PCDForum Column #44,   Release Date November 20, 1992

by David C. Korten

Evidence mounts almost daily that the global economy is systematically
impoverishing the majority of earth’s people and destroying its environment. Yet
official development agencies continue to issue endless calls for greater
commitment to the very prescriptions that are deepening the crisis, assuring us
that eventually they will provide relief.

Even these prescriptions are presented only in fragments, mixed with
countless competing messages. In a given day a citizen may hear exhortations to:
Consume less to save the environment! Consume more to stimulate the economy!
Support free trade! Buy local products! Faced with such conflicting advice the
public is left hopelessly confused and immobilized. There is a great need to
provide the public with credible guidance in understanding the differing
assumptions and perspectives that lie behind contradictory prescriptions such as

Occasionally an official publication holds forth seeming promise of
penetrating the veil of the establishment’s view of the politically correct.
UNDP’s influential annual Human Development Report series is an example.
Unfortunately, the HDR slips into a now familiar pattern established by an
equally promising document, the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future.
An insightful analysis tellingly penetrates the carefully cultivated myths of
development orthodoxy, but the recommendations affirm the myths adding to the
public’s confusion, and all but destroying the document as a useful guide to
policy reform. Specifically, the HDR presents compelling evidence that:

  • A high level of national income is neither necessary nor sufficient to
    achieve a high level of human development.
  • Because of misplaced priorities, current foreign assistance programs are
    contributing little to human development and poverty alleviation.
  • Even the poorest countries have the financial resources to meet the basic
    needs of all their citizens without foreign financial assistance if they were
    willing to limit military and other non-essential spending.

Less well documented, but equally accurate, are its observations that:

  • Wealthy countries must reduce their profligate consumption to release
    environmental resources for use by those in need in poor countries.
  • Free and open trade and investment in an unequal world work primarily to
    the benefit of the economically strong.
  • Sustainable development depends on eliminating financial and environmental
  • Greater attention to human rights, wide participation in political life,
    and transparency and accountability in public administration are essential to
    improved human well-being.

These are important contributions to the foundations of an alternative
development framework that places people and ecology ahead of transnational
capital and wealthy consumers. They raise significant hope that UNDP might offer
an effective counter force within the UN system to the flawed analyses and
destructive prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF. Unfortunately, the UNDP
capitulated, hopelessly diluting its path breaking analysis with policy
recommendations that might well have been taken right out of World Bank/IMF
documents. The following are direct quotations.

  • "No sustained improvement in human well-being is possible without
    growth." (1991, p. 14) The study’s analysis provides strong support for
    exactly the opposite conclusion. Indeed that is its major contribution.
  • "Global markets should be liberalized both in goods and services, to
    accelerate global growth and to ensure much better distribution of this growth."
    (1992, p. 9) It earlier asserted such action would increase inequality.
  • "Tariff and non-tariff trade barriers imposed by industrial countries
    cost developing countries about $40 billion a year in lost export revenues."
    (1992, p. iii) This implies rich countries should be consuming more, rather than
    less, of the resources of the poor countries,
  • "…the international community must strengthen its support to global
    human development…through increasing aid…" (1992, p. iii) Its analysis
    shows very little aid goes to human development and would not be needed at all
    if recipient countries set appropriate priorities.
  • "[The World Bank] might develop new lending instruments to recycle
    funds better from industrial to developing countries." (1992, p. 10) This,
    of course, would increase developing country debt.
  • "The International Monetary Fund should be strengthened to enable it
    to impose adjustment programmes not just on developing countries but also on
    industrial nations." (1992, p. 10) "The GATT Secretariat would…be
    more effective if it had a small executive board…[with] sufficient regulatory
    clout." (1992, p.10) The IMF and the GATT are already among the world’s
    most powerful, nontransparent, and unaccountable institutions. What happened to
    the importance of human rights and political participation?

No wonder the public remains confused and frustrated. When even those few
studies that profess an independent and critical analysis lapse into development
double speak to appease establishment pressures to remain politically correct,
where are responsible citizens to turn for credible alternative perspectives? It
is time to challenge agencies such as UNDP to be more courageous in providing
much needed alternative leadership within the official system.

David C. Korten is a fellow of the People-Centered Development Forum.

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