PCDForum Column #9 Release Date March 1, 1991

by David C. Korten

As voluntary organizations around the world re-examine their development roles and accept a greater responsibility for reshaping development policies, they are confronting a harsh reality. Not only is our existing political leadership failing to acknowledge the true nature of our global crisis, it is actively and aggressively committing us to self-defeating policies that feed on one another to deepen that crisis and make its resolution ever more difficult.

No where is this more dramatically demonstrated than in the current Gulf War. Those who have led us into this war herald it as a historic step toward the creation of a new world order based on principles of collective security and the rule of law. No where within official policy circles do we see an acknowledgement that to the contrary, it is a dramatic demonstration of the cumulative failure of years of misguided policy action--energy policies that have made the world economically dependent on Middle Eastern oil and trade policies that encouraged the sale of sophisticated military equipment and nuclear and chemical technology to any dictator who had the money to pay for them. These policies gave Saddam Hussein his power.

Given adequate recognition of the nature of the problem, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait might have been taken by our leaders as an occasion to press for a global commitment to: 1) energy conservation and conversion to renewable energy sources; 2) a reduction in arms trade; and 3) stricter international control of chemical and nuclear technologies with potential military applications. They might have backed these longer term reforms with a serious and sustained test of the efficacy of collective UN enforced economic sanctions and the stationing of a true UN peace keeping force in Saudi Arabia to assure its defense.

 Instead, our leaders chose a very different course of action, one that diverted attention away from their policy failures and established a rationale for maintaining high levels of arms expenditures in the face of East West detente. This choice was made with the most minimal of public debate, and abdicated the responsibility for action to one man, George Bush, on behalf of the entire global community. With a passing nod to sanctions and negotiation, this delegated power was used to commit the world to a war that has already taken a financial and environmental toll the world can ill afford, has added substantially to instability in the Middle East and other Islamic nations, and holds prospect of bringing immeasurable suffering to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of innocent people caught up in the violence on both sides. Whatever good works voluntary agencies do around the world to alleviate human suffering during this period, their efforts will pale by comparison. Whatever its outcome, humanity will bear the scars of this war for decades to come.

What lessons must we learn from this folly?

  • Voluntary organizations cannot responsibly limit themselves to alleviating the human suffering that results as a consequence of policy failure. They must direct their attention to its causes.
  • Peace, trade, and environmental policies have a direct bearing on human suffering. They must be a concern of organizations devoted to social justice.
  • The transformation of essential policies depends on the reform of political systems to break the hold of traditional political forces in the North as well as the South, in democratic as well as authoritarian states.

We are being forced to recognize just how central political reform is to the transformation agenda. Our existing political structures are not responding. To the contrary, they are actively leading us in self-destructive directions that make the realization of that agenda ever more difficult. Most voluntary organizations style themselves as nonpolitical. However, as they direct themselves increasingly to policy advocacy agendas, voluntary sector leaders in the South find themselves questioning the realism of this stance. Now their counterparts in the North face the same question. The issues are complex and the appropriate course of action not self-evident.

It is clear, however, that each of us who claims a commitment to social justice and the alleviation of human suffering must accept a responsibility to act on the lessons this war so starkly poses. We must use every opportunity to turn this human tragedy into a commitment to a new vision of human progress on a finite and interdependent planet.

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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