Rafael Ranieri and Raquel Almeida Ramos explore the history of the "inclusive growth" terminology in "Inclusive Growth: Building up a Concept," published in May 2013 by the International Centre for Inclusive Growth (Working Paper #104). A little earlier, Elena Ianchovichina and Susanna Lundstrom produced a note on "What is inclusive growth?" for the World Bank in a note published on February 10, 2009.
Apparently, the term "inclusive growth" originated in an essay "What is Pro-poor Growth?" by Nanak Kakwani and Ernesto M. Pernia, which appeared in the Asian Development Review in 2000. They use the term "inclusive" growth only once, and in a way which makes it synonymous with "pro-poor growth." They write: "Broadly, pro-poor growth can be defined as one that enables the poor to actively participate in and significantly benefit from economic activity. It is a major departure from the trickle-down development concept. It is inclusive economic growth."
The reasons why "inclusive growth" or "pro-poor growth" seemed like a new thing back about two decades ago was rooted in how people used to talk about development economics . A common framework at that time was the notion that low-income countries were trapped in poverty, and needed big boost of investment capital to jolt themselves forward into a process of industrialization. The "Kuznets curve" held that a process of economic development first brings a period of greater inequality, as new industries take hold, which would then followed by a period of greater equality as prosperity spreads or diffuses through an economy.
All of these frameworks have been challenged in various ways. It's not clear that low-income countries are in a poverty "trap"--it's just that they have slow growth, which isn't necessarily the same thing. It wasn't clear that industrialization would necessarily diffuse through an economy: for example, Latin American countries had a reasonable degree of growth from the 1960s on, but with persistent and high levels of inequality. By the 1970s, arguments were emerging that poverty itself held back economic development, so rather than seeking development first and hoping it would reduce poverty eventually, a direct approach to improving the nutrition, health, education, and income-earning prospects of the poor could bring development. The greatest economic development success stories from the the 1960s through the 1980s, the East Asian "growth miracle" that saw the take-off of economies like South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan didn't involve a large rise in inequality, nor did the earlier take-off of Japan's economy. As Ranieri and Ramos note:
Another core reason for the shift of development thinking towards a constructive, or at least not pernicious, relationship between growth and equity was the phenomenal developmental performance of the so-called Asian tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The East Asian developmental experience, which unfolded over the course of a larger time span but received most attention from the 1970s into the 1980s and early 1990s, decisively challenged the existence of an inescapable trade-off between growth and equity. Combining rapid growth in per capita income with relatively stable and low inequality, it suggested that “there might be policy measures to foster the benign combination of high growth and rapid poverty reduction” ...But as the goal of inclusive growth became common, a number of detailed questions emerged. For example, did inclusive growth mean an improvement in the level of standard of living for the poor, or did it mean that the standard of living for the poor needed to be faster than the average for the middle and upper income groups? To what extent did the word "inclusive" apply to the broader middle-class as well as the poor? Does inclusive growth refer to income that includes government transfers, or only to income earned in the market? Does inclusive growth include only private income, or does it also refer to improved provision of government services like education, health services, sanitation and water, or reliable electricity? Should the "inclusiveness" of growth be understood at least partially in terms of institutions for democratic representation and governance?
These different concepts of inclusive growth have different policy implications. While it's easy to feel an attraction to the concept of inclusive growth, it's not clear that it offers a growth formula that works. After all, for many low-income countries around the world, it hasn't seemed that their choice was between "inclusive growth" or "noninclusive growth," but rather they were just struggling to have meaningful growth of any kind.
There's no question that the conceptual problems with "inclusive growth" are severe. Rememver, the Ramieri and Ramos working paper is written for what is called the International Policy Center for Inclusive Growth (which in turn seems to be a joint venture between the UN Development Programme and the Brazilian government), and the writers nonetheless conclude:
"[G]overnments and multilateral development institutions speak of inclusive growth and devise and label objectives, strategies and policies accordingly. But there is no clarity about what is actually meant by inclusive growth; definitions vary and tend to be vague. In general, what seems to be implied is that inclusive growth involves improving the lot of underprivileged people in particular and overall making opportunities more plentiful while lessening barriers to the attainment of better living conditions. But exactly what these entail and whether and how they are interconnected is not made clear. As the meaning of inclusiveness determines policy objectives, while it remains unclear, so do the objectives to be sought in designing policies aimed at promoting inclusive growth."
But despite the conceptual confusion, it seems to me that the terminology of "inclusive growth" does capture some important themes. The great problem of economic development is we cannot yet enunciate any compact list of government policies that reliably leads to a growth miracle. Indeed, given the many different circumstances of nations and economies, it may be that no single list exists, and that instead each country must diagnose which economic or institutional constraints are holding it back. Or it may even be that such diagnosis is too faulty to be reliable, and the best a a country can do is to work on basics like education, health, physical infrastructure, rule of law, and hope for best.
But when thinking about either the inputs to the development process or the outputs of the process, the inclusive growth concept can offer a useful reminder. When thinking about policies to encourage development, it's a reminder that steps which help lower-income people in a direct way are worthwhile, not only because they might help to bring about economic growth but because benefiting those with lower incomes is beneficial in itself. In the general category of policies to help people in a direct way, I would include not just vaccinations and schooling and nutrition, but also policies that help people overcome the hurdles to starting a small business, or that allow people to monitor how public officials are spending money. When judging the results of development efforts, it's a useful reminder to look beyond the images of a huge and flash project like a dam, highway, factory, or mine, and consider the extent to which the project improved the day-to-day lives of lower-income people--whether through jobs and wages or through more affordable goods and services.
To steal a phrase from Ranieri and Ramos, the inclusive growth agenda is to search for a "constructive interaction of declining poverty and inequality and economic growth." That may be an insufficient agenda for economic development, in and of itself, but keep the potential for such constructive interactions in mind is surely worthwhile.