PCDForum Column #10 Release Date March 4, 1991

by Ron Léger

Humankind has made extraordinary advances in the past few decades in science and technology, and in its ability to tap the riches of Earth's ecology. These advances allow a few of us to live in a style that once would have been the envy of kings and queens. Unfortunately, however, an increasing majority of humanity is clearly not benefiting--and they know it. How long can we continue to pretend that the poor need only be patient, giving the free market and the state sufficient time to achieve the additional economic growth that will allow a more equitable allocation of the benefits of economic and scientific progress? Do we have the courage to consider the possibility that the source of the growing gap between rich and poor may lie in the cherished assumptions underlying our very vision of development?

We hold firmly to the idea that economic growth is the key to human progress, committing all our natural, financial and human resources to this goal, even as our disregard of long-term cultural, economic and ecological consequences results in the greed-driven destruction of our environment and the bonds of human community. Yet the wants of the rich seem ever more insatiable--even as the needs of the poor for basic food, clothing and shelter remain unmet. It is time to acknowledge that continued exponential growth in the demands we place on our environment and major economic and social inequality are both inherently unsustainable in a finite and interdependent world.

Our approaches to aiding the poor are similarly flawed, in part because they generally assume that growth is the ultimate objective. More subtle, and even more insidious in its consequences, is the implicit assumption that those who are already "developed" have the wisdom, resources, and responsibility to develop those who are not. Development practice thus proceeds as if the "underdeveloped" have little or nothing to contribute to their own advancement. When this practice fails, as it has in dramatic measure during the past decade, the approach itself is not questioned. Rather the wealthy--in both North and South--respond with the curious apology: "If only we were richer we could help to develop you more. Please remain patient... As our wealth grows, we will become better equipped to lift you from your poverty."

 We are long overdue for a different way of thinking about development--for a people-centered vision--that recognizes the centrality of people and embraces three absolute values.

1. Life has inherent meaning and value beyond the possession of goods. Authentic development must contribute to the actualization of that meaning in its social, intellectual, and spiritual--as well as its material--dimensions.

2. Sovereignty resides in people. People must be the real actors for change. Development must be their creation; it cannot be transferred to or bestowed on one people by another.

3. Community is basic to human well-being. We become fully human only through nurturing our sense of responsibility for one another and for earth through our participation in family and community life. It is here that we learn the joy of sharing our knowledge, our love, and the songs and poems that express our insights into the deeper meaning of life and the wonders of the universe.

The leadership toward a new vision, a new mode of working for human progress, and a new development economics and management that embodies equity, ethics, ecology and community as integral concerns must spring from the people themselves. The youth of the world, who have a special stake in the global future, and women, who better feel the interconnectedness of issues and people, should have a central role. This is not a task primarily for private and public aid agencies. They are generally better equipped to coordinate and administer than to develop new visions centered on people and respect for Earth.

To continue to treat international cooperation as something done "out there" by official and private aid agencies is to deny the very nature of the problem and the inherent need to strengthen, on a global scale, the sense of interrelatedness of people and issues and the shared responsibility of every person for the stewardship of our global village. The new international cooperation must be rooted in a sense of community and mutual responsibility among people on common issues. Both abject mass poverty and large-scale ecological degradation must increasingly be treated as national security and equity issues. Those "aid" agencies that survive as relevant will be those that prove effective in respecting, giving space, and supporting the people of the world in such cooperation.


Ron Léger is director of the Management for Change Program of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and in his personal capacity is a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on Léger's draft paper "Development Cooperation for Whom and for What Purpose." He may be contacted through CIDA, 200 Promenade du Partage Hull, Quebec K1A 0G4, Canada.

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