PCDForum Column #23    Release date December 1, 1991

by David C. Korten

From October 14-17, 1991, the directors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) met in Bangkok, Thailand's elegant international conference center to set the future directions of the global economy. Many enthusiastically pointed to Thailand as demonstrating the success of the export-led growth model based on opening national borders to the free flow foreign trade and investment.

No expense or inconvenience was spared by Thailand's government to impress the delegates with Thailand's new affluence. Schools, businesses, and government offices were closed to avoid inconveniencing the delegates with Bangkok's legendary traffic jams as they were whisked between elegant cocktail parties along routes chosen and walled to avoid disconcerting views of Bangkok's slums.

Meanwhile, in a modest university auditorium on the other side of Bangkok, citizen delegates from the nongovernmental and people's organizations of 43 countries gathered for the People's Forum 1991. They heard grassroots leaders from Asia, Africa, and Latin America--representatives of farmers, fisher folk, women's groups, indigenous peoples and others--tell their personal stories in their own languages. Speaker after speaker told of the devastation brought to their lives, communities, and local ecology by the dams, industrial estates, forestry plantations, and other development projects promoted by official agencies in the name of helping people and saving the environment. They shared heroic and reassuring stories of their struggles to recreate a sense of community, and restore the eco-systems on which their lives and livelihoods depend--often in the face of official resistance and the intrusion of foreign funded projects. Every day the English language Bangkok press carried full-page spreads telling the people's story alongside the self-congratulatory press releases from the banker's meetings.

People's Forum 1991 went well beyond the criticism of individual foreign assisted development projects to condemn the consumerist-oriented development model being advanced by bilateral and multilateral assistance agencies and to call for significant reductions in their funding and influence. It also presented through case examples viable holistic alternatives that promote community control over resources, recognize indigenous knowledge systems and customary rights, and embrace cultural, social and spiritual, as well as economic, values.

The Thai community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that sponsored People's Forum 1991 is one of the newest in Asia. It has already become one of the most dynamic and forward looking. Unencumbered by large established programs that do things for the poor in the name of self-reliance, the Thai NGOs are helping the marginalized find a national and global voice in the policy debates being carried out in their name. As the people tell their own story, the Thai NGOs add a conceptual perspective that places these experiences in a systemic context. They also facilitate linkages between spokespersons from diverse localities in ways that build the foundations of a global people's movement.

What I experienced in Bangkok brought to mind the meeting of NGOs I attended in March 1987 in London. That meeting marked the global NGO community's acceptance of its necessary leadership role as innovator, advocate, and educator in advancing alternatives to the dominant development model favored by official agencies. Representatives of more conventional NGOs, particularly from the North, were challenged to their core.

People's Forum 1991 marked for me a similar and equally profound watershed for the forces of civil society. It illuminated the passing of the leadership in the struggle for transformation from voluntary organizations of middle class professionals engaged in lobbying elite power holders to the grassroots people's organizations through which development's victims are working to recreate their lives and communities.

As the transformation movement moves into this new stage, more conventional and established NGOs face still another challenge. To be engaged in policy advocacy and education on the environmental and social issues that are redefining the development debate is no longer sufficient. The movement's strength is increasingly found in its community roots and in the experience of those who live with the consequences of development's failure. What is emerging is not an NGO movement, but rather a true grassroots people's movement grounded in voluntary commitment and action. Presumably there will continue to be important supporting roles for professionalized NGOs, but perhaps the changes they must undergo to regain their relevance will be even more far reaching that we have to date realized. We may all have a lot to learn from the Thai NGOs as we face this challenge.


David C. Korten is president of the People-Centered Development Forum and Visiting Professor of the Asian Institute of Management. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum, MCC P.O. Box 740, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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