PCDForum Column #23 Release date December 1, 1991
by David C. Korten
From October 14-17, 1991, the directors of the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) met in
Bangkok, Thailand’s elegant international conference
center to set the future directions of the global economy.
Many enthusiastically pointed to Thailand as demonstrating
the success of the export-led growth model based on
opening national borders to the free flow foreign trade and
No expense or inconvenience was spared by Thailand’s
government to impress the delegates with Thailand’s new
affluence. Schools, businesses, and government offices
were closed to avoid inconveniencing the delegates with
Bangkok’s legendary traffic jams as they were whisked
between elegant cocktail parties along routes chosen and
walled to avoid disconcerting views of Bangkok’s slums.
Meanwhile, in a modest university auditorium on the
other side of Bangkok, citizen delegates from the nongovernmental and people’s organizations of 43 countries
gathered for the People’s Forum 1991. They heard grassroots leaders from Asia, Africa, and Latin America–representatives of farmers, fisher folk, women’s groups,
indigenous peoples and others–tell their personal stories in
their own languages. Speaker after speaker told of the
devastation brought to their lives, communities, and local
ecology by the dams, industrial estates, forestry plantations, and other development projects promoted by official
agencies in the name of helping people and saving the
environment. They shared heroic and reassuring stories of
their struggles to recreate a sense of community, and
restore the eco-systems on which their lives and livelihoods
depend–often in the face of official resistance and the
intrusion of foreign funded projects. Every day the English
language Bangkok press carried full-page spreads telling
the people’s story alongside the self-congratulatory press
releases from the banker’s meetings.
People’s Forum 1991 went well beyond the criticism
of individual foreign assisted development projects to
condemn the consumerist-oriented development model
being advanced by bilateral and multilateral assistance
agencies and to call for significant reductions in their
funding and influence. It also presented through case
examples viable holistic alternatives that promote community control over resources, recognize indigenous knowledge systems and customary rights, and embrace cultural,
social and spiritual, as well as economic, values.
The Thai community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that sponsored People’s Forum 1991 is one
of the newest in Asia. It has already become one of the
most dynamic and forward looking. Unencumbered by
large established programs that do things for the poor in
the name of self-reliance, the Thai NGOs are helping the
marginalized find a national and global voice in the policy
debates being carried out in their name. As the people tell
their own story, the Thai NGOs add a conceptual perspective that places these experiences in a systemic context.
They also facilitate linkages between spokespersons from
diverse localities in ways that build the foundations of a
global people’s movement.
What I experienced in Bangkok brought to mind the
meeting of NGOs I attended in March 1987 in London.
That meeting marked the global NGO community’s
acceptance of its necessary leadership role as innovator,
advocate, and educator in advancing alternatives to the
dominant development model favored by official agencies.
Representatives of more conventional NGOs, particularly
from the North, were challenged to their core.
People’s Forum 1991 marked for me a similar and
equally profound watershed for the forces of civil society.
It illuminated the passing of the leadership in the struggle
for transformation from voluntary organizations of middle
class professionals engaged in lobbying elite power holders
to the grassroots people’s organizations through which
development’s victims are working to recreate their lives
As the transformation movement moves into this new
stage, more conventional and established NGOs face still
another challenge. To be engaged in policy advocacy and
education on the environmental and social issues that are
redefining the development debate is no longer sufficient.
The movement’s strength is increasingly found in its
community roots and in the experience of those who live
with the consequences of development’s failure. What is
emerging is not an NGO movement, but rather a true
grassroots people’s movement grounded in voluntary
commitment and action. Presumably there will continue to
be important supporting roles for professionalized NGOs,
but perhaps the changes they must undergo to regain their
relevance will be even more far reaching that we have to
date realized. We may all have a lot to learn from the Thai
NGOs as we face this challenge.
David C. Korten is president of the People-Centered Development Forum and Visiting Professor of the Asian Institute of
Management. This column was prepared and distributed by the
PCDForum, MCC P.O. Box 740, Makati, Metro Manila,