INSTEAD OF GROWING ECONOMIES LET'S DEVELOP HUMAN SOCIETIES

PCDForum Column #71,  Release Date April 20, 1994

by Sarah L. Timpson

The process we call "development" has produced many positive achievements in the areas of health, literacy, and reduction of infant mortality. Unfortunately, it has also aggravated mass poverty, inequality, social disintegration, environmental decline and loss of moral values. UNDP's Human Development Reports give ample evidence of these trends.

Many of the detrimental consequences of development can be traced directly to a narrow "economistic" vision that views the growth of the economy as an end and the meeting of social needs as a means something to be taken care of to enhance economic performance. We focus our attention on "economies" rather than "societies," and assess the extent to which investments in "human capital" will pay dividends in terms of economic growth, instead of asking when and under what conditions economic growth contributes to human development.

The economistic vision ignores many key aspects of human well-being that lack a market value social cohesion, a sense of belonging, community, the accountability of government to people and the strength of the society's cultural, moral and spiritual values. Many people are now asking whether many of the economic gains are worth the related social costs.

Thailand is currently held up to the world as an example of development success. Its economic growth rate rose to 12 percent in the late 1980s. Since 1960 it cut population growth in half, added 16 years to life expectancy, and made significant advances in adult literacy and other educational indicators.

Yet crime, child abuse and prostitution are also growing rapidly in Thailand. Deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction are undermining the basis of rural life. AIDS is spreading faster than any where else in the world. A quarter of Bangkok's residents live in slums in one of the world's most polluted, traffic-clogged cities. Bangkok itself is slowly sinking into the ocean as its underground aquifers are depleted. More than 200 people were killed in a pro-democracy demonstration in 1992 an indicator of growing social tension.

All around the world economic growth has been accompanied by growing marginalization, unemployment, frustration, alienation, violence and terrorism. The cost of UN refugee programs has grown accordingly as the number of the world's refugees increased from 2.8 million persons in 1976 to 18.2 million in 1992. UN peace-keeping costs have nearly tripled since 1991.

We need a new development vision focused on societies, incorporating attention to the political, institutional, cultural, social, environmental and moral aspects of development and addressing the economy as an instrument of society rather than the other way around. UNDP has taken a first step in this direction with its concept of "sustainable human development," a vision of development that seeks the equitable distribution of growth's benefits, provides all people with sustainable livelihood opportunities, empowers people to take charge of their destinies, and regenerates the environment.

The issues that economistic development ignores have been the focus of several recent UN Conferences on the Environment, Education, Water, Nutrition, Children, and Human Rights. They will receive further attention in forthcoming conferences on Population, Women, and Social Development all of which seek a social or people-centered vision of development.

The elimination of deprivation in all its dimensions including economic poverty, political marginalization, social discrimination, cultural rootlessness, and ecological vulnerability is central to such a vision. The process of eliminating deprivation depends fundamentally on the democratic participation of people. People, ordinary people, must exercise responsibility for defining problems, analyzing causes and setting priorities taking an active role in guiding both their own affairs and those of the state. No other path can restore the essential social fabric and institutions of civil society that economistic development has so severely damaged.

However, this will require inverting the traditional processes by which donors and governments set goals and agendas and then invite people to participate in their implementation. Governments and donors will both need to learn new modes of working. Governments must learn to function as facilitators and consensus builders. Donors must learn to provide information, experience and funding in ways that support both governments and civil societies in their new roles. Such changes will not come easily, in part because they require governments and donors to relinquish considerable power in favor of the people.


Sarah L. Timpson is Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Programs and Policy, United Nations Development Programme, New York, NY; and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on a presentation she made in La Paz, Bolivia, 29 November 1993.

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