Economic growth drives the idea of international development. Alongside, runs a constant tension: should international work focus on growth or social equity?

Theories of growth have evolved, moving from industrial manufacturing to global trade, from national income to social inclusion. Through it all, growth remained a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for progress and a better life. However, while the 2008 crises gave predominance to ideas of growth, there is a renewed interest in equity and inclusion become a fairer and more just society.

Be it resolved that the economics of growth is a more urgent priority than the politics of equity

Nowhere is this debate more pressing than in the Arab region. History is in the making as clashing visions for the future of society spilled into the streets. People demand ‘justice’ and a new social compact with their governments. Echoing other popular movements, protestors call for greater equity in the distribution of both opportunity and material wellbeing: access to bread, jobs, and dignity. Despite robust growth before 2011, the economy was not providing a satisfying life for all.

Behind the headlines of revolution, there is a battle for the ideas of reform. On the one hand, the politics of equity have come to the forefront. Governments responded to their people with new spending on health, education, and social protection. On the other hand, the economics of growth is a prerequisite for development. Efforts are underway to re-establish growth through fiscal discipline, rolling back subsidies, and investing in infrastructure. The debate between these two sides is which comes first: growth or equity.

The answer appears obvious: the region urgently needs growth to create jobs and generate public revenue to increase productive spending. Over time, growth can both reduce poverty and improve equality. Yet the unemployed and hungry are unwilling to wait. Policy must heal the divide between the haves and have-nots, by enlarging the portion of society who benefit from the fruits of growth. Improving social cohesion and investing in human capital will reduce political conflict, ultimately enhancing trust in—and the stability of—the economy.

What happens here—and the choices made now—matter. Looking forward, the Arab region this decade will reshape the idea of development, just as the experiences of East Asia and the emerging economies did in past decades. Growth versus equity is not an academic debate. The actions inspired by either side of the argument affect the future of real people in the world. Growth with equity will only come through a critical understanding of both, including the tension and trade-offs involved.

Join the #DevtIDEAS Debate on December 10 – 14H00 UTC (16H00 Cairo, 9H00 New York)