PCDForum Column #3,   Release Date November 5, 1990

by David C. Korten

The first ten years of my career in development were
devoted to preparing managers for the businesses that
would mobilize underutilized resources, turn them into
the products that people need, and bring the world
universal prosperity. Trained at the Stanford Business
School, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and
involved in the establishment of business schools in
Ethiopia and Central America, I was deeply committed
to the then unexamined assumption that economic
growth is the key to human progress.

Ironically, the longer I live in the Third World and
the more deeply I become involved in the issues of
poverty, the more I confront the disturbing possibility
that our obsessive preoccupation with growth may in fact
be the key to explaining not only the deepening poverty
of so many of the world’s people, but also the growing
crisis of environmental destruction and communal
violence. I also become increasingly skeptical of the
arguments of the leading advocates of growth–including
the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, many
of the world’s most influential political leaders, and even
the Brundtland Commission. They tell us, for example,

  • Poverty is the root cause of environmental destruction because it reduces people’s capacity to use
    resources in a sustainable manner.
  • The only way to reduce poverty is through overall
    increases in economic output because redistribution
    of existing incomes is politically infeasible.
  • Accelerating growth in the rich countries stimulates
    the demand for the exports of poor countries and
    thus is the best way to accelerate their growth.

The issues are complex and the messages often contradictory, but the underlying argument appears to be that
we best serve the poor and the environment by enriching
the rich. Thus stated, the argument becomes so blatantly
self-serving and contrary to reality that I keep asking
myself whether I have misheard or misunderstood. Is it
possible that a poor person consumes more resources and
generates more waste than a rich person? That there are
ample environmentally stable resources to satisfy the
wants of everyone without limit and that people of
wealth have the inherent wisdom to use these resources
responsibly? That, as our economies grow, we place less
stress on the environment? Always I end up with the
same conclusion: it is the ever growing demand of the
wealthy for more and more resources that depletes our
environment and pushes the poor to ever greater social
and ecological desperation.

If true, we are left with a substantial dilemma. If we
continue to press for conventional economic growth in
both North and South, we deny the overwhelming evidence that we are overloading our ecosystem and risk a
high probability of accelerating eco-system failure and
eventual collapse. If we stabilize our use of earth’s environmental resources and moderate growth accordingly but
attempt to maintain the current allocation of those resources, we deprive the
under-consumers of any hope for
social and economic justice. This will destroy the legitimacy of our social institutions, and spark an escalation of
random violence that no amount of investment in military
hardware and law enforcement could suppress.

Growing numbers of concerned citizens around the
world are realizing that neither option will produce
acceptable consequences. They conclude that we have
little choice but to promote a global transformation of
human values and institutions that dramatically reduces
the demands the over-consumers place on the environment
and gives the poor (the under-consumers) precedence in
the use of the resulting resource dividend to achieve a
decent human existence.

Since our most powerful leaders and institutions seem
irrevocably committed to the business of growth as usual,
change depends on the voluntary action of millions of
informed citizens concerned for the future of their children
and the global community. To so act, however, they must
be engaged in a debate that examines fundamental assumptions to which we have been conditioned throughout
our lives. A number of voluntary agencies are already
active in engaging this debate, drawing from their own
experience to challenge the prevailing wisdom. Hopefully
many others will add their voices as they recognize the
significance of the issues at stake.


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 Agenda
(West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990). This
column is contributed by the People-Centered Development

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