PCDForum Column #13 Release Date April 20, 1991
by Gustavo Esteva
January 20th, 1949 was a momentous day for human society. This was the day
that President Truman, in his inaugural address, called for "…a bold new
program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial
progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas."
In a mere instance two billion people became "underdeveloped,"
stripped of their dignity and the richness of their cultural diversity,
homogenized and redefined in terms of what they were not.
Seldom has a new term gained such instant acceptance or more thoroughly
transformed how major elements of human society perceive themselves. From that
day forward roughly two-thirds of earth’s people have found themselves in a
struggle to escape from the undignified condition called underdevelopment. Yet
development’s constant press for economic efficiency in a resource scarce world
has produced only one commodity in abundance useless people for whom the economy
has no need and therefore to whom it assigns no value.
For the underdeveloped, to develop means sacrificing the environments,
solidarities, traditional interpretations and customs that have given their
lives meaning in order to embark on a road that others know better, toward a
goal that others have reached. For the overwhelming majority it has meant not
the alleviation of poverty, but rather its modernization: a devaluation of their
own skills, values, and experience in favor of a growing dependence on guidance
and management by bureaucrats, technocrats, educators, and development experts.
Underdevelopment is not a naturally occurring human condition. It is a
creation of the development enterprise itself. It is best removed through the
rejection of that enterprise.
My personal journey toward this realization began with a successful
professional career in business, government and academia, until I realized that
solutions to the people’s problems could come only from the people themselves. I
have since committed myself to a deprofessionalized life, living with and
learning from the poor, attempting to communicate their message to those who
seek to develop them. What I have learned has led me to reject both the
terminology and constructs of development in all their forms as inherently
destructive of the human processes by which the common people work to create
community as an expression of their culture and self-defined aspirations.
Development has long been protected by a claim, supported by intellectuals
of both the right and the left, that the suffering of the poor majority is the
inevitable price they must pay for their ultimate good. With falling oil prices,
mounting debts, and the conversion of Mexico into a free zone so that
transnational capital can produce VW beetles in automated factories for export
to Germany, the corruption of our politics and the degradation of nature always
implicit in development can finally be seen, touched and smelled by everyone.
Now the poor of Mexico are responding by recreating their own moral economy.
As Mexico’s Rural Development Bank no longer contains sufficient funds to force
peasants to plant sorghum for animal feed, many have returned to the traditional
intercropping of corn and beans improving their diets, restoring some village
solidarity, and allowing available cash to reach further. In response to the
decreasing purchasing power of the previously employed, thriving production
cooperatives are springing up in the very heart of Mexico City. Shops now exist
in the slums that reconstruct electrical appliances; merchants prosper by
imitating foreign trademarked goods and sell them as smuggled wares to tourists.
Neighborhoods have come back to life. Street stands and tiny markets have
returned to corners from where they disappeared years ago. Complex forms of
nonformal organization have developed through which barrio residents create
protective barriers between themselves and intruding development bureaucracies,
police and other officials, fight eviction and the confiscation of their assets,
settle their own disputes, and maintain public order. It is in many respects a
harsh and brutal life. However, by rejecting development in the midst of
devaluation, unemployment and a decline in the economically-defined national
product the majority of the people among whom I dwell now believe that they are
better off than they have been for years.
Mexico’s poor seek neither charity nor affluence. They ask only for the
restoration of that which development has sought to deny them, an opportunity to
create their own livelihood, establish and regulate their own community, and
live in dignity.
Gustavo Esteva is a prominent Mexican writer, social activist and NGO
leader, and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. This column was prepared and
distributed by the PCDForum based on several of his publications. His address is
Apdo. Postal 106, Admon. 3, 68081 Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico.