PCDForum Column 2#,   Release Date November 1, 1990

by David C. Korten

During the past year I have given presentations all around the world on a basic theme. We live in a world in crisis, a world of increasing poverty, environmental destruction, and communal violence. This crisis is of our own making, a result of too many people making too many demands on the ecology of a small planet. The key to human progress is not growth--it is the transformation of our values and institutions in ways that will allow all people to live well and within our collective means, but without extravagance.

Embracing Uncomfortable Truths

Though growing numbers of people are coming to similar conclusions, it is not a comforting message, nor one we hear from our leaders or the advertisers who control our media. Each time I present this conclusion to a new audience I half expect to be booed and thrown out into the street. Yet, much to my surprise, the message is generally embraced, almost with a sense of relief that someone is articulating what many people feel in their hearts to be true. The truth, unpleasant as it may be, combines with the remarkable examples we have seen of the potentials for rapid and significant change in contemporary society to give people hope, a sense that the individual can make a difference.

In 1988, the world embraced the environment. In 1989, Eastern Europe embraced democracy. Perhaps we, the world's over-consumers, are now ready to embrace the reality that the survival of our civilization depends on working to assure all people the opportunity for a full and decent life, in part by giving up our consumerist life styles and decreasing the demands we place on the ecology of our living planet.

The Voluntary Agency

Many voluntary agencies concerned with the poor of the South have built their programs around the premise that the key to poverty alleviation is an increased flow of money and commodities from the haves of the North to the have-nots of the South. This assumption is held not only by Northern agencies, but also by many Southern agencies that act as conduits of this charity.

However, growing numbers of voluntary sector leaders, particularly from the South, are saying that the real problem is extravagant and wasteful Northern lifestyles maintained by the systematic extraction of environmental and financial resources from the South. The solution depends on reducing the extraction.

 We are well familiar with the pattern. Four countries--the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and West Germany--with a combined total of 14 percent of the world's population, account for more than 50 percent of the world's consumption of commercial energy and important metals. Ships loaded with toxic wastes from the North roam the earth looking for dumping sites in the South. The United States, with roughly 5 percent of the world's population, generates nearly 24 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that we expect the people of the South to absorb through the preservation of their forests.

When we in the North return a bit of our excess pocket change to the South through international charities, we relieve our guilt, confirm our superiority, and maintain the dependence of the recipient. We do not alleviate the poverty and dependence that our over-consumption exacerbates.

Development Education

Development professionals, including those who staff voluntary agencies, have generally treated the education of their constituencies regarding the development problems of the South as a secondary concern. Development education was considered important primarily as a means of assuring financial contributions for voluntary organizations and public support for official international assistance budgets. As we redefine the nature of the development problem, we must also reconsider the nature and role of development education.

Rather than asking only for passive contributions, we must now seek the active engagement of broad citizen constituencies as agents of policy, institutional, and lifestyle changes in each of our respective societies--both North and South. This is basically a development education agenda, or more accurately an educational agenda for global transformation. Rather than being peripheral to the real business of the voluntary agency, it becomes the core business, the priority.


David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and the author of Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990). This column is contributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.

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