PCDForum Column #3,   Release Date November 5, 1990

by David C. Korten

The first ten years of my career in development were devoted to preparing managers for the businesses that would mobilize underutilized resources, turn them into the products that people need, and bring the world universal prosperity. Trained at the Stanford Business School, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and involved in the establishment of business schools in Ethiopia and Central America, I was deeply committed to the then unexamined assumption that economic growth is the key to human progress.

Ironically, the longer I live in the Third World and the more deeply I become involved in the issues of poverty, the more I confront the disturbing possibility that our obsessive preoccupation with growth may in fact be the key to explaining not only the deepening poverty of so many of the world's people, but also the growing crisis of environmental destruction and communal violence. I also become increasingly skeptical of the arguments of the leading advocates of growth--including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, many of the world's most influential political leaders, and even the Brundtland Commission. They tell us, for example, that:

  • Poverty is the root cause of environmental destruction because it reduces people's capacity to use resources in a sustainable manner.
  • The only way to reduce poverty is through overall increases in economic output because redistribution of existing incomes is politically infeasible.
  • Accelerating growth in the rich countries stimulates the demand for the exports of poor countries and thus is the best way to accelerate their growth.

The issues are complex and the messages often contradictory, but the underlying argument appears to be that we best serve the poor and the environment by enriching the rich. Thus stated, the argument becomes so blatantly self-serving and contrary to reality that I keep asking myself whether I have misheard or misunderstood. Is it possible that a poor person consumes more resources and generates more waste than a rich person? That there are ample environmentally stable resources to satisfy the wants of everyone without limit and that people of wealth have the inherent wisdom to use these resources responsibly? That, as our economies grow, we place less stress on the environment? Always I end up with the same conclusion: it is the ever growing demand of the wealthy for more and more resources that depletes our environment and pushes the poor to ever greater social and ecological desperation.

If true, we are left with a substantial dilemma. If we continue to press for conventional economic growth in both North and South, we deny the overwhelming evidence that we are overloading our ecosystem and risk a high probability of accelerating eco-system failure and eventual collapse. If we stabilize our use of earth's environmental resources and moderate growth accordingly but attempt to maintain the current allocation of those resources, we deprive the under-consumers of any hope for social and economic justice. This will destroy the legitimacy of our social institutions, and spark an escalation of random violence that no amount of investment in military hardware and law enforcement could suppress.

Growing numbers of concerned citizens around the world are realizing that neither option will produce acceptable consequences. They conclude that we have little choice but to promote a global transformation of human values and institutions that dramatically reduces the demands the over-consumers place on the environment and gives the poor (the under-consumers) precedence in the use of the resulting resource dividend to achieve a decent human existence.

Since our most powerful leaders and institutions seem irrevocably committed to the business of growth as usual, change depends on the voluntary action of millions of informed citizens concerned for the future of their children and the global community. To so act, however, they must be engaged in a debate that examines fundamental assumptions to which we have been conditioned throughout our lives. A number of voluntary agencies are already active in engaging this debate, drawing from their own experience to challenge the prevailing wisdom. Hopefully many others will add their voices as they recognize the significance of the issues at stake.


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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