PCDForum Column #9 Release Date March 1, 1991

by David C. Korten

As voluntary organizations around the world re-examine
their development roles and accept a greater responsibility
for reshaping development policies, they are confronting
a harsh reality. Not only is our existing political leadership
failing to acknowledge the true nature of our global crisis,
it is actively and aggressively committing us to self-defeating policies that feed on one another to deepen that
crisis and make its resolution ever more difficult.

No where is this more dramatically demonstrated than
in the current Gulf War. Those who have led us into this
war herald it as a historic step toward the creation of a
new world order based on principles of collective security
and the rule of law. No where within official policy circles
do we see an acknowledgement that to the contrary, it is
a dramatic demonstration of the cumulative failure of
years of misguided policy action–energy policies that
have made the world economically dependent on Middle
Eastern oil and trade policies that encouraged the sale of
sophisticated military equipment and nuclear and chemical
technology to any dictator who had the money to pay for
them. These policies gave Saddam Hussein his power.

Given adequate recognition of the nature of the
problem, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait might
have been taken by our leaders as an occasion to press for
a global commitment to: 1) energy conservation and
conversion to renewable energy sources; 2) a reduction in
arms trade; and 3) stricter international control of chemical and nuclear technologies with potential military
applications. They might have backed these longer term
reforms with a serious and sustained test of the efficacy of
collective UN enforced economic sanctions and the
stationing of a true UN peace keeping force in Saudi
Arabia to assure its defense.

 Instead, our leaders chose a very different course of
action, one that diverted attention away from their policy
failures and established a rationale for maintaining high
levels of arms expenditures in the face of East West
detente. This choice was made with the most minimal of
public debate, and abdicated the responsibility for action
to one man, George Bush, on behalf of the entire global
community. With a passing nod to sanctions and negotiation, this delegated power was used to commit the world
to a war that has already taken a financial and environmental toll the world can ill afford, has added substantially
to instability in the Middle East and other Islamic nations,
and holds prospect of bringing immeasurable suffering to
hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of innocent
people caught up in the violence on both sides. Whatever
good works voluntary agencies do around the world to
alleviate human suffering during this period, their efforts
will pale by comparison. Whatever its outcome, humanity
will bear the scars of this war for decades to come.

What lessons must we learn from this folly?

  • Voluntary organizations cannot responsibly limit
    themselves to alleviating the human suffering that
    results as a consequence of policy failure. They must
    direct their attention to its causes.

  • Peace, trade, and environmental policies have a direct
    bearing on human suffering. They must be a concern
    of organizations devoted to social justice.

  • The transformation of essential policies depends on
    the reform of political systems to break the hold of
    traditional political forces in the North as well as the
    South, in democratic as well as authoritarian states.

We are being forced to recognize just how central
political reform is to the transformation agenda. Our
existing political structures are not responding. To the
contrary, they are actively leading us in self-destructive
directions that make the realization of that agenda ever
more difficult. Most voluntary organizations style themselves as nonpolitical. However, as they direct themselves
increasingly to policy advocacy agendas, voluntary sector
leaders in the South find themselves questioning the
realism of this stance. Now their counterparts in the North
face the same question. The issues are complex and the
appropriate course of action not self-evident.

It is clear, however, that each of us who claims a
commitment to social justice and the alleviation of human
suffering must accept a responsibility to act on the lessons
this war so starkly poses. We must use every opportunity
to turn this human tragedy into a commitment to a new
vision of human progress on a finite and interdependent

David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and the author of Getting to
the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda

(West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990). This column is
contributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.

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