be scrapped out the dictionary. To them it represented a view of life that is linear, not circular like the seasons every year. They explained that the indigenous Ecuadorian view of life was to live in harmony with nature. The goal in life is not to get more material goods, but to live in harmony with all other living beings. The Quechua people of the Andes mountains call it “Sumak Kawsay”. An economist explained to me that after the Berlin Wall fell and it was clear that communism was not the answer to change capitalism, he looked at other concepts that would be a middle way between communism and capitalism. He found his inspiration in indigenous ways of life and called it Buen Vivir in Spanish. It empowers the autonomy of the community. And that community includes everything that is alive. The Quechua living in the highlands, but also Amazon people like the Achuar living in the low lands, explained that for them also mountains, lakes and stones are alive. All are treated with equal respect. Reciprocity we call that, they explained, we take something from the earth so we need to give something back. It can be as practical as pouring a little bit of water on the earth before you drink, because you know that Mother Earth also needs water for her existence. In this way indigenous people acknowledge the interdependency of everything. They also mentioned the many different words that they have in their language for exchange of services between people, especially in agriculture.

Lawyers and academics explained that the entire constitution which was written in 2008, is built around the concept of Buen Vivir. In it they also put rights of Nature (with a capital to show respect). They did that so that regardless of whether human interests were hurt, nature would have the right to be restored. From now on, everyone could speak on behalf of nature, just like lawyers represent companies. The Quechua explained to me, that they feel that gratitude is owed to Mother Earth. ‘Of course, Mother Earth has rights’, they laughed as if it is absurd to even ask the question.

When I asked the indigenous Ecuadorians that I met about the Sustainable Development Goals, people became less happy. The clearest example came from the Achuar tribe in the Amazon. To the goal on poverty, they responded: ‘Do you think that we are poor? We have the forest and it gives us all we need. We are not poor. People come and destroy the forest in the name of development and then we are all of a sudden poor.’ On education they remarked: ‘We have our own education which is different from your education, but the government destroyed our bicultural education system in the name of development.’ On health they said the same: ‘Multinational companies come to our forest to take our medicinal plants and learn from us, then they put intellectual property on it and we can’t use our own plants to heal our people. Our health care is free.’ When I came to the right to access to water, they became truly angry at me. ‘So, you want to take our water from us, privatize it and then sell the same water to us?’ After that the conversation was finished. I was seen as the representative of the UN that wanted to sell the goals to them and they did not trust the intention. It radically changed my perspective, not so much of the SDGs, but of what ‘modern development’ efforts had really achieved and what impact it had on different groups in society. Another Achuar person explained: ‘For 40 years people came here with their abstract frameworks for development, but our living conditions only became worse, come and talk to us, we need dialogue.’ People in other words do not want to be developed, they want to live according to their own values and for the several indigenous people (and nations within the Ecuadorian state) that means recognition of autonomy over their territory so that they can express their culture and way of life. Goals to them were meaningless, so was the concept of ‘sustainability’: ‘Why do you talk about that, everything in life starts as a seed, then grows and decays. You need to listen to Mother Earth.’

Thirdly, I travelled to Bhutan, the country that is famous for its Gross National Happiness. The Bhutanese people told me that for them their culture was the basis of development. With that they meant their spiritual heritage, namely Buddhism (and for some minorities Hinduism, which is considered to be close to Buddhism in Bhutan). The Buddhist way of life needed to be the beacon to guide development in their country. For them material wealth needed to be matched with spiritual wealth. First and foremost, one needed to find inner balance and harmony. This would create spiritual leaders who would be able to take the right actions. It would also enable people to be compassionate with one another. ‘Respect all sentient beings’, the Bhutanese would say to me, whether it would be a monk or nun or ordinary people or government representatives. This to them meant that one needs to respect all life and living beings. Many of the rural people also explained that they adhered both to the indigenous Bonism and Buddhism. They believed everything to be spirited, including the waterfalls, rivers or mountains. This for them perfectly aligned with the Buddhist thought that everything in the world emerges at the same time, which the scholars would term ‘codependent origination.’ This for them meant that everything is interdependent, humans and their surroundings. They told me they considered themselves guardians of nature. The government officials explained to me that they had built their policy plans around four pillars, namely preservation of culture, socioeconomic development, environment and good governance. For this they had built an index, to prove that one can measure broader wellbeing in a different way instead of using Gross National Product. For this reason, they had called it Gross National Happiness. Happiness for them represented the harmony present in a balanced person and a balanced society.

When I asked people about the Sustainable Development Goals, they were quite optimistic. They argued that the UN was actually behind and Bhutan was far ahead of other countries, because they had already applied a dashboard of goals and indicators for their development. It was easy to integrate the SDGs into that. Moreover, their system was adapted to their culture, so they would also keep track of whether people still showed generosity towards their community or attend spiritual festivals, whilst developing in a material sense. After the first surveys showed that some specific communal and cultural values were going down, the government took specific measures to address that. At the same time, intellectuals would say that obviously a philosophy like Buddhism could not be reduced to goals and indicators. Many Bhutanese found specifically the goal on climate change very important and asked why this was not Goal 1 (instead of Goal 13 out of 17). They also emphasized the importance of the target on mental health under Goal 3 on health.

In conclusion, one can say that there are many different ways of defining development, wellbeing or sustainability, as the examples from Africa, Latin America and Asia have shown.  When including those values, the likelihood of achieving lifestyles that are in harmony with the rhythms of the planet will become more likely. After all, the West has already concluded that its lifestyle and concept of development is not sustainable; and that worldwide inequality will continue to grow exponentially, without changing the current economic and financial system. The SDGs do not give us strategies how to achieve the lofty goals. Intercultural dialogue can help in cultivating values other than economic growth, looking at how to divide the benefits and changing the structural flaws in the economic and legal system. It starts with accepting a collective dignity of human society and a collective dignity of all lifeforms as well as a collective interest. This will lead to different choices than individual rights, freedom and dignity and pursuing individual self-interest.

Some people ask what has that to do with us, in Western societies? Many ideas that these initiatives have promoted have already been translated into societies outside the Global South. For example, the idea of deep democracy, in which people have to truly listen to one another, has been derived from Ubuntu, and so have different peace and reconciliation initiatives. The idea of rights of Nature has been applied to several regions in the world, for example in Spain (Mar Menor), but also in New Zealand following the Maori indigenous wisdom. Several people plead for giving rights to the Waddenzee in the Netherlands and the municipality of Margraten-Eijsden has already declared itself a right of nature community. The example of Bhutan has been followed by many other countries who now have broader wellbeing indexes such as the Netherlands, although none of them expressly recognize the importance of local culture.

It is important that we continue to think and share about what is valuable in our lives and in what way we want to develop and create a better society for all. My short stay in South Africa in my student years profoundly changed how I viewed international power relations. It also taught me the value of empathy and listening and going with the flow of life. It was truly liberating. My further research into Ubuntu philosophy 20 years later, convinced me of the importance of language as embodiment of people’s culture and values. It also made me understand that at the end we are dealing with human relations and lives, rather than abstract economic figures. The field study in Bhutan convinced me of the value of inner strength and spirituality which I had already been practicing for many years, in order to set one’s life path and intentions correctly. Only with those true intentions, one can achieve true and meaningful action. Last but not least, the philosophy and lifestyle of the indigenous Ecuadorians, convinced me how much Western societies has drifted away from the essential, namely the human need for meaning through one another and through interacting with our natural surroundings. How arrogant I had been, to think that I am in control of my life, instead of understanding that I am dependent, and always have been, on what the Earth provides and what my communities taught me whilst growing up. Modesty and gratefulness are due in this respect, for the journey I was allowed to walk and the truly exceptional people that I was allowed to meet who shared their inner most ideas on what a good, meaningful life is to them.

Scroll to Top