PCDForum Column 2#,   Release Date November 1, 1990

by David C. Korten

During the past year I have given presentations all around
the world on a basic theme. We live in a world in crisis, a
world of increasing poverty, environmental destruction, and
communal violence. This crisis is of our own making, a
result of too many people making too many demands on the
ecology of a small planet. The key to human progress is not
growth–it is the transformation of our values and institutions in ways that will allow all people to live well and
within our collective means, but without extravagance.

Embracing Uncomfortable Truths

Though growing numbers of people are coming to similar
conclusions, it is not a comforting message, nor one we hear
from our leaders or the advertisers who control our media.
Each time I present this conclusion to a new audience I half
expect to be booed and thrown out into the street. Yet, much
to my surprise, the message is generally embraced, almost
with a sense of relief that someone is articulating what many
people feel in their hearts to be true. The truth, unpleasant as
it may be, combines with the remarkable examples we have
seen of the potentials for rapid and significant change in
contemporary society to give people hope, a sense that the
individual can make a difference.

In 1988, the world embraced the environment. In 1989,
Eastern Europe embraced democracy. Perhaps we, the
world’s over-consumers, are now ready to embrace the reality
that the survival of our civilization depends on working to
assure all people the opportunity for a full and decent life, in
part by giving up our consumerist life styles and decreasing
the demands we place on the ecology of our living planet.

The Voluntary Agency

Many voluntary agencies concerned with the poor of the
South have built their programs around the premise that the
key to poverty alleviation is an increased flow of money and
commodities from the haves of the North to the have-nots of
the South. This assumption is held not only by Northern
agencies, but also by many Southern agencies that act as
conduits of this charity.

However, growing numbers of voluntary sector leaders,
particularly from the South, are saying that the real problem
is extravagant and wasteful Northern lifestyles maintained
by the systematic extraction of environmental and financial
resources from the South. The solution depends on reducing
the extraction.

 We are well familiar with the pattern. Four countries–the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and West
Germany–with a combined total of 14 percent of the
world’s population, account for more than 50 percent of
the world’s consumption of commercial energy and
important metals. Ships loaded with toxic wastes from
the North roam the earth looking for dumping sites in the
South. The United States, with roughly 5 percent of the
world’s population, generates nearly 24 percent of the
carbon dioxide emissions that we expect the people of
the South to absorb through the preservation of their

When we in the North return a bit of our excess
pocket change to the South through international charities, we relieve our guilt, confirm our superiority, and
maintain the dependence of the recipient. We do not
alleviate the poverty and dependence that our over-consumption exacerbates.

Development Education

Development professionals, including those who staff
voluntary agencies, have generally treated the education
of their constituencies regarding the development problems of the South as a secondary concern. Development
education was considered important primarily as a means
of assuring financial contributions for voluntary organizations and public support for official international
assistance budgets. As we redefine the nature of the
development problem, we must also reconsider the nature
and role of development education.

Rather than asking only for passive contributions,
we must now seek the active engagement of broad citizen
constituencies as agents of policy, institutional, and
lifestyle changes in each of our respective societies–both North and South. This is basically a development
education agenda, or more accurately an educational
agenda for global transformation. Rather than being
peripheral to the real business of the voluntary agency, it
becomes the core business, the priority.


David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and the author of Getting
to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global
(West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990).
This column is contributed by the People-Centered
Development Forum.

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