PCDForum Column #70,  Release Date February 1, 1994

by Anwar Fazal

World leaders recently congratulated themselves on the successful conclusion of a new agreement to free the global flow of trade and investment under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The agreement, heralded as an important step toward freeing the market to unleash the forces of global economic growth, is now awaiting ratification by national parliaments. Transnational corporations clearly benefit from each move toward global economic integration. The implications for the world's people, especially those who are most in need, are another matter. We know all too well from long and bitter experience who benefits when the rich and powerful compete with the poor and powerless in a free and open market. But the implications of this simple fact are not being adequately examined in these discussions.

Other critical issues are neglected as well. For example, nearly everyone, especially in Southern countries, supports the demand that Northern countries should accept increased food and textile imports from Southern countries based on the argument that this will provide jobs for the poor. Yet this argument also neglects larger issues.

Why is it necessarily a good thing in a resource scarce world to use the labor of poor people in poor countries to produce clothing to be shipped around the world, using the world's scarce energy reserves, for use by people in rich countries who already have more clothes than they need? It is really very wasteful. Wouldn't it be better if Third World people were making clothing for people in their own countries who really need it? Likewise, should Third World farm land be used to generate profits for transnational agribusiness corporations by producing delicacies for overweight Northerners when that same land could be used by Third World farmers to employ themselves growing food needed by hungry, malnourished people in their own countries?

People-centered development is really about people developing themselves and their country based on the strengths and resources of their own country and community. One should be very, very circumspect of foreign investment and borrowing. One should ask specifically what kinds of skills and technologies are needed from abroad. There may be a variety of ways to produce what is really needed that build on the foundations of what the country already has.

Just opening up to foreign investment can be destructive in two ways. First, it can create a situation of a "borrowing culture" which leads to mortgaging a country's own assets to foreign interests for short-term benefits. Second it invites the exploitation of a country's natural wealth by foreign interests, which often is also against the country's own long-term interests.

This is why it's a contradiction for large international lending agencies like the World Bank to maintain that they promote people-centered development. Encouraging people to borrow large amounts of money from abroad to buy foreign products and hire foreign experts does not build strong, self-reliant, self-determining local entities that can negotiate with other places on an equal basis. Therefore it is inappropriate to call what the World Bank and similar institutions do either people-centered, or necessarily even developmental.

Many of our national governments suffer from a poverty of vision. Prodded by organizations like the World Bank they look abroad for short-cut alternatives to building local self-reliance and self-determination. It seems so easy to borrow abroad or to turn to transnational corporations to provide jobs, manage services, and decide what goods will be available in local markets. They don't think about whether involvement of transnationals will build local capacities and the values of community which are far more important than the limited short-term gains that transnationals bring.

One of the few truly hopeful signs for our collective future is the growing strength of people's movements working together around the world to rebuild local economies around community values, to create a people-centered culture of harmony, stewardship, and accountability. People are realizing that if you want to see change, then you have to stand up and make that change happen. It is not going to come on its own.

Literally thousands of citizens' organizations have emerged over the last decade in response to the failure of our dominant institutions. These are not traditional charities and community development organizations. These are a new breed of citizen's organization dedicated to changing society through citizen action. They are forging a new vision of the human future. Governments would be well advise to acknowledge their contribution and to embrace their vision.

Anwar Fazal is coordinator of Asia-Pacific 2000, a UNDP supported project on community initiatives on the urban environment, and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. His address is 18 Solok Pierce, 10350 Penang, Malaysia. Fax (60-4) 368-269. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his article of the same name in Multinational Monitor.

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