PCDForum Column #10 Release Date March 4, 1991

by Ron Léger

Humankind has made extraordinary advances in the past
few decades in science and technology, and in its ability
to tap the riches of Earth’s ecology. These advances allow
a few of us to live in a style that once would have been the
envy of kings and queens. Unfortunately, however, an
increasing majority of humanity is clearly not benefiting–and they know it. How long can we continue to pretend
that the poor need only be patient, giving the free market
and the state sufficient time to achieve the additional
economic growth that will allow a more equitable allocation of the benefits of economic and scientific progress?
Do we have the courage to consider the possibility that the
source of the growing gap between rich and poor may lie
in the cherished assumptions underlying our very vision of

We hold firmly to the idea that economic growth is the
key to human progress, committing all our natural,
financial and human resources to this goal, even as our
disregard of long-term cultural, economic and ecological
consequences results in the greed-driven destruction of
our environment and the bonds of human community. Yet
the wants of the rich seem ever more insatiable–even as
the needs of the poor for basic food, clothing and shelter
remain unmet. It is time to acknowledge that continued
exponential growth in the demands we place on our
environment and major economic and social inequality are
both inherently unsustainable in a finite and interdependent world.

Our approaches to aiding the poor are similarly flawed,
in part because they generally assume that growth is the
ultimate objective. More subtle, and even more insidious
in its consequences, is the implicit assumption that those
who are already “developed” have the wisdom, resources,
and responsibility to develop those who are not. Development practice thus proceeds as if the “underdeveloped”
have little or nothing to contribute to their own advancement. When this practice fails, as it has in dramatic
measure during the past decade, the approach itself is not
questioned. Rather the wealthy–in both North and
South–respond with the curious apology: “If only we
were richer we could help to develop you more. Please
remain patient… As our wealth grows, we will become
better equipped to lift you from your poverty.”

 We are long overdue for a different way of thinking
about development–for a people-centered vision–that
recognizes the centrality of people and embraces three
absolute values.

1. Life has inherent meaning and value beyond the
possession of goods.
Authentic development must
contribute to the actualization of that meaning in its
social, intellectual, and spiritual–as well as its material–dimensions.

2. Sovereignty resides in people. People must be the real
actors for change. Development must be their creation;
it cannot be transferred to or bestowed on one people
by another.

3. Community is basic to human well-being. We become
fully human only through nurturing our sense of
responsibility for one another and for earth through our
participation in family and community life. It is here
that we learn the joy of sharing our knowledge, our
love, and the songs and poems that express our insights
into the deeper meaning of life and the wonders of the

The leadership toward a new vision, a new mode of
working for human progress, and a new development
economics and management that embodies equity, ethics,
ecology and community as integral concerns must spring
from the people themselves. The youth of the world, who
have a special stake in the global future, and women, who
better feel the interconnectedness of issues and people,
should have a central role. This is not a task primarily for
private and public aid agencies. They are generally better
equipped to coordinate and administer than to develop
new visions centered on people and respect for Earth.

To continue to treat international cooperation as
something done “out there” by official and private aid
agencies is to deny the very nature of the problem and the
inherent need to strengthen, on a global scale, the sense of
interrelatedness of people and issues and the shared
responsibility of every person for the stewardship of our
global village. The new international cooperation must be
rooted in a sense of community and mutual responsibility
among people on common issues. Both abject mass
poverty and large-scale ecological degradation must
increasingly be treated as national security and equity
issues. Those “aid” agencies that survive as relevant will be
those that prove effective in respecting, giving space, and
supporting the people of the world in such cooperation.


Ron Léger is director of the Management for Change Program
of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and
in his personal capacity is a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and
distributed by the PCDForum based on Léger’s draft paper
“Development Cooperation for Whom and for What Purpose.”
He may be contacted through CIDA, 200 Promenade du Partage
Hull, Quebec K1A 0G4, Canada.

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