Contesting the Dynamics of Secular Development: An Ontology of Trinitarian Well-Being as Christian Rationale for Human Well-Being

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In: Religion and Development
Jacqueline Service Lecturer in Systematic Theology, St Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University Canberra Australia

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Christianity has been instrumental in fashioning the contemporary Western paradigm of humanitarian aid and development. However, as a secular agenda increasingly defines this space, the question of what difference a religious cosmology makes to Christian faith-based development organisations (FBDO s) becomes significant. While faith convictions initiated early humanitarian efforts, Christian FBDO s have arguably acquiesced to secular pragmatic rationales for their work, rather than allow theology to have explanatory and regulatory influence. In many ways, therefore, FBDO s are devoid of the influence of “faith”, or more specifically, the influence of a robust theological foundation. To address this deficit, a critique of the philosophical moorings of Western international development is mounted, with consideration given to nascent trajectories of an alternate Christian rationale and praxis. In particular, the paper argues that the ontological foundation for the dynamics of human well-being is divine well-being. Employing a Trinitarian relational ontology, the dynamic characteristic inherent to the actualisation of divine well-being is identified as a triune kenosis (self-giving). Such an ontology of divine well-being provides the context to articulate principles for actualising human well-being as a reiteration of the divine archetype. From such a perspective, the Trinitarian doctrine of God provides the pivotal foundation for a Christian cosmology necessary to articulate an alternative paradigm for sustainable development.

1 Introduction

Embedded in the contemporary paradigm of Western sustainable development are implicit assumptions about what constitutes deficiency to human well-being requiring transformative action. Such altruistic rationale is likewise embedded in “religious” development agencies. Yet, as will be articulated in this paper, with the evisceration of the originating Christian cosmological rationale for Western development, secular humanism’s articulation of the conditions for human well-being appears philosophically vacuous. The originating views of a divinely ordered cosmology instigating humanitarian action have, arguably, acceded to an ideologically evacuated pragmatism. Mirroring their secular sisters, this paper proposes that Christian faith-based development organisations (FBDO s) may unintentionally share such a questionably porous foundation by which to define and advance human well-being. Drawing on the growing literature in the field, it is argued that the work of Christian organisations may be shaped more by uncritical acquiescence to the pragmatic sensibilities of the secular Western development paradigm than by theological cosmology. Such a situation raises the question as to the actual influence of Christian “faith” or, more specifically, theology on a Christian development agenda. Addressing this issue, this paper offers a ressourcement of a foundational cosmological theology located in the Christian doctrine of the God. Whilst a theology of development is not new to Christian thought, a theology of development based on a divine ontology of well-being articulates a unique Christian paradigm for recognising and advancing human well-being.

2 Christian Cosmology: The Philosophical Foundation of Contemporary Development

Contemporary Western conceptions of human progress and development owe much of their current tenor to Christian theology. Congruent with Jewish tradition, a historical nexus has long existed between Christian theology and the notion and advancement of human well-being, particularly in the arena of societal structures and care for the poor (Longenecker 2010, 135). Addressing the deficiencies of the human condition was conceived broadly by Christians and included the spiritual and eschatological alongside the material and temporal. Throughout the “Christian” West, theological criteria for defining human flourishing permeated the expression of ethics, justice, politics, law and social relations (Service 2018, 49–66). Underlying practical expression was a theological cosmology, where human well-being was understood as preconditioned by the ontological precedence of the good of God and impelled, defined and sustained by divine initiative.

During the nineteenth century, Christian praxis of theology catalysed what would become the blueprint of contemporary action to interrogate and address the structural injustice of transient and entrenched poverty and suffering (Woodberry and Shah 2004, 52; Hochschild 2006). Christians, compelled by theological conviction, advanced compassionate relief and structured campaigns, inter alia, to “end slavery, forced labour and human trafficking” (Barnett 2012, 4). Regarding the influence of religious belief on modern development, Gerard Clarke concludes that “missionary organisations associated with the mainstream Christian churches are in many respects the forerunners of modern-day development NGO s” (2006, 843). Barnett and Stein claim that “it is only a slight exaggeration to say, ‘no religion, no humanitarianism’” (2012, 3).

Although the origins of Western development, and its articulation of human well-being, had a thoroughly theological dimension, after WWII, as governments became dominant funders of what is now considered the aid industry, organisations adopted the pragmatic sensibilities of religious conviction, while simultaneously ignoring its theological origins (Barnett and Stein 2012, 3–8; Hehir 2012). As such, a plundered form of Christian cosmology continues to influence the contemporary landscape of international development. Theological themes, once foundational for perceiving the constitution and enhancement of human well-being, have been reappropriated by professionalised secular Western conceptions, most notably reflected through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations General Assembly 2015) and perpetuated through national reporting to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Whilst it is difficult to identify a generic definition of “development”, the contemporary secular hue is broadly conceived in terms of a process for, and goal of, the enrichment and betterment of humans. Such a construction is, however, devoid of intellectual recognition of the continuing influence of the Christian philosophical origin of “development”. Universal development goals for the United Nations advocate building “a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want, where all life can thrive” (United Nations General Assembly 2015, 3), while the OECD works to “build better policies for better lives. Our goal is to shape policies that foster … well-being for all” (2019; emphasis added). Such statements evoke the concept of a positive movement from a position of perceived human deficiency to an expansion of human well-being. Yet, in the absence of a cosmological philosophy, the determining narrative for what constitutes “human well-being” remains opaque. Key questions persist – what is the philosophical foundation for organisational rationales that advocate the thriving of “all life” or “well-being for all”? How are these statements, usually promoted as “self-evident” truths, justified? Are such statements mere reflections of a pragmatic altruism devoid of philosophical vigour?

Dislocated from its originating theological foundation, philosopher John Gray argues that the secular concept of human progress is an illusion, a mere attempt to bring meaning beyond the fact that humans as animals “are born, seek mates, forage for food, and die” (2002, 38). The fundamental position of Gray is that “Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a better world” (2002, xiii). For Gray, liberal humanism has all the qualities of religious faith, being directly linked to a Christian inspired and perpetuated mythological narrative regarding the nature and goal of humanity. He, therefore, concludes that “Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth” (Gray 2002, 31).

Gray’s comments highlight the contestability regarding the rationale of contemporary development given the absence of a philosophical grundnorm for human progress.1 The self-determining departure point for Western development arguably perpetuates a limited conception of human well-being, as it is narrowed to fit a pragmatic and secular logic that merely reiterates economic, material and social concepts of prosperity. Outlining the historical reasons for the absence of religion in international affairs, where “religious ideas, convictions, and institutions” were “considered more a threat than a promise” (Hehir 2012, 5), Hehir similarly concludes that the unfortunate legacy of such a marginalisation of religious cosmology has been “impoverished theorizing about world politics” (2012, 5).

3 Theological Amnesia: Religious Acquiescence to a Secular Development Paradigm

Following WWII, while secular and religiously sceptical organisations shaped the directions of development, faith-based organisations adjusting to funding conditionality began to restrain their theological rationalisations and adopt secular humanist narratives and practices (Thacker 2017, 162; Barnett and Stein 2012, 3–8). Barnett and Stein (2012, 304) describe the changing scene of the twentieth century well:

Once avowedly religious organizations such as World Vision International and Catholic Relief Services downplayed their religious identity. Much like the rest of the world, it seemed as if humanitarianism was succumbing to the pull and power of secularism. Religion might have been instrumental in the establishment of humanitarianism, but it passed the torch to secularism.

The resultant situation is that, confronting the same environment and responding with similar ideology and methods, FBDO s and secular organisations “grow more alike all the time” (Barnett 2012, 3), to the point where donors now view large, professionalised FBDO s “as indistinguishable from their secular peers” (Clarke 2006, 841). Although secular imitation is not necessarily at odds with Christian theology, if “faith” is to be integral to faith-based development, and not mere window dressing accoutrement, the tendency to uncritically baptise dominant development paradigms requires challenge.

4 A Triune Ontology of Well-Being: Theological Rationale for Christian Aid and Development

It is at this juncture that a theological proposition for locating the context and conditions for human well-being becomes significant. However, the foundational and unique doctrine for the Christian faith, that God is triune, One in Three and Three in One – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has had minimal explanatory influence on constructing the contours of human well-being through sustainable development. The doctrine of the Trinity is, however, as Karl Barth emphasised, that which “distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” and is the “first word” that “gives us information on the concrete and decisive question: Who is God?” (1975, 301). It is the doctrine of the Trinity that is, therefore, foundational to Christian belief. As such, the ontology of the triune God should provide the paramount context for a Christian rationale of the conditions for human well-being. The Christian teaching regarding humanity as the image of the divine creator (imago dei) situates divine ontology as the definitive context for why, and the conditioning criteria of how, humans engage in actions to pursue their own, and others’, well-being. Such a concept posits well-being, not originating with humanity, nor with modern conceptions of development, but as initiated and sustained by God.

The triune life of God as a reciprocal mutuality of love and all-blessedness has long been categorised by theologians through the Cappadocian concept of perichoresis (for more details regarding perichoresis and its historical development see Harrison 1991, 53–65). However, despite theologians identifying the structure of perichoresis, where the “divine dance” (LaCugna 1991, 271) of the triune relations is considered commensurate with divine ousia (essence), an in-depth synthesis of the “dance steps” has not been made. Although notable theologians across ecumenical lines, in particular Sergeĭ Bulgakov (Orthodox),2 Hans Urs von Balthasar (Catholic)3 and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lutheran) (Pannenberg 1991–1998, vol. 1–3), have each distinctively advanced that divine life, and therefore well-being, is dynamically actualised, a synthesised theological paradigm of how God actualises divine “all-blessedness” has not been advanced.4 In part, such a reluctance may be due to the criticism that perichoresis is misused by scholars to project anthropocentric views on God. As Kilby (2000, 442) argues,

First, a concept, perichoresis, is used to name what is not understood, to name whatever it is that makes the three Persons one. Secondly, the concept is filled out rather suggestively with notions borrowed from our own experience of relationships and relatedness.

Central to Kilby’s criticism is a concern that perichoresis has been dislocated from the revelation of God contained in the Christian Scriptures. Rather than scholars “filling out” the concept of perichoresis from Scripture, her concern is that human conjecture underlies the relevance drawn from perichoresis for humanity. Although the life of God cannot be exhaustively comprehended, the concept of perichoresis may receive expanded content, not from mere human projection, but from an analysis of biblical and theological material regarding the relational activity of the triune Persons. Such an analysis, combined with a trinitarian methodology for perceiving divine revelation advanced by Barth – that the economic work of the Trinity, in and for creation, forms the basis for a discussion of God’s immanent life (1975, 479) – makes it possible to identify an intra-trinitarian movement of gift and receipt between the divine Persons (hypostases) that evidences the dynamism of divine well-being. Such a theological ontology, as will be argued, holds significant implications for the conditions of the development of human and societal well-being.

5 Kenotic-Enrichment: The “Dance Steps” of Divine Well-Being

When we apprehend that God acts in and towards creation (economic Trinity) in consistency with God’s eternal self-sufficient being (immanent Trinity), the actions and speech of God in the economy provide signals to discern characteristics inherent to an ontology of divine well-being. The New Testament Scriptures depict a positive relationality between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that provides the basis for theologians to conclude that “in God’s own eternal being there is movement, life, personal relationship, and the giving and receiving of love” (Migliore 2004, 77). The New Testament is replete with evidence of tri-hypostatic activity in the form of mutual praise and thanksgiving (Mt 11:25; Jn 11:41; Rev 19:5), gift (Mt 11:27; Lk 4:1), prayer and request (Lk 6:12; Mt 14:23; Heb 5:7), intimate knowing and belonging (Mk 14:36; Rom 8:26– 27; Mt 11:27; Jn 10:15), glorification (Jn 12:28; Jn 16:14–15; Jn 17:24; 2 Pt 1:16–17), blessing and honour (Jn 14:28; Jn 8:49; Rev 3:21), mutual love through affirmative speech (Mk 1:11; Mt 17:5) and action (Is 11:2; Acts 10:38). Each member of the Trinity is characterised as encouraging, upholding and sustaining one to the other in acts of enrichment. In other words, the scriptural account provides consistent depictions of God’s self-communication that substantiates a dynamically construed intra-Trinitarian life. Such a dynamic relationality evidenced between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be perceived as a “divine self-enrichment” – the notion that God enriches God in the perfection and fullness of God (Service 2018, 11). In this manner, divine well-being is construed as dynamically actualised, rather than a mere static concept of perfection.

A key characteristic permeating the economic expression of the triune acts of divine well-being is kenosis (self-giving). No divine Person articulates a self-focused glorification, but rather is unified through intra-trinitarian self-emptying and other centredness. As such, the self-sufficient triune life of well-being avoids the charge of divine narcissism (Service 2019, 71). Divine well-being and kenosis are symbiotically unified in the simplicity of the Trinity.5 Such an integral dynamic, constitutive for divine life, may be identified as an enriching-kenosis or kenotic-enrichment. In other words, divine life or the perfection of well-being is actualised through triune self-giving. Bulgakov (2002, 99) insightfully articulated such a notion, saying,

sacrifice not only does not contradict the Divine all-blessedness but, on the contrary, is its foundation, for this all-blessedness would be empty and unreal if it were not based on authentic sacrifice … [M]utual sacrifice … cannot be separated or excluded from this bliss, for it is its hidden foundation.

Intra-trinitarian kenosis is, therefore, the constitutive factor of divine life. Utilising such a perspective, in conjunction with an interpretation of the economic Trinity, the hallmarks of kenotic-enrichment become distinguished by the following characteristics: 1) Freely given and received; not obliged: the divine Persons operate in free and volitional inter-related agency; such a freedom in divine self-positing is integral to the nature of divine well-being. 2) Inter- personal communication: the divine Persons give and receive through transparency and intimacy of knowing and being known. 3) Speech is commensurate with act: divine speech (both verbal and non-verbal) is purposeful and is attended by substance and materiality of act. 4) Other-centred affirmation: the divine Persons acknowledge the greatness and worth of the other, and the agency of each divine Person is acknowledged and honoured. 5) Equality through mutual dependency: there is no hierarchy within God, there is equality of gift and receipt. The Father is dependent on the Son to be the Father, and the Son on the Father, and without the mutuality of giftedness through the Spirit there is neither Son nor Father. Each divine Person is the fullness of God in the Oneness of God; thus, divinity has equality through mutual dependency (Service 2018, 222–223).

6 Reimaging the Dynamics of Development

The intra-trinitarian relations in the economic Trinity reveal a pattern of divine life that evidences a divine ontology defined through the concept of enriching-kenosis. Such an ontological patterning may, accordingly, be discerned in the dynamic of creation and in human life. Thus, whenever human life evidences the kind of kenotic-enrichment found in the Trinity, there we see intimations of the work of God. In this sense, the archetype of divine well-being is antecedently operative in creation, where kenotic-enrichment is a condition of createdness, albeit imbued by sin and creaturely finiteness. Human beings, therefore, retain the divinely initiated orientation towards well-being, of which concepts of sustainable development express. For Christians, identifying a divine ontology of well-being provides a nascent Christian paradigm for sustainable development, with potential to expand rationale and praxis beyond a limited secular construction.

However, it is important to note that such a concept is not merely establishing a “model” of divine life for human imitation. Rather, consistent with views of Christian soteriology, the concept of the embeddedness of kenotic-enrichment in creation requires the redemptive movement of the Spirit of God to draw humanity into a responsive participation with the life of God (Volf 1998, 417; Hart 2003, 177–179). Such a participation is, however, never identical with the divine, but a replication as appropriate for the finite and temporal image of God (Bulgakov 2002, 91–96). Although we recognise that humans are constituted in such a way that affinity exists between the created and the Creator, such a view must be qualified by the ontological differences between Creator and creature (Tanner 2010, 1–2).

Having made this caveat, a few preliminary implications of how a divine ontology of well-being might impact development praxis may be considered. Let us consider the characteristic of “freely given and received: not obliged” attending a triune ontology. If the nature of triune well-being is conditioned by personal agency and freedom, how would such a condition impact human well-being? Here, an interrogation is provoked as to whether the substance of a development mechanism advances, or undermines, human agency and freedom. Agencies need to be cognisant that in the design of development modalities assumptions regarding human agency exist that will either attain or restrain enrichment. Enrichment cannot be forced or obliged, it requires free participation through mutual kenosis. With this dynamic in mind, consideration needs to be made of how some development programmes require “beneficiaries” to acquiesce, or worse, operate under duress, rather than affirm free and voluntary participation.

The use of conditional cash transfers (CCT s) in social protection programming is an apt example. CCT s entail the transfer of cash on the basis that a beneficiary will meet a particular condition, usually related to a health or education investment (for more on CCT s see Grosh et al. 2008, 312–340). Although the World Bank has maintained that CCT s reduce poverty and increase human capital (Grosh et al. 2008, 319–320), there is limited evidence that the conditionality (or the coercion) positively impacts economic and human capital expansion. In fact, evidence suggests that conditions undermine and damage human well-being (Cookson 2018). Furthermore, unconditional cash transfers (UCT s) have been found to be equally, if not more effective than CCT s (Kidd 2018). This suggests that a nexus exists between an un-coerced development delivery mechanism (that affirms free human agency) and the increase in human well-being.

Another entrenched development paradigm open to further interrogation in light of a triune ontology is the “effectiveness” regime. Again, if an ontology of well-being is articulated through freely gifted giving, is it appropriate that Christian expression of development always be subject to “effectiveness”, where “effectiveness” is measured by input (the gift) as well as the output or outcome (receipt of gift)? Although I acknowledge the desire for transparency and accountability underlying the monitoring and evaluation of development effectiveness, the parameters established to determine such “effectiveness” may actually conceal expressions of duress and non-voluntary obligation on beneficiaries. Interrogating the prior assumptions of the delivery mechanism may assist in uncovering whether there is a bias against human agency and freedom in the effectiveness agenda. For example, where a programme outcome is not achieved, is it because the programme and evaluation design were premised on criteria for “effectiveness” that assumed recipients to respond as humans with limited agency and freedom to participate? In other words, was the “outcome” contingent on the beneficiaries behaving in an assumed manner entrenched in the design? Was this assumed beneficiary behaviour volunteered freely, or coerced? Or worse, not even sought? Effectiveness agendas need to be revised to give greater weight to the agency of the perceived “beneficiary”. Regulated by a Christian rationale, an indicator of effectiveness should include a donor’s ability to advance the free agency of beneficiaries in programme activities.

A final brief implication for development praxis is the concept that well-being is actualised through “interpersonal communication”. As discussed, based on an interpretation of the economic Trinity, the triune Persons each know and give enrichment to the other through personal engagement and dialogue. Intimacy and recognition of the free agency of the “other” exemplifies divine relationality and, therefore, divine well-being. Yet, are these the markers of international development, or is development, especially as it is undertaken by large organisations, characterised by impersonal knowledge and disconnected from intimate self-giving? When development is severed from interpersonal engagement and dialogue, then knowledge of the “other” may arguably become a form of knowledge open to domination and manipulation, rather than authentic engagement in the mutuality of knowing and being known.

In cases where development policy is determined by large multilateral and faith-based organisations, with headquarters physically located far from those being served, the temptation is for the “face” of the other to be generalised for efficiency, to be defined through algorithm, or perceived as image rather than physical form.6 Such generalities may be useful, but they dilute the impression of the face of the “other” and create a deformed illusion of interpersonal engagement. For example, proxy means testing (PMT), a statistical model used by the World Bank, assesses household welfare based on a survey of household assets. PMT is undertaken by algorithm; it is a mathematical formula that assesses the inclusion or exclusion of potential beneficiaries of assistance (Kidd, Gelders and Bailey-Athias 2017, 1–2). While PMT is an attempt to reduce administration costs for social assistance and increase the accurate targeting of the “poor”,7 research demonstrates that this impersonal methodology is inaccurate, excluding many poor households from assistance, and undermines social cohesion (Kidd, Gelders and Bailey-Athias 2017, 18).

PMT is but one example of an impersonal methodology to deliver human enrichment. This is not to criticise the complexity of mathematics used to assist in the reduction of poverty, nor to undermine administrative efficiencies, but rather to question how they are used. Deficiencies associated with PMT have been articulated on various grounds, yet here I draw attention to the lack of interpersonal application and transparency that arguably undermines human well-being. PMT merely considers beneficiaries through the narrowness of impersonal knowledge generated by an algorithm. Thus, PMT is an example of an opposing paradigm to the characteristics of the interpersonal divine conditions for well-being – that of knowing and being known. PMT is applied to impersonally “know” the recipients (thus arguably representing a form of limited manipulable knowledge) and cannot itself be “known” (mathematical obliqueness is inbuilt to dissuade household manipulation of proxies). This example depicts the necessity for a paradigm shift to acknowledge relational drivers of human well-being to transfigure the mere commodification of the human subject of development. Interpersonal communication and the actual interaction with the “other” are necessary in a development paradigm that seeks to truly enrich human well-being.

Understanding the dynamic of interpersonal relation that attends an ontology of divine well-being, Christians should exercise caution towards using reductive and impersonal knowledge of beneficiaries. Such knowledge can be manipulated to attest to a reportable “outcome”, or used to justify aid dollars, without actually achieving enrichment. In the quest to achieve a breadth of development (outcomes for as many as possible), development work may actually undermine human well-being. The quest for breadth of reach, through impersonal mechanisms, might, in fact, be at the expense of a depth of enrichment. If development is not delivered through mechanisms that are based on personal and reciprocal engagement, delivery mechanisms may appear productive but fail to deliver authentic human well-being.

7 Conclusion

The intention here has been to provide a preliminary interrogation as to what a renewed praxis for development might entail in light of the inquiry into the constitutive features of divine well-being. The discussion is by no means complete and requires further research and application. However, it does contribute to the growing research in the field (Freeman 2019; Thacker 2017; Loy 2017) towards the shaping of a theologically regulated Christian development rationale that provides an alternative perspective to the hegemony of a contemporary development paradigm. A systematic enquiry into the dynamics of triune well-being provides three significant possibilities for Christian development rationale and praxis. First, such a concept allows a development rationale to be derived from a pivotal Christian doctrine that simultaneously dislocates a secular pragmatic approach. Second, it identifies nascent theological principles by which agencies may critique and reform their foundations and operations. And third, it subverts the erroneous conflation of all religions to a common altruistic rationale by advancing a distinctively Christian rationale for development that may complement and challenge the current paradigm. A divine ontology of well-being calls for a reorientation of development rationale and praxis towards its originating cosmological foundations and, ultimately, locates the contingency of all created well-being within the conditions of divinity itself.


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The grundnorm is the ultimate norm from which all legal norms are deduced and provide its validity. As such the grundnorm, the highest norm, is assumed as the basic hypothesis from which all else is assumed. See Hans Kelsen, Pure Theory of Law, trans. M. Knight (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).


In 1928 Bulgakov considered the concept of the self-giving kenotic love between the Persons of the Trinity in his Chapters on Trinitarianism (Glavy o Troichnosti) (Moscow: OGI, 2001). This nascent idea was then fruitfully extended through his kenotic Christology in the first volume of his major trilogy, The Lamb of God (1933), and then expanded in a further two volumes, The Comforter (1936) and The Bride of the Lamb (1939).


His major work, in a 15-volume trilogy, examines the nature of divine being through the beautiful (The Glory of the Lord), the good (Theo-Drama) and the true (Theo-logic).


Ellen Charry and Elaine Padilla have independently constructed theologies of divine happiness and divine enjoyment. Both theological constructions, however, reject divine aseity, a move that holds negative consequences for understanding divine being. See Charry 2010; Padilla 2014.


I am referring here to the metaphysic of divine simplicity inherent in the early Church’s conceiving of the Trinity. Divine simplicity is integral to preserve the divine dynamism of Triunity, without capitulating to tritheism, and to establish a distinct divine ontology, without removing God’s relationality with creation.


Emmanuel Levinas stressed the importance of personal engagement with the other, saying: “A face imposes itself upon me without my being able to be deaf to it or to forget it, that is, without my being able to suspend my responsibility for its distress” (Levinas 1996, 54).


Kidd, Gelders and Bailey-Athias (2017, 16) note the neoliberal driver of this priority and claim that the World Bank has also stated in an unpublished paper: “The historical […] evidence suggests that the forces pushing for better targeting are more regularly motivated by cutting entitlement bills and ensuring financial sustainability than by helping the poor.”

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