Published in Development, 1990:3/4, pp. 170-73 by the Society for International Development

by David C. Korten

The decade from which we have just
emerged, the 1980s, was a time of growing recognition that we live in a world in
profound crisis–a world of increasing
poverty, collapsing ecological systems,
and pervasive communal violence. An
awareness is dawning that these are not
isolated problems. They represent three
seemingly distinct, yet interrelated global
crises. Each is to some extent both cause
and consequence of the others. Each
points to important institutional failures,
including the failure of four decades of
official international development commitment. These crises are lead indicators that
our institutions and our development strategies have not kept pace with our changing global reality.

A Turning Point in Human History

Historians may well look back on the
1980s as one of the most significant and
abrupt turning points in human history.
The decade represents a historical moment
in which society passed beyond the critical
threshold of earth’s tolerance for the
burdens human activity placed on its ecosystem. The result is a crisis that cannot
be resolved by the fine tuning of economic
policy. It requires a rapid and fundamental
transformation of our institutions and
values driven by an alternative vision of
development and the human future.

The decade of the 80s not only
revealed the need for this transformation,
but also set the stage for its realization. In
1988, the environment became a media
event and the veil of our collective ecological innocence was lifted. In 1989, the
communist empire in Eastern Europe
collapsed and the rationale for much of the
North’s massive military establishment
evaporated almost overnight. Democracy
became the media event of that year. The
failure of the visible hand of the state as
the answer to the human dilemma was
ruthlessly exposed. Each of these events
represented a crucial step that created new
possibilities for human society.

Blaming the Victim

As former socialists began turning to the
invisible hand of the market as their hope
for prosperity, capitalism, with unseeming
haste, boldly proclaimed its victory, assuring us that the free market would save the
world from poverty and restore the environment through economic growth.
Among others, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many of the
world’s most influential political leaders
told us that poverty is the root cause of
environmental destruction because “Poverty reduces people’s capacity to use
resources in a sustainable manner;”(1) that
redistribution of existing incomes is politically infeasible and the only way to reduce
poverty is through overall increases in
economic output; and that future growth
in the economies of poor countries depends on accelerating growth in the rich
countries. In short, according to those
who dictate economic policy, we best
serve the poor and the environment by
helping the rich become richer.

The initial premise of this argument
is, however, seriously flawed. A wealthy
person typically consumes many times
more resources than does a poor person
and generates commensurately greater
waste. The wealthy, to meet the resource
demands of their extravagant wants, have
commandeered the more productive and
environmentally stable resources for their
own use and driven the poor to the margins of the ecology for their subsistence.
This does not make the poor the cause of
the problem. Such claims are a classic
case of blaming the victim.

Both history and logic make it self-evident that the environmental problem
cannot be resolved by further increasing
the economic power of the rich and thereby their demand for still more ecological
resources. To the contrary, a resolution
depends on reducing the environmental
resource demands of the rich to allow the
poor sufficient ecological space to produce
a decent and sustainable livelihood in a
resource constrained world.

Three Painful Options

No matter how much we may wish it were
otherwise, we cannot escape a brutal
reality. Economic growth, as we have
known it, is highly correlated with stress
on the environment. While steps are being
taken to weaken that correlation, we have
yet to eliminate it. Available evidence
suggests that the world’s over-consumers
are now stressing the global ecology to its

This leaves global society with three
basic policy options.

1. Press for continued conventional
economic growth in both North and
South, hope the overwhelming evidence that we are overloading our
ecosystem is false, and risk the
consequences of accelerating ecological system failure.

2. Seek to slow economic growth and
attempt to maintain the status quo
in the allocation of earth’s environmental resources–including the gap
between over and under-consumers.

3. Promote a global transformation of
human values and institutions that
dramatically reduces the demands
that the over-consumers of both
North and South 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

Option one will likely push us to ecological collapse. Option two will almost certainly destroy the legitimacy of our social
institutions and spark a massive escalation
of random violence by those who are
denied hope of social and economic justice. Option three is the only truly pragmatic choice, as it is the only choice in
which anyone wins. In fact everyone
stands to gain. Yet, the difficulties of its
implementation can scarcely be exaggerated. It requires a fundamental transformation of our vision of development and
of the institutions and policies by which
we approach it.

Competing Visions

Most of us have been conditioned
throughout our lives to a growth-centered
vision of development that equates human
progress with increases in economic output. Our political leaders and most of the
institutions that set the directions of economic policy have been similarly conditioned. Prevailing views of development
policy derive directly from this vision. It
gives us a shared conventional wisdom
that accepts a number of assumptions
largely without examination. For example:

  • Poverty results from inadequate
    growth, which in turn results from
    inadequate capital investment.
  • Economic efficiency is enhanced by
    increasing specialization, scale of
    operation, and international trade,
    and by removing restraints on the
    free operation of the market.
  • The contribution of a person to
    society is measured primarily by
    his or her participation as producer
    and consumer in the marketplace.
  • When raw material inputs command prices above their marginal
    cost of extraction, it is an indication
    of market failure.

In pursuit of the growth-centered vision,
Southern countries are advised to remove
all barriers to the free flow of goods and
capital across their boarders and give
priority to export production. The United
States is taking this line of reasoning a
step further and is attempting through the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
(GATT) to turn these prescriptions into
international law. The implications are

History has demonstrated that the
market is a powerful and essential mechanism for mediating the allocation of society’s resources. But history has also demonstrated that the market’s limitations
must be openly acknowledged and compensated. For example, the market responds best to the relatively short-term
interests of those who control wealth. It
gives no voice to the poor and the environment.

When a nation gives up its right to
regulate the flow of goods and capital
across its borders, it essentially gives up
the right to regulate its own economy. Its
own industry finds itself competing with
industries located in countries where
subsistence wages, sub-standard working
conditions, and an absence of environmental regulation are the norm.(2)

The transnational corporation is left
with complete freedom of action. Impersonal, stateless, and increasingly unaccountable to anyone, it is the ultimate
absentee owner. It has little stake in the
health and well-being of either the local
people or their ecology and is free to
move when more attractive opportunities
are presented elsewhere. Small local
producers with a tie to the community find
themselves engaged in a highly unequal
competition for local markets and resources. Even tax revenues are lost as the
transnational shifts local profits, through
accounting manipulations, to other jurisdictions.

Growing numbers of citizen groups
around the world are recognizing the need
to orient development policies toward an
alternative vision that is people-centered
rather than growth-centered. This vision is
grounded in principles that lead to quite
different policy choices and outcomes. For

  • The first priority in the use of
    earth’s resources should be to allow
    all people an opportunity to produce
    a basic livelihood for themselves
    and their families.
  • Those who own or control productive resources have a stewardship
    responsibility to society and to future generations.
  • Current generations have no right
    to engage in levels of nonessential
    consumption that deprive future
    generations of the possibility of
    sustaining decent human living
  • Every individual has the right to be
    a productive contributing member
    of family, community and society.
  • Sovereignty resides in the people.
    The authority of the state is granted
    by the people and therefore may be
    withdrawn by them.
  • Local economies should be diversified and reasonably self-reliant in
    producing for the basic needs of
    local residents.
  • Localities should depend on trade
    relationships to obtain those basic
    needs that cannot reasonably be
    satisfied through local production
    and for goods that are not essential
    to the basic health and well-being
    of the community.
  • People have a right to a voice in
    making the decisions that influence
    their lives, and decision making
    should be as close to the level of
    individual, family and community
    as possible.
  • Local decisions should reflect a
    global perspective and an acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship.
  • International agreements should
    facilitate ready access to technologies that enhance the sustainable
    productive use of environmental
    resources by all who might benefit
    from them.

The people-centered vision embraces a
strong sense of community and of pride in
place and heritage. Its adherents commonly speak of participatory political and
economic democracy grounded in strong
grass-roots organizations. Increasing the
opportunity and ability of people to control and use local resources to meet their
own needs becomes the locus of development action. Policy action is directed to
this end.

Development as a People’s Movement

Forging a new collective consciousness
around an alternative to the growth-centered development vision means creating
a new way of thinking and acting among
people on a global scale. It is an ambitious
agenda for which most of our formal
institutions, as creations of the growth-centered vision, are poorly equipped.
Indeed these institutions inhibit such transformation by rewarding only behavior
consistent with the established vision.
They have a capacity for adaptive change
within the assumptions of that vision, but
reject transformational changes that challenge it.

The leadership for societal transformation must necessarily come from individual citizen volunteers whose values and
sense of their own empowerment free
them from dependence on conventional
economic and political rewards. Raising
the consciousness of the global citizenry
and mobilizing people’s inherent capacity
for voluntary action in the cause of transformation may be the single most important task of the professional development
worker of the 1990s. The process must
lead hundreds of millions of the earth’s
citizens to confront the contradictions
between their own politics and lifestyles,
and the realities of life on a finite planet;
to clarify their values, their sense of what
is truly important in their lives; and to
recognize their individual and collective
strength and potential for constructively
transforming the institutions that dominate
their lives. The process must engage rich
and poor alike, and embrace the linkages
between local and global realities.

Authentic people-centered development cannot be achieved by governments
on behalf of the people. It must be
achieved by the people for themselves. As
with the other great social advances of our
time, it must be achieved through the
practice of citizen democracy, through a
people’s movement driven by a compelling social vision.(3) Indeed transformational
change of the scope and depth required
will be possible only through a grand
alliance of the environmental, peace,
human rights, women’s rights, and consumer rights movements–all of which
depend for the realization of their social
vision on a similar global transformation
of values and institutions. Voluntary organizations of all nationalities and representing many differing social commitments
have a central role to play in building and
supporting this alliance.

The Development Agenda

The logic of our environmental and social
reality leaves us little choice but to define
the development agenda of the 1990s in
terms of an institutional transformation
aimed at a radical reallocation of environmental resources from non-essential to
essential uses. Given the consequences of
doing otherwise, we cannot start by asking, “What is politically feasible?” We
must be coldly pragmatic and ask, “What
is necessary for global survival?” We
must then work to make the answers to
that question politically feasible.

The following are essential elements
of such an agenda for citizen action.

Peace and demilitarization: Military expenditures consume a substantial portion of earth’s ecological
resources for purposes that contribute little to human well-being. State
sponsored violence, including state
sponsored terrorism and insurgency, is one of the world’s leading
causes of human suffering. The transformation movement
should work to create a public
norm that repudiates war and other
forms of state sponsored violence
as instruments of national policy. It
should also press for a drastic reduction in arms expenditures, international trade in arms, and international military assistance.

Life styles: Ultimately each community and each nation must learn
to live within its own environmental
means without exporting its environmental costs to others. In the overconsuming nations
the movement should work for a
drastic reduction in total national
consumption of environmental resources leading to the virtual elimination of dependence on imports of
environmentally extractive resources and the export of wastes
and pollution. This will require
personal, community, and national
level actions aimed at dramatic
changes in life-styles, recycling
practices, and the organization of
agriculture and industry.

Asset ownership: All people have
a basic human right to have access
to the productive resources required
to achieve a humanly decent livelihood. They also bear an obligation
to serve as stewards of these resources. Wherever practical, people, in their role as producers,
should own or control the assets on
which their livelihood depends.
Such control should not be vested
in either a massive, impersonal
bureaucratic state, or a stateless,
non-accountable transnational corporation. The movement should work
for the redistribution of ownership
and control over environmental and
other productive assets to reduce
absentee ownership, advance economic democracy, and promote
local control. It should also seek to
establish in both public consciousness and the law the principle that
rights to the ownership and use of
environmental and other productive
resources carry an obligation of

International political and economic relationships: Sovereignty
resides in the citizen, not in the
state. No government that imposes
and maintains its rule by force merits acceptance as the legitimate
representative of a subjugated people in the community of nations.
Transformation depends on citizen
action within self-governing communities consistent with the principles of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. Their rights to exercise this responsibility must be recognized and
protected. The movement should seek a
public consensus that full diplomatic recognition and UN membership
are due only to states whose leaders
are freely elected and protect the
basic human rights guaranteed by
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should further seek
to assure that agreements regarding
international trade and investment
relationships: (1) encourage and enable local self-reliance in meeting basic needs; and
(2) assure the right of citizens
through their own freely elected
governments to regulate their own
economic affairs and to set minimum standards for their health,
safety, and environment.

Advanced Technology: Information has the distinctive quality of
being a resource that is non-polluting and is not depleted by its use.
Advanced information-based technologies are an essential key to
improving the quality of life while
reducing our collective burden on
the ecology. While necessary incentives to insure continued research to
develop such technologies and their
application must be preserved, the
world’s people cannot allow a few
countries or corporations to monopolize the fruits of that research. The movement should seek
reforms in international law and
practice assuring that beneficial
technologies are widely shared and
readily available.

In September 1990 the world’s leaders
met to sign a convention guaranteeing the
rights of the world’s children. It is a worthy commitment. That convention, however, will be meaningless without broad
recognition that a great deal more than the
provision of vaccines, oral rehydration
packets and other services is required to
assure the right of the world’s children to
a fulfilling life.

Nor will these rights be assured by
either the visible hand of the state or the
invisible hand of the market. We, the
people of planet earth–rich and poor,
educated and uneducated, North and
South, East and West–through our individual and collective action, have created
the crisis that condemns millions of children to misery and death, and threatens
the future of us all. We must resolve it in
the same way, by personally and collectively assuming responsibility for our own
actions and their consequences for life,
present and future, on spaceship earth.

The development agenda of the
1990s must be an agenda of transformation–aimed at creating an institutional
framework for a new type of development
that enriches the human spirit, builds
community, enhances economic justice,
and preserves the life sustaining systems
of our planet. The leadership toward that
end must be provided through voluntary
citizen action on a massive scale.


1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 49.
Similar statements may be cited from reports of the World Bank, USAID, and other international agencies.

2. See Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the
Environment and a Sustainable Future
(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989); and James Robertson, Future Wealth: A New Economics
for the 21st Century
(London: Cassell Publishers, Ltd., 1990.

3. See Frances Moore Lappe, “Building Citizen Democracy,” Institute for Food and Development Policy, 145 Ninth Street, San
Francisco, CA 94103.

Back ] Home ] Parent Page ]