ELIMINATING UNDERDEVELOPMENT AT ITS SOURCE
PCDForum Column #13 Release Date April 20, 1991
by Gustavo Esteva
January 20th, 1949 was a momentous day for human society. This was the day that President Truman, in his inaugural address, called for "...a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas." In a mere instance two billion people became "underdeveloped," stripped of their dignity and the richness of their cultural diversity, homogenized and redefined in terms of what they were not.
Seldom has a new term gained such instant acceptance or more thoroughly transformed how major elements of human society perceive themselves. From that day forward roughly two-thirds of earth's people have found themselves in a struggle to escape from the undignified condition called underdevelopment. Yet development's constant press for economic efficiency in a resource scarce world has produced only one commodity in abundance useless people for whom the economy has no need and therefore to whom it assigns no value.
For the underdeveloped, to develop means sacrificing the environments, solidarities, traditional interpretations and customs that have given their lives meaning in order to embark on a road that others know better, toward a goal that others have reached. For the overwhelming majority it has meant not the alleviation of poverty, but rather its modernization: a devaluation of their own skills, values, and experience in favor of a growing dependence on guidance and management by bureaucrats, technocrats, educators, and development experts.
Underdevelopment is not a naturally occurring human condition. It is a creation of the development enterprise itself. It is best removed through the rejection of that enterprise.
My personal journey toward this realization began with a successful professional career in business, government and academia, until I realized that solutions to the people's problems could come only from the people themselves. I have since committed myself to a deprofessionalized life, living with and learning from the poor, attempting to communicate their message to those who seek to develop them. What I have learned has led me to reject both the terminology and constructs of development in all their forms as inherently destructive of the human processes by which the common people work to create community as an expression of their culture and self-defined aspirations.
Development has long been protected by a claim, supported by intellectuals of both the right and the left, that the suffering of the poor majority is the inevitable price they must pay for their ultimate good. With falling oil prices, mounting debts, and the conversion of Mexico into a free zone so that transnational capital can produce VW beetles in automated factories for export to Germany, the corruption of our politics and the degradation of nature always implicit in development can finally be seen, touched and smelled by everyone.
Now the poor of Mexico are responding by recreating their own moral economy. As Mexico's Rural Development Bank no longer contains sufficient funds to force peasants to plant sorghum for animal feed, many have returned to the traditional intercropping of corn and beans improving their diets, restoring some village solidarity, and allowing available cash to reach further. In response to the decreasing purchasing power of the previously employed, thriving production cooperatives are springing up in the very heart of Mexico City. Shops now exist in the slums that reconstruct electrical appliances; merchants prosper by imitating foreign trademarked goods and sell them as smuggled wares to tourists.
Neighborhoods have come back to life. Street stands and tiny markets have returned to corners from where they disappeared years ago. Complex forms of nonformal organization have developed through which barrio residents create protective barriers between themselves and intruding development bureaucracies, police and other officials, fight eviction and the confiscation of their assets, settle their own disputes, and maintain public order. It is in many respects a harsh and brutal life. However, by rejecting development in the midst of devaluation, unemployment and a decline in the economically-defined national product the majority of the people among whom I dwell now believe that they are better off than they have been for years.
Mexico's poor seek neither charity nor affluence. They ask only for the restoration of that which development has sought to deny them, an opportunity to create their own livelihood, establish and regulate their own community, and live in dignity.
Gustavo Esteva is a prominent Mexican writer, social activist and NGO leader, and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on several of his publications. His address is Apdo. Postal 106, Admon. 3, 68081 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico.