May 17, 1994 

Reflections on SID's 21st World Conference
By David C. Korten

For me, the defining moment of SID's 21st World Conference came during the discussion period of the Closing Plenary on "Building Partnerships and Collaboration Towards Global Transformation," late Friday afternoon, April 8, 1994. A representative of the indigenous peoples of the Mexican province of Chiapas obtained recognition from the chair.

For the first and only time during the conference, we were hearing an authentic voice of the world's poor and marginalized, specifically a voice from a group that only a few months earlier had declared war on the Mexican government as an expression of its discontent. Without accusation or rancor, he spoke as a plain and simple man of the desire of his people to have the opportunity to free themselves from poverty. He spoke of foreign aid that had never reached the poor. He spoke of the love of his people for the land, the trees, and the ocean. He spoke of their desire to share their ideas as fellow human beings, to have their existence recognized, to be accepted as partners in Mexico's development. He spoke of the people's call for a new order in which they might find democracy for all.

The Chiapas rebellion served as a powerful metaphor for this SID Conference. Mexican political analyst Gustavo Esteva had pointed out to the conference participants that the Chiapas rebellion was distinctive among previous guerrilla struggles in Latin America and elsewhere in that it was not aimed at seizing state power. Rather it was aimed at securing the right of people to govern themselves within the borders of their own communities. The Zapatistas did not call on other Mexicans to rise up in arms, but rather to participate in whatever way they could in a broad social movement for jobs, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. Their goal was to shift the balance of forces in Mexico in favor of popular and democratic movements. Esteva suggested that it might be viewed symbolically as the "first revolution of the twenty-first century," a manifestation of a broad and growing struggle of people everywhere for economic and political sovereignty and survival within their own localities. In this sense it might be called a conservative revolution by ordinary people seeking to get powerful governments and corporations off their backs.

When the speaker from Chiapas finished, the vast majority of those present in the conference hall of the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel rose to their feet in applause. The session chair and two of the three panelists, who had just spoken to us of partnership and collaboration, each affiliated with a governmental or official agency, sat above us on the official dais in stone-faced silence. Their silence was a stark reminder that in SID, much as in the broader society, those who hold formal power do not always support or identify with the aspirations of those who make up the vast bulk of the broader society.

Even so, the voice of the Chiapas people did reach the participants in the 21st SID World Conference through a variety of channels. Equally significant, the aspirations of the Chiapas people and the similar aspirations of billions of their contemporaries around the world were acknowledged by speaker after speaker as creating a newly emergent social and political force destined to reshape human societies well into the 21st Century. Based on the experience of social movements in India, Smitu Kothari drew two conclusions identical to those of Esteva: such movements are no longer focused on the take over of the state, but are rather are demanding democratization and protection of their local space; and they no longer look to government to meet their needs, but instead focus on asserting their control over their own decision making and their own livelihoods. Thierno Kane from Senegal offered similar observations on popular movements in Africa. This was a fundamental insight repeatedly affirmed by the 21st SID World Conference.


The conference agenda itself affirmed the potentially sweeping implications of the shift. Indeed, we may well look back on this Conference in future years as having marked a long over due turning point in the global discourse on the development enterprise. The conference organizers had made a clear choice to shift the dialogue from the usual focus on economies and their growth to people and the health of their societies.

This may have been the first major international development conference in recent memory in which the prevailing mainstream development ideology of economic growth, free markets, and economic globalization favored by most official agencies took a backseat to discussions of equity, local self-reliance, social movements, livelihoods, culture, gender, low impact agriculture, sustainable energy use, environmental balance, community economic and social transformation, democracy, accountability, transparency, and partnership. More than any previous SID World Conference, it provided a forum to explore practical, non-mainstream perspectives born in the efforts of ordinary people the world over who are taking back responsibility for their lives from the mega-institutions of society that cannot respond to their interests.

Important Differences Revealed

This shift in emphasis brought to light important issues that the dialogue up to this point has tended to obscure. The conference agenda was structured with the implicit assumption that terms such as people-centered development, human-centered development, and human development were essentially synonyms for broadly shared commitments to alternative development strategies aimed at realigning the development enterprise around people and their interests. For a number of us an uncomfortable realization unfolded during the course of the conference discussions. The assumption was accurate only to the extent that the schools of though associated with these different labels share a belief that improving human well-being should be the central task of development. Yet this basic point of agreement masked fundamental differences in analysis leading to almost diametrically opposed positions on a wide range of basic policy issues. I believe it is important to bring these differences into the open in the hope that we can work together toward their resolution. If they cannot be resolved, then at least the ensuing debate may help us clarify important issues, make our respective assumptions more explicit, and enrich the public discourse.

Three Clusters of Consensus

What some of us saw revealed in the Mexico City discussion is that there are currently three major clusters of consensus within the development profession regarding the nature of the development problem and the desired directions of policy action. Two of these three clusters lay claim to being the socially conscious alternative to mainstream development thought and practice. The differences among them largely define the leading issues of the contemporary development debate.

  • The Washington Consensus. This is the mainstream perspective. It finds its leadership in the Bretton Woods institutions--the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT/WTO--and strongly supports their efforts to impose economic globalization from above by deregulating and opening national economies using structural adjustment programs and trade and investment liberalization agreements.(1) Members of this consensus generally share an ideological commitment to free markets and free trade. They applaud the growing power of market institutions and the weakening of governments, promote the expanded control of transnational corporations over capital, markets and technology, and favor strengthening the Bretton Woods institutions as instruments of global economic governance. The Washington Consensus has elevated economic growth and free trade to the level of primary purpose as its proponents advocate policies that place growth and trade above other human values and public policy goals.
  • The People-Centered Consensus.(2) This consensus stands in fundamental opposition to the mainstream perspective. Deeply rooted in the institutions of civil society, it has no geographical center and as yet no clear proponent within the official donor establishment. Many of its leading proponents are linked in common cause through the International Group for Grassroots Initiatives (IGGRI), the People-Centered Development Forum, and other citizen alliances. The People-Centered Consensus originally emerged from a concern that the development model of the Washington Consensus is hopelessly and irretrievably flawed and a fundamental cause of the world's spreading social and environmental disintegration. In their search for alternatives, proponents of the People-Centered Consensus have subsequently evolved broadly shared value commitments to economic and political decentralization, the right of people to organize, to control their own lives, to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and to have a means of livelihood.

Most proponents of this consensus share a belief in the sacred unity of life, accept the natural limitations of the earth's finite eco-system, and favor cultural diversity, local self-reliance, and local self-determination within a larger framework of global cooperation. Recognizing that universal replication of the consumer society is impossible on a finite planet, members of the People-Centered Consensus generally believe that the first test of the performance of any economy is its ability to provide all its participants with opportunities for sustainable livelihoods adequate to assure their basic needs.

While recognizing the necessary role of markets, the People-Centered Consensus also recognizes essential roles for government and civil society and insists that the interests of people must in the end take precedence over the interests of either the state or the corporation. It stands in fundamental opposition to a pattern of economic globalization that concentrates economic power in the hands of a few dominant corporations largely beyond the reach of public accountability.

  • The Human Development Consensus. Often treated as synonymous with the People-Centered Consensus, the Human Development Consensus is more appropriately viewed as a socially conscious variant of the Washington Consensus. It finds its major leadership in UNICEF and the Human Development Report unit of the UNDP. While sometimes presenting itself as a UN alternative to the hegemony of the Bretton Woods sponsored Washington Consensus, what it offers is more accurately described as adding a social dimension to the Washington Consensus rather than offering a true alternative. Basically it shares the belief of the Washington Consensus in economic growth through free and open markets. The major difference is that it also gives a high priority to the need for mechanisms to support a massive redistribution of income from the free market's winners to the free market's losers. It generally sees a major role in this redistribution process for UN bureaucracies--like the UNDP and UNICEF.

The people and institutions that define the Human Development Consensus have played a leading and highly constructive role in calling attention to the global social crisis comprised of deepening poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a disintegrating social fabric. They have also focused attention on the destructive wastefulness of military expenditures and international arms sales, and on the human destruction wrought by the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank. In these ways proponents of the Human Development Consensus have made a substantial contribution to drawing attention to the failure of policies advanced by the Washington Consensus. Yet ironically the Human Development Consensus has given renewed legitimacy to many of these same policies and thus perpetuated many of the fundamental contradictions of mainstream development thought and practice that the People-Centered Consensus has attempted to expose and counter. While the larger agenda of the People-Centered Consensus is transformational, that of the Human Development Consensus is reformist.


The fundamental differences between the people-centered and human development perspectives have been obscured by the fact that they share important ideas and values in common. In his Barbara Ward Lecture, Mahbub ul Haq, one of the foremost contemporary spokesperson for the Human Development Consensus, affirmed many of their areas of commonality.

For example, Haq called for a search for models of development that enhance human life, treat GNP as a means rather than an end, replenish natural resources for future generations, enhance equity through structural reforms and encourage grassroots participation of people in the events and processes that shape their lives. He called for a new partnership between North and South based on justice rather than charity, and mutual cooperation rather than unilateral conditionality. He noted with alarm a wide range of examples demonstrating that a disintegrating social fabric is a leading threat to human security, acknowledged that global markets are not automatic mechanisms for achieving justice for all nations or all people, and concluded that global institutions are needed to set rules and redress widening disparities. He pointed with approval to the emergence of a global civil society created by the actions of people from the grassroots who are standing up to authoritarian regimes and bending them to the popular will and announced the arrival of the age of people. These are all basic elements of the People-Centered Consensus.

Yet at the same time, the Human Development Consensus advocates prescriptions that from the perspective of the People-Centered Consensus contradict its own analysis. The following are important examples:

  • Economic Growth. While the Human Development Consensus adds a number of social objectives to the development agenda, it considers economic growth to be the foundation of its social agenda. According to Haq, "To address poverty, economic growth is not an option: it is an imperative." He expresses concern for the environment, but in the end argues that the needs of people must take precedence over the needs of the environment.

A proponent of the People-Centered Consensus would note that because our very lives depend on the environment, a healthy environment is one of the most fundamental of human needs. Furthermore, sustained economic growth in a finite eco-system is an impossibility. In contrast to Haq's imperative, they would more likely say "To address poverty in a world with a finite eco-system, a reallocation of control of the earth's environmental resources from the rich, whose consumption is often extravagant and wasteful, to the poor, who are struggling to obtain basic livelihoods, is not an option: it is an imperative." Equity, not growth, is the fundamental issue. Ironically, the UNDP Human Development Report produced under Mahbub al Haq's intellectual leadership presents some of the most powerful empirical support currently available for the People-Centered Consensus contention that the link between economic growth and human well-being is at best tenuous.

  • Global Governance and Structural Adjustment. Similarly, proponents of the Human Development Consensus sometimes reveal an ambivalence about democracy and commonly lament the weaknesses of the Bretton Woods institutions and the fact that the World Bank and IMF don't have the clout to impose structural adjustment on Northern countries. For example, Haq observed that "...the rich nations are resisting any such adjustment as their democratic institutions often force on them a paralysis of policy action." Apparently Haq in this instance views democracy as the enemy of effective policy action.

The People-Centered Consensus generally takes the position that the World Bank and IMF are highly undemocratic institutions that have inappropriately usurped many of the governance functions of Southern countries. Furthermore, their structural adjustment programs have increased poverty, environmental deterioration, social disintegration, and the gap between rich and poor in nearly every Southern country in which they have been introduced. Extending the reach of these undemocratic institutions and their destructive policy reform programs to Northern democracies hardly seems a positive goal. To the contrary, the need is to render these institutions democratically accountable, transform their guiding philosophies, and undo the enormous damage that their ill-conceived policies have inflicted on the geographical South.

  • The GATT and the Growing Power of Transnational Corporations. Human Development Consensus proponents take a position on the GATT similar to their position on structural adjustment. Its problem, in their view, is that it is not strong enough to force Northern democracies to fully open their markets to more imports from the South. They seldom reveal any awareness or concern that the processes of economic globalization being advanced by trade treaties is leading to enormous concentrations of economic and political power in the hands of a small number of transnational corporations and financial institutions.

The People-Centered Consensus considers the central issue in trade negotiations to be whether control over local economies will reside with the people or with the world's largest and least accountable corporations. It considers the growing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporations beyond accountability to people or governments to be a serious threat to democracy and a serious barrier to progress toward equity and environmental sustainability. It observes that the major beneficiaries of open markets in either North or South are the transnational corporations that are thus given increasing scope to structure economic relationships to their own short-term advantage without regard to consequences external to the corporate bottom line. Rather than pressing Northern countries to further open their markets to Southern economies that are already excessively geared to meeting Northern needs, proponents of the People-Centered Consensus argue that the search should be for policies that strengthen local economic control and self-reliance, and break up global corporate empires to restore economic competitiveness to monopolistic markets.

  • Asset Reform versus Welfare Transfers. While the Human Development Consensus makes occasional reference to the need for land reform and other forms of asset redistribution, it primary recommendations for corrective policy action center on calls for increasing welfare transfer payments within and between countries. The call for increased foreign aid is a striking contradiction of its own quite accurate assertion that very little of existing foreign aid benefits poor people.

While the People-Centered Consensus recognizes the need for social safety nets, it believes that issues of equity must be resolved primarily through a more just distribution of control over productive assets, including land, fisheries, forests, technology, and investment capital. Foreign aid, which basically transfers foreign exchange credits to poor countries to increase their purchases from abroad, often increases external economic dependence. To meet the basic needs of their own people the greatest need for poor countries is control over their own environmental resource base--too much of which is currently dedicated to supporting the unsustainable consumption of overconsumers in wealthy countries.

  • Death of the Nation State. There is at least one significant development on which all three consensus clusters are in basic agreement: the nation state is dying and with it the idea that people exist to serve the state and its elite. The more optimistic speakers in Mexico City, including proponents of the Human Development Consensus, saw this old and outmoded idea being replaced by a new idea, the idea of a civil state that exists to serve the people built on the foundation of a strong and politically active civil society within a cooperative global community of citizen governed and accountable states. 

    The People-Centered Consensus shares this vision as an ideal, but notes an important reality that the Human Development Consensus overlooks--globalization from above is moving rapidly toward a very different outcome. In fact nation states are being replaced by a global corporate state in which governance functions are consolidated under an alliance comprising the world's largest corporations and the Bretton Woods institutions. The guiding premise of the corporate state is that people exist to serve an economy geared primarily to the interests of a small, super-wealthy global corporate elite beyond the reach of civil accountability.
  • Capital Flows and Labor Migration. Proponents of the Human Development Consensus often call for larger flows of private foreign investment to Southern countries. Noting that capital has become free to move internationally without barriers, they commonly argue that labor should have comparable rights to unrestricted international mobility. They not, as did Haq in his Mexico City address, that restrictions on migration are an unwarranted restriction on the foreign exchange earnings of poor countries.

To members of the People-Centered Consensus increasing the ownership and control of Southern economies by transnational corporations that seek only their own short-term profits results primarily in the further displacement and exploitation of the poor. Furthermore, encouraging massive movements of desperate, disenfranchised workers uprooted from emotional, social, and cultural ties to community and place in search of employment at whatever price employers are willing to pay as a means of earning foreign exchange so that the elites of their home countries can import more military arms and luxury goods is hardly a progressive measure. To the contrary, it represents the ultimate commodification and dehumanization of working people and the final destruction of what may remain of the social fabric on which human civilization depends.

On each of the above issues the Human Development Consensus and the People-Centered Consensus take nearly opposite views as to what actions are most likely to lead to the goals they largely share in common. The difference between them reveals an important fact. The Human Development Consensus has made its major contributions in documenting significant elements of the global social crisis. However, its analysis has seldom gone beyond documenting the misallocation of public budgets. It has no underlying political or economic theory. It thus, by default, falls back on an uncritical acceptance of the theory of the Washington Consensus and legitimates the policy prescriptions--that by the logic of the People-Centered Consensus--are the cause of the social crisis it documents.


Four observations from historical development experience provide a point of departure for the analysis underlying the People-Centered Consensus.

  • Growth. Aggregate global economic output has already increased more than fivefold since 1950, yet poverty, environmental destruction, and social disintegration have concurrently increased. The weight of evidence suggests that aggregate economic growth is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for resolving these conditions.
  • The Social Economy. Economic growth has been achieved in part by monetizing or shifting to the market many functions related to meeting basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, child care, health care, education, physical security and entertainment once performed by households, families and communities. These functions, most often performed by women, were not recognized or counted so long as they were performed within the social economy. Once shifted to the market they are counted as output, however, the market has in turn priced these functions beyond the reach of many--whose well-being has declined accordingly. With their functions co-opted, the human institutions that maintain the social fabric have atrophied. Insecurity and violence have increased. Restoring many of the non-market functions of household and community, with necessary attention to gender balance and equity, and strengthening affective linkages with place and community, are fundamental to restoring the social fabric so essential to human well-being and security.
  • Eco-System Limits. Aggregate global economic output has already expanded to the point that the economy's demands on the eco-system in many instances exceed sustainable limits. Under such conditions, economic growth driven by free market forces speeds the breakdown of the eco-system's regenerative capacities and intensifies the competition between rich and poor for environmental resources--a contest that in a market system the rich always win. Continued calls for economic growth ignore a basic reality, i.e., that the human economy is imbedded in and wholly dependent on the eco-system. The search for greater equity to assure a decent life for all within the sustainable limits of the eco-system, not growth per se, is the necessary human project at this point in history. Such equity necessarily depends on shifting the allocation of ecological resources from the production of non-essentials for over-consumers to the production of essentials to meet the basic needs of everyone.
  • Globalization from Above. A process of economic globalization and market deregulation imposed from above through structural adjustment and trade treaties such as the GATT is rapidly shifting more and more economic decision making power from governments to the world's largest corporations, which are accountable only to the interests of their largest stockholders. This has effectively removed constraints on the concentration of monopoly power and is undermining the processes of democratic governance everywhere in the world. It is also weakening social and environmental standards as localities the world over are pitted against one another in a race to the bottom to attract footloose investors by offering larger social and environmental subsidies than their neighbors have offered. A move toward equity and sustainability requires that these trends be reversed through policies that decentralize and distribute economic power, root capital in place, and increase local economic self-reliance within a framework of community responsibility and ecological balance. This is not a call for isolationism, but rather for a process of globalization from below controlled by people and rooted in a sense of spiritual connection to place and community.

The People-Centered Consensus recognizes the fundamental truth, commonly neglected by the conventional economics of the Washington Consensus, that the health and sustainability of human economies depend on the regenerative capacities of natural eco-systems and the webs of social relationships that define human communities. The People-Centered Consensus therefore calls for investing not only in maintaining, but as well in strengthening, both.

Governance as a Defining Issue

The presentations made in Mexico City by James Robertson and other leading proponents of the People-Centered Consensus demonstrated that governance issues currently rank as perhaps the central current concern of this consensus. In whose hands does power reside and how is it used? To what extent do governance structures separate decision making power from the consequences of decision? These concerns respond to growing evidence that the problems of poverty, unemployment, a disintegrating social fabric, and environmental deterioration reflect in part the lack of democratic accountability of society's most powerful institutions. Furthermore, it considers the growing unaccountable power of transnational capital to be the central governance issue of our time, though it is scarcely mentioned in mainstream dialogue. Responding only to the internal dynamics of unregulated markets, these corporations are shedding workers, depressing wages, displacing people from their homes and means of livelihood, and externalizing their environmental costs, while at the same time extending their control over ever more of the world's capital, markets, and technology. As globalization from above has stripped national governments of much of their power to direct their own economies, these corporations have become the de facto managers of the global economy and have achieved inordinate influence over political processes almost everywhere.

This trend can be reversed only to the extent that people everywhere begin to exercise their rightful sovereignty by withdrawing legitimacy from those corporations that abuse the powers vested in their charters and from the public instrumentalities that have aligned with their interests. For this reason if development does not advance mass democracy, then it is not sustainable, people-centered development. When power resides in institutions that are unaccountable to the people, they serve only the power holders. The powers of the state and the corporation are legitimate only when they serve the people and they will serve the people only when they are accountable to an alert and politically active citizenry.

The Many Faces of Democratic Governance

Along with the insight that sustainable people-centered development depends on democratic governance has come a parallel insight that such governance involves a great deal more than holding fair and free elections. The following are among the many examples gleaned from various of the Mexico City presentations:

  • Markets freed from governmental restraint increase the freedom of those with the most wealth to impose their will on those with less wealth. Contrary to common belief, in the absence of economic equality, "free" markets are inherently undemocratic and inefficient. Market economies function most efficiently when they conform to Adam Smith's vision of a society with broadly distributed economic power in which each buyer and seller is too small to influence the market price and capital is local. Markets cannot themselves maintain these conditions essential to their efficient and democratic function without the intervention of strong democratically accountable governments that truly represent the broader public interest.
  • Economic globalization shifts decision making power from governments to corporations, rendering democratically elected governments relatively impotent and leaving it to the market to set societal goals. In healthy democratic societies the goals are set by governments accountable to a strong and politically active civil society. The market is used as an instrument for the implementation of social goals, not for setting them.
  • Similarly, a globalized and marketized economy is shifting institutional power at the global level away from the United Nations, in which governance is at least partially open and democratic, and toward the Bretton Woods institutions--GATT, the IMF, and the World Bank--which take a narrow economistic view of the public good and whose governance is tightly closed, undemocratic, and gives precedence to corporate over human interests. The institutions of Bretton Woods must be subordinated to and made accountable to the United Nations, which is relatively more democratic and has a broad mandate to deal with trade-offs among a wide range of public policy priorities..
  • A system that makes people's livelihoods dependent on their ability to compete with people of other nationalities on the far side of the world in the production and sale of goods and services not strictly essential for a decent life creates unnecessary and inappropriate local dependence on economic forces beyond local control and shifts power from people to transnational corporations. Local self-reliance in the creation of livelihoods to meet basic needs is an essential foundation of a global system of democratic governance grounded in people's sovereignty.
  • An economic system that defines economic progress in terms of what takes place in the sphere of men, the market economy, biases governance in favor of men and against women--who have traditionally had the leading roles in the social economy. The social economy must be recognized in a democratic society and men must make a greater contribution to that economy.
  • Those who determine what a society will measure, implicitly define its goals. The selection of measures must be democratized.

Economies are Governance Structures

One obvious implication of the above list is that governance structures are inseparable from economic structures. It is especially important to be clear, as pointed out by Manfred Max-Neef, James Robertson and Robert Costanza, that while markets are an extremely useful instrument for implementing goals, letting markets set the goals for human societies inevitably means biasing the goals in favor of those who have the most money.

Free trade agreements such as GATT and NAFTA are really free investment agreements, assigning new rights to investors vis a vis the rights of people and governments to regulate the uses of capital. As such the most important consequences of contemporary trade agreements are their governance consequences--the shifting of power from governments, democratically elected or otherwise, to the institutions that dominate the globalized markets. Contrary to the myth that the freeing of markets from regulatory restraint enhances the power of people vis a vis the state, deregulation and globalization more surely transfers the power of the state, which has at least an implied responsibility for the general public good, to large corporations that acknowledge no such responsibility. Thus the fights over GATT, NAFTA, APEC, and Maastricht are in fact defining moments in a long historical struggle for basic human rights against the abuses of concentrated institutional power.

Foreign aid, especially as administered through the multilateral banks, has served to shift the accountability of recipient governments away from their citizens and toward the banks themselves--usurping governance functions and undermining democracy. The multilateral banks have been the major source of power and financial support that have kept corrupt and unaccountable governments in place and deprived local people of the political space they need to take control of local resources and responsibility for their own lives. As pointed out by Mazide N'Diaye, all too often aid has in fact been an instrument of commercial penetration that has consolidated control over domestic resources in the hands of foreign financial interests.

Globalization from Below

The Mexico City deliberations affirmed that the forces of globalization from above are provoking a broadly based social and political backlash. This energy is born of the common experience that the current ongoing process of globalization from above is spreading social and ecological devastation everywhere it reaches. Awareness of the commonality of this experience is raising consciousness that unless people of all nationalities join in a mutual effort to protect the rights and standards of all, the forces of globalization from above will bid these rights and standards down to the lowest common denominator.

The resultant awakening of civil society is sparking the most profound revolution in human history. This revolution may be characterized as a process of globalization from below through which people are taking back responsibility for their lives, withdrawing legitimacy from those institutions that have denied the peoples' sovereignty and their basic rights to livelihood and security, and joining in international alliances to raise human, labor and environmental standards in all localities.

As noted earlier, this revolution is unlike previous historical revolutionary movements in that it is not fundamentally a contest for state power. Rather it is a spreading demand by people for the political space to reconstruct the institutions of an interdependent world from the bottom up. Furthermore, this revolution is at once more local in its roots and more international in its consciousness and alliances. The intent and method of this revolution is predominantly peaceful, though if the pent-up social energies are consistently thwarted by illegitimate authority, the potential for violence is always there--as the experience of Chiapas has demonstrated.

Manifestations of the emergent political transformation are seen at every hand to such an extent that they were noted at the Mexico City conference even by speakers who normally have little contact with or interest in popular movements and who revealed little understanding of the underlying forces that motivate them. The People-Centered Consensus is largely a creation of these forces and the political energy of the consensus is derived from them. The women's movement is a key player in this popular political transformation, and comprises its possibly most powerful political constituency. The growing strength of indigenous people's movements is another core element because indigenous people possess an important source of knowledge on which the reconstruction must be built.


Many proponents of the People-Centered Consensus take a special interest in the language of the development discourse and how it shapes the perception of issues and options. During the Mexico City dialogue they devoted much of a parallel network meeting organized by the People-Centered Development Forum and IGGRI to examining the distinction between "jobs" and "sustainable livelihoods" within the context of the three priority concerns of the forthcoming World Summit for Social Development: poverty, employment, and social integration.

According to an English dictionary definition, a job is a specific piece of work, as in one's trade; an activity performed in exchange for payment. A livelihood is a means of living or of supporting life; of obtaining the necessities of life.

In general usage, discussing the problems of poverty, employment, and social integration in terms of jobs brings to mind policies intended to expand consumption and entice corporate investors to fund projects that provide jobs to increase incomes and bind people into the fabric of the market economy. It reinforces the logic of growth, free trade, and foreign investment that has exacerbated the very crisis we seek to resolve.

Discussing these same very real and fundamental problems in terms of sustainable livelihoods tends to evoke an image of sustainable human societies that:

  • Assure all their members an opportunity for meaningful contribution to meeting the needs of family, community and society;
  • Secure all people against involuntary deprivation;
  • Discourage consumption patterns beyond an equitable per capita share of sustainable ecosystem output;
  • Structure production processes so that ecological resources are used in sustainable ways; and,
  • Contribute to maintaining a strong and dynamic fabric of cooperative human relationships.

Shifting the discourse to address the employment crisis in terms of a need for sustainable livelihoods opens up the discussion to constructive and innovative possibilities otherwise excluded. This in turn leads logically to a very different set of policy options favoring:

  • Local, rooted, and patient capital;
  • Small family, worker or community owned economic units oriented to producing goods and services that meet the needs of local people;
  • Allocation of productive resources to meeting basic needs for all as a first priority;
  • Internalizing full production costs in market prices, including social and environmental costs;
  • Local self-reliance based on resource conservation and reuse;
  • Formation of eco-communities engaged in the sustainable management of local eco-system resources; and
  • Performance of many economic and social functions through cooperative efforts of family and community outside of the market.

Such is the power of words and their implications for choices facing the leaders of the Social Summit as to how they address the very real social crises they have identified as priorities.


The SID was formed in a more innocent day when development was conceived as a bold global project to bring universal peace and prosperity to the world. While there were issues, it was not far off the mark to assume that the development professionals who joined together under the SID membership umbrella represented a broad consensus regarding the nature and merit of the development enterprise. Now we are forced to confront the troubling and as yet not widely recognized reality that this enterprise has been transformed into an epic struggle for political sovereignty between the people-power forces of globalization from below and the powerful financial interests pressing for globalization from above. For the most part, though they may voice a value commitment to people-power, the mainstream aid agencies that provide much of SID's funding are committed to policies that align more solidly with the agenda of the world's largest corporations than with the people's agenda.

It would seem that in selecting the agenda for its 21st World Conference SID made an implicit choice, perhaps without a full recognition of the issues or their implications, to align itself with the forces of globalization from below. That Conference generated a discussion that has now enhanced our awareness of the issues involved in such a choice and our understanding of the implications in ways that could prove very uncomfortable to SID. Where do we now stand in light of that enhanced awareness? How will we respond? These are fundamental and uncomfortable questions that now face SID's governing council.


1. Some do not consider the GATT/WTO to be a Bretton Woods institution, though the Bretton Woods conference did call for the creation of an international trade organization that led to creating the GATT and now the World Trade Organization. The GATT aligns with the other Bretton Woods institutions on most issues, resides outside the jurisdiction of the United Nations, and adheres to the same secretive and undemocratic governance practices under the dominance of the G-7 as the other Bretton Woods institutions.

2. Commonly referred to as people-centered development, development has been dropped here because important elements of the people-centered consensus believe that the term conveys meanings at odds with the values espoused by the consensus.

Back ] Home ] Parent Page ] Next ]