PCDForum Column #25,    Release date December 5, 1991

by Janet Hunt

Behind the current debate on environment and development
lies a basic question. What kind of development? While the
world’s governments seem studiously committed to not
asking, I believe that responsible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with environmental and social
issues must raise this question publicly and call for honest
debate. Indeed growing numbers of NGOs are doing just
this. Why?

Most of the world’s governments and international
agencies are currently committed to an export-led, high
consumption, industrial growth model of development as the
key to universal prosperity. This commitment, however,
neglects important historical and contemporary realities.

The European industrial revolution was built on colonialism and the access it provided to cheap raw materials
imported from distant empires. The industrialization of the
“New World” of North America was built on a similar
colonization of its Western frontier at the expense of existing
native populations. Many persons benefited, but their gain
was at the expense of those who were deprived of their own

We now see a similar pattern in Asia where those
countries touted as the region’s industrialization success
stories are actively expropriating the resources of their
poorer neighbors. For example, we see Thai logging
companies cutting the forests of Laos and Cambodia, while
Malaysian and Korean companies do the same in Papua New
Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Similarly, Taiwanese
fishing vessels mine the fisheries of the Pacific Ocean with
their “Wall of Death” drift nets.

Furthermore, in a world of falling trade barriers and
mobile capital, enterprises are encouraged to locate where
labor is cheap and labor laws repressive. These same
locations are also likely offer lax or poorly monitored
environmental regulations, allowing for various forms of
environmental exploitation.

Similar consequences are felt in nearly every Asian
country, whether industrialized or industrializing–a growing
gap between rich and poor, social disruption, and escalating
environmental costs. In Australia, one of Asia’s most
advanced industrial countries, the top ten percent of our
population now controls 55 percent of Australia’s personal
wealth, while the bottom half owns less than 2 percent. We
are also experiencing a feminization of poverty. Australia’s
aboriginal people live in chronic poor health, often in
conditions worse than found in many parts of the Third
World. Ten percent of our labor force is unemployed and
many others have left the labor force in discouragement.
Huge numbers of young people are homeless, drug abuse is
widespread, and youth suicide rates are alarmingly high.

Thailand, widely praised for achieving Asia’s highest
economic growth rates in the late 1980s, is experiencing a
similar widening gap between rich and poor as firms lay off
permanent full-time workers and replace them with temporary or contract employees to reduce labor costs and trade
union power. Bangkok’s children suffer from high levels of
lead and other toxics accumulated in their bodies. A recent
chemical explosion in a Bangkok slum neighborhood killed
or caused permanent severe damage to the health of some
5,000 persons. Similarly we are told that all the rivers of
Manila are biologically dead, and much of Korea’s water is
unsafe to drink.

It seems unlikely that the path to sustainable development will be mapped in the meetings of the G-7 or the board
rooms of the World Bank or the IMF, where a commitment
to the myths of trade and industrial prosperity continue to
flourish. More relevant contributions are being made by
ordinary people around the world who are experimenting
with environmentally friendly ways of living and relating.
These pioneers of a truly new world order are pointing out
the irony, given our years of advice to the poor, that it is
we, the wealthy of the industrial world, who must become
more self-reliant–reducing our dependence on the natural
and financial resources of the non-industrial world and
forging for ourselves a non-exploitative way of life. To do
so we must be more efficient in our industry and more frugal
in our lifestyles.

Self-reliance does not mean isolation. The rest of the
world has much to learn from our mistakes, just as we have
much to learn from the traditional non-materialistic, non-individualistic values of Asian and other non-industrial
cultures. NGOs have a particularly central role in building
people-to-people partnerships across cultures through which
we can work together to create a more economically,
ecologically, and socio-culturally balanced development


Janet Hunt is director of campaigns and education, Australian
Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA, GPO, Box 1562,
Canberra ACT 2601, Australia; and a contributing editor of
the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was
prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on her
paper “Development and Environment in Industrialising

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