Circular and cumulative causation, the SDGs and Covid-19

It’s over sixty years since Gunnar Myrdal wrote about the principle of circular and cumulative causation in his book ‘Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions’ (in the USA it had a more catchy title – ‘Rich Lands and Poor’). This work still seems extremely relevant when considering the SDGs and in particular their interrelationship.

The basis of the principle is that changes in socio-economic systems have a tendency to be self-reinforcing, rather than self-correcting. This results in either vicious or virtuous circles of development , which often gather speed at an accelerating rate.

In a number of respects the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on this. According to ONS analysis poorer areas in England have tended to suffer more from the virus, with mortality rates in the most deprived areas more than double the least deprived areas.


There are likely to be a number of factors involved, which feed on each other: cramped living conditions, people being under greater pressure to return to work to avoid loss of income, more precarious employment, having to work in close proximity to colleagues etc. The recent example of the textile workers and their families in Leicester would appear to be a case in point.

Good health and wellbeing is inextricably linked to reducing poverty and inequality and providing decent work and quality education, while improving the environment and the sustainability of cities and communities. Progress towards these goals helps in the achievement of others, as they feed off each other in a positive cycle. The flip side of this is a steady deterioration in conditions as they reinforce each other in a negative direction.

Important as they are in their own right the achievement of the UN’s Global Goals is likely to be much more successful if they are tackled in a coherent and integrated way, which reflects the systemic nature of the natural environment and human society.

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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