PCDForum Column #40     Release date July 20, 1992

by Paul Ekins and David C. Korten

The discussions of the UNCED Earth Summit in Rio
were interspersed with frequent references to a new
world order. Indeed it was easy to miss the underlying
issues of the debate without a guide to the three
competing new world order visions that shaped it.

First was the free market new world order
defined by the unfettered forces of an integrated global
market place. Its advocates sought to assign global
oversight functions to the Bretton Woods institutions–the World Bank, the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Trade and
Tariffs (GATT)–which function under the control of the
Western industrial nations.

Though often equated with the spread of
democracy, the “free” market bestows freedom only in
proportion to one’s wealth. It provides abundant
freedom for the 23 percent of the world’s people in
both North and South who control 85 percent of the
world’s income–and who were well represented in the
official UNCED debates. It has precious little to offer
the rest–who were poorly represented there.

The second version of the new world order,
best described as a free market with reparations
model, is roughly equivalent to the New International
Economic Order many Third World countries demanded in the 1970s. While accepting most of the
underlying premises of the free market order, it calls in
addition for institutional measures to promote greater
distributive justice between (though not necessarily
within) nations. This is to be accomplished through
improved terms of trade and massive financial transfers from high to low-income countries. The United
Nations, in which the South has a strong voice, is
generally favored for international administrative

While they have clear differences, both of these
new order visions are firmly grounded in a homogenizing Western concept of development as the pursuit of
an affluent American lifestyle. Both envision predominantly top-down decision-making–by the owners and
managers of transnational capital in the free trade
model, balanced by interventions of international and
national bureaucrats in the reparations model. Both
are fundamentally elitist in that neither places store on
consultation with, let alone decision-making by, ordinary people in their communities.

Generally the positions taken in Rio by official
delegates of the Northern industrial nations were
grounded in their vision of a free market order. Official
delegates from the South differed primarily in their
demand for massive financial payments as environmental reparations. Though shrouded in the pious rhetoric of
concern for the poor and the environment, these debates took place largely between Northern and Southern
elites and centered on which elites would reap the major
benefits from envisioned environmental investments and
who would pay the bills.

In the end the official debates in Rio Centro called
only for variations on an old and well established world
order. For more interesting debates one had to travel
across town to Flamingo Park, where 2,500 NGO and
people’s organization representatives were engaged in
constructing a grassroots new world order. These
discussions took as their point of departure a consensus
that a world order committed to elite privilege is the
primary barrier to ecological sustainability, economic
justice, and full participation by all people in community

The organizing principle of the grassroots order is
neither market nor state, but civil society–networks of
families, communities and voluntary associations
engaged in social reproduction, reconstruction, and
reform. This new order envisions a world united in
celebration of the richness of its cultural diversity in
which the economic dimension of human development
is holistically integrated with the social, ethical and

Which of these three visions of the new world order
offers the best prospect for maintaining the health of
earth’s ecology and offering all of earth’s people the
opportunity for a fulfilling life? There is only one convincing answer: the dominant thrust must be toward the
grassroots new world order. Only a dynamic civil society
can resolve the failures and inequities of the market and
democratize the state, enabling both to contribute
broadly to human welfare.

Given the immense power of today’s concentrations
of wealth, and the remoteness of most governments
from their people, one may feel despair at the prospect
of the independent, non-violent associations of civil
society being able to harness the forces of the market
and the state to the common good. But in 1989 we saw
proof positive in the peaceful revolutions in Eastern
Europe and the Soviet Union that civil society can
overturn seemingly omnipotent structures. The outcome
in this case remains uncertain, but the worldwide
popular mobilization so much in evidence in Rio gives
legitimate and inspiring grounds for hope.

Paul Ekins is a research fellow, Department of Economics,
Birkbeck College University of London, London, U.K.,
research director of the Right Livelihood Award, and a
contributing editor of the PCDForum. David C. Korten is a
fellow of the PCDForum, which prepared and distributed this

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