PCDForum Column #40     Release date July 20, 1992

by Paul Ekins and David C. Korten

The discussions of the UNCED Earth Summit in Rio were interspersed with frequent references to a new world order. Indeed it was easy to miss the underlying issues of the debate without a guide to the three competing new world order visions that shaped it.

First was the free market new world order defined by the unfettered forces of an integrated global market place. Its advocates sought to assign global oversight functions to the Bretton Woods institutions--the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT)--which function under the control of the Western industrial nations.

Though often equated with the spread of democracy, the "free" market bestows freedom only in proportion to one's wealth. It provides abundant freedom for the 23 percent of the world's people in both North and South who control 85 percent of the world's income--and who were well represented in the official UNCED debates. It has precious little to offer the rest--who were poorly represented there.

The second version of the new world order, best described as a free market with reparations model, is roughly equivalent to the New International Economic Order many Third World countries demanded in the 1970s. While accepting most of the underlying premises of the free market order, it calls in addition for institutional measures to promote greater distributive justice between (though not necessarily within) nations. This is to be accomplished through improved terms of trade and massive financial transfers from high to low-income countries. The United Nations, in which the South has a strong voice, is generally favored for international administrative functions.

While they have clear differences, both of these new order visions are firmly grounded in a homogenizing Western concept of development as the pursuit of an affluent American lifestyle. Both envision predominantly top-down decision-making--by the owners and managers of transnational capital in the free trade model, balanced by interventions of international and national bureaucrats in the reparations model. Both are fundamentally elitist in that neither places store on consultation with, let alone decision-making by, ordinary people in their communities.

Generally the positions taken in Rio by official delegates of the Northern industrial nations were grounded in their vision of a free market order. Official delegates from the South differed primarily in their demand for massive financial payments as environmental reparations. Though shrouded in the pious rhetoric of concern for the poor and the environment, these debates took place largely between Northern and Southern elites and centered on which elites would reap the major benefits from envisioned environmental investments and who would pay the bills.

In the end the official debates in Rio Centro called only for variations on an old and well established world order. For more interesting debates one had to travel across town to Flamingo Park, where 2,500 NGO and people's organization representatives were engaged in constructing a grassroots new world order. These discussions took as their point of departure a consensus that a world order committed to elite privilege is the primary barrier to ecological sustainability, economic justice, and full participation by all people in community life.

The organizing principle of the grassroots order is neither market nor state, but civil society--networks of families, communities and voluntary associations engaged in social reproduction, reconstruction, and reform. This new order envisions a world united in celebration of the richness of its cultural diversity in which the economic dimension of human development is holistically integrated with the social, ethical and ecological.

Which of these three visions of the new world order offers the best prospect for maintaining the health of earth's ecology and offering all of earth's people the opportunity for a fulfilling life? There is only one convincing answer: the dominant thrust must be toward the grassroots new world order. Only a dynamic civil society can resolve the failures and inequities of the market and democratize the state, enabling both to contribute broadly to human welfare.

Given the immense power of today's concentrations of wealth, and the remoteness of most governments from their people, one may feel despair at the prospect of the independent, non-violent associations of civil society being able to harness the forces of the market and the state to the common good. But in 1989 we saw proof positive in the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that civil society can overturn seemingly omnipotent structures. The outcome in this case remains uncertain, but the worldwide popular mobilization so much in evidence in Rio gives legitimate and inspiring grounds for hope.

Paul Ekins is a research fellow, Department of Economics, Birkbeck College University of London, London, U.K., research director of the Right Livelihood Award, and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. David C. Korten is a fellow of the PCDForum, which prepared and distributed this column.

Back ] Home ] Parent Page ] Next ]