PEOPLE-CENTERED DEVELOPMENT: PRINCIPLES FOR A NEW CIVILIZATION

PCDForum Column Article #7,  Release Date May 20, 1994

by James Robertson

We are presently in a transition towards a new post-modern and post-European civilization, much as Europeans were in transition 500 years ago from the medieval to the modern era. People-centered development is about facilitating this transition to a new civilization a sharp contrast to more familiar forms of development that have taken their mission to be the modernization and Europeanization of the world.

New civilizations are characteristically defined by what they reject of the civilizations they replace. Thus it is entirely appropriate to define the principles of a people-centered civilization in terms of opposites to the principles of modern Euro-American civilization that it rejects. The following are eight such rejected principles and their people-centered opposites.

1. Wealth confers legitimate power over other people. People-centered development rejects the concept of modern development that originated in countries like Britain when the common people were pushed off the land and turned into paid laborers and employees dependent on those richer and more powerful than themselves. It believes in economic justice and democracy through policies that favor small producers, cooperatives, and worker- or community- owned corporations.

2. Progress and development are products of the ever-increasing exploitation of the Earth by people who have knowledge and power as "lords and possessors of nature." People-centered development rejects the anthropocentric humanism of the Enlightenment. It values people's cultural and spiritual respect for the places and natural systems, including the Earth and the Universe itself, to which people belong. It holds that, insofar as the natural environment belongs to anyone, it belongs to all people not just to the rich and powerful.

3. Economic activities form an impersonal system governed by deterministic natural laws, to be understood "scientifically" and conducted as if personal, ethical and spiritual values are not fully relevant to them. People-centered development rejects the intellectual split between economics and the moral sciences and the belief that an invisible hand automatically turns greed into a public benefit. To the contrary it believes that economic choice involves inevitable moral responsibility and that markets serve best as instruments for achieving personal goals and public policies, not as determinants of them.

4. Only those things that can be counted have value and money is the only valid measure of value in public life. People-centered development believes that what is of greatest value often cannot be counted or appropriately valued in monetary terms such as life itself. Economics is considered to be a tool to be used in the service of higher values.

5. The world economy is a system of competing national economies. People-centered development rejects the idea obviously absurd, but still generally taken for granted that people's livelihoods appropriately depend on the ability of their national economy to compete with other national economies on the far side of the world in the production and sale of goods and services which are not strictly essential for a decent life. People-centered development views a properly functioning world economy as a multilevel, decentralizing system, so organized that the function of each level enables the levels "below" to develop in a people-enabling and environment-conserving direction. This system includes the household and the local community levels which are ignored in modern economic understanding.

6. Economic progress takes place in the sphere of men, and is based on masculine drives and values. People-centered development recognizes that the development roles and stakes of women and children and elderly people too are as important as those of adult males. It also recognizes the role of the social economies of the household and local community in creating real wealth.

7. Economics is separate from politics. People-centered development recognizes that different people have different interests, and that economic policy decisions are inevitably political decisions. It asks on each occasion, "Who will get the benefit and who will incur the cost and the risk?" It recognizes that pseudo-objective calculations of a single overall balance between economic benefits and costs, or benefits and risk, are spurious. It rejects the idea that economic institutions can operate outside a framework of political and social choice.

8. Trade-offs have to be made between economic freedom and efficiency on the one hand and social well-being and ecological sustainability on the other. People-centered development recognizes that these supposed tradeoffs are usually conflicts of interest between different people. It rejects the kind of economic freedom espoused by proponents of "free markets" and "free trade" that makes some people free to diminish the freedom of others. It likewise rejects the centralized regulation of the command economy and the social democratic consensus of corporate elites in a conventional "mixed economy." In their place it seeks to create institutions that enable all people to develop the capacity to meet their needs and the freedom to do so, in ways that enable others to do the same. Believing that economic efficiency must be defined by the goal to be achieved, it addresses questions of economic efficiency in terms of the optimal allocation of resources to best achieve social goals.

The following are illustrative of priority actions required at three levels to advance the wider application of people-centered development principles.

1. Global Governance. Global governance mechanisms must be restructured so that economic concerns will be balanced with other public policy priorities under democratic control and accountability. The present structure of global governance leaves the setting of global economic policies largely in the hands of the Bretton Woods institutions the World Bank, IMF and GATT which function in secret beyond the reach of democratic accountability and place corporate and economic concerns ahead of social and environmental concerns. The 50th-anniversary UN reform initiatives should give a high priority to bringing the Bretton Woods institutions within the main UN structure to function under the jurisdiction of the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Secretary-General. Within that more democratic and transparent policy-making framework, global policies on trade, aid and investment, as now framed and carried out by GATT, the IMF and the World Bank, can be considered within the larger context of social and environmental concerns, a fundamental step toward people-centered development.

2. National Policies. It is vitally necessary that national policies, especially in rich-countries, be reoriented to support people-centered, ecologically sustainable development. This would be in the interest of the entire world, including the citizens of the rich countries. For example, systems of subsidies and taxation must be restructured to discourage pollution and waste of resources, reduce the costs of employing people so that more jobs will be created, and enable people to do useful and rewarding unpaid work as an alternative to paid employment.

3. Local Economic Self-Reliance. Greater local economic autonomy and self-reliance are important features of people-centered development. Local currencies will be one of its instruments. Why should local people have to earn national currency, regulated in accordance with national monetary policies, in order to be able to engage in purely local transactions between themselves, using local resources to meet local needs? A purist might see the LETS (Local Exchange Trading System), through which a group of people issue their own money to support transactions between one another, as the only genuinely people-centered monetary instrument. But a variety of kinds of local currencies, issued by local government authorities (and perhaps also by local community enterprises and local businesses), will certainly have their part to play in local people-centered development in the coming years.

For most of us who live in Western industrialized countries, the top priority will be to help reorient our own countries toward people-centered development and thereby reduce the burdens that our economies place on the resources available to less wealthy nations. By doing so, we will be working for a better future for ourselves while at the same time contributing to the efforts of friends and colleagues working for people-centered development in other parts of the world.


James Robertson, is an independent writer, speaker and consultant, a founder of The Other Economic Summit (TOES), and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. He may be reached at The Old Bakehouse, Cholsey, Oxon OX10 9NU, UK; tel: (44-491) 652-346. This article was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his presentation to the 21st World Conference of the Society For International Development, Mexico City, April 1994. His latest book is Future Wealth: A New Economics For The 21st Century, 1990.

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