the No-Nonsense guide to
by Maggie Black
New Internationist magazine and
Verso Press, 2002, paper
... the idea [of international development] in modern guise came
from US President Harry S Truman. On 20 January 1949, in his inaugural
address, he declared that the benefits of scientific advance and
industrial progress must be made available for the 'underdeveloped'
areas. 'What we envisage,' he said, 'is a program of development
based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing.' The 1947 US
Marshall Plan for economic regeneration in post-Second World War
Europe had been a great success. No doubt Truman had something
similar in mind for the rest of the world. The underlying purpose,
as with the Marshall Plan, was the consolidation of US influence
in places that might otherwise be infected with the communist
During the 1950s, the stakes rose. The
growing stand-off between Western allies and the Eastern bloc,
and the accelerating departure of the imperial powers from their
colonies in Africa and Asia, reinforced the strategic urge to
lock 'emerging' nations all over the world into the US sphere
of influence. Many of the newly independent countries tried to
stay aloof. A movement of 'non-aligned' countries was launched
in 1955 at a conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Its leaders were
the then-giants of the new nations - Presidents Nehru of India
and Nkrumah of Ghana, for example. This was the genesis of the
'Third World': an attempt to assert a group identity separate
from both the capitalist West - the 'First World' and the Communist
Eastern bloc - the 'Second'. As a geopolitical entity, the Third
World never stood a chance. But that was not obvious at the time.
A post-colonial construct
As decolonization gathered pace, a new
vocabulary was coined to describe free and sovereign countries
that had, until then, consisted of imperial subject peoples. The
rush for independence - no less than 17 countries in Africa first
raised their flags in 1960 - put the seal on the construct of
a 'developing' world, with which the Third World soon became synonymous.
Apart from the geographical accident that placed almost all the
new countries in the tropics, they had an obvious feature in common:
their lack of industrialization - in a word, their 'poverty'.
To shed this condition, they needed capital resources and technical
know-how from what were now their richer 'partners' on the world
stage. If the First World was ungenerous, they would - and did
- naturally look to the Second.
Thus was born the push for international
development, a concept which embraced ideological fervor along
with more conventional notions of investment and technological
transformation, and a vital part of whose impulse was the strategic
and economic self-interest of the US and its allies. Countries
that wanted to benefit from Western largesse adopted its language
and ideas, even though this cast them and their peoples in pejorative
terms as 'ignorant' and inferior, objects of paternalistic assistance.
A crude dichotomy of 'developed' and 'developing'
nations had emerged, later re-formulated as North and South. The
notional lumping of countries together in large, essentially imagined,
agglomerations seemed to make sense. There had been the colonizers
and the colonized. Then the wartime split of Allied and Axis Powers,
then the East-West division. Why not a new dichotomy of 'worlds'
based on a rich/poor, modern/backward version of reality? The
residues of this 'bloc' type of thinking show great tenacity.
The European Union (EU) still has special co-operation mechanisms
for the ACP - Afro-Caribbean-Pacific - countries, whose only common
feature is that they were once colonized by European member states.
The United Nations (UN), founded in 1945,
provided a forum in which the new perspective gained strength.
The network of UN organizations had been founded in a burst of
almost religious faith that the Allied powers - which then included
the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) - could forestall
another global conflagration. During the 1950s, the raison d'etre
of international co-operation for mutual security was severely
damaged by the swift division of the Allies into two opposing
The UN therefore sought a broader mission:
international co-operation for an assault on worldwide hunger,
disease, illiteracy and all the economically and socially disruptive
forces, which might lead to international turmoil. This was the
task to which the international mechanisms devised in the post-War
world - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF),
the UN's funds and specialized agencies - were now to be devoted.
These mechanisms helped confer on the
development mission its international character, providing a set
of multilateral bodies through which government resources could
be channeled. Unfortunately, they also fostered the illusion that
such a thing as 'international development' exists. It does not.
Action at the international level is confined to a supporting
role, in providing funds and forums in which to carry on debate,
much of which is tenuously connected to what is happening to people
on the ground. This reality is often ignored by enthusiasts who
see international action for development as a be-all and end-all.
Given the nature and distribution of power, this can never be
The crusade takes off
The crusade began in the 1960s when US
President John F Kennedy launched the UN's Decade of Development
in ringing tones: 'To those peoples in the huts and villages of
half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we
pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves... If a free
society cannot help the many who are poor, it can never serve
the few who are rich.' Kennedy followed up with various initiatives:
the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, Food for Peace.
A tarnished vision
By the end of the 1960s, the vision had
begun to tarnish. An international commission was set up under
Lester Pearson, ex-Prime Minister of Canada, to conduct a 'grand
assize' on the impact of development assistance.
In one respect, the Decade had been a
success: most developing countries had managed to raise their
GNP per capita by at least five per cent. But the inescapable
fact was that the new wealth had made little if any impact on
the majority of their peoples. A small section had become educated
and 'modern'; their fortunes and lifestyles integrated with the
Western economic system. But the traditional economy had become
downgraded even as the numbers dependent on it swelled. More people
were poor than before the mission began.
The concept unravels
... the  OPEC shock was the moment
when both the geopolitical concept of a Third World reached its
apotheosis, and the construct of a coterminous 'developing' world
began to crack. The oil price hike produced a body of super-wealthy
Third World states in the Middle East, while setting back development
for others elsewhere. They might both be 'backward', but how could
the United Arab Emirates, with a per capita Gross National Product
(GNP) of $13.000 (1975), belong in the same 'developing' bracket
as Pakistan, with a per capita GNP of $130?
By the l980s, a number of non-oil-rich
'newly industrializing countries' had also taken on the coloring
of developed economies. These included the four Pacific 'tigers'
(Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), and some others
in Latin America and Asia, prospering from the globalization of
the world economy. Meanwhile in Africa, economies were in decline,
food production was unable to keep pace with population growth,
and drought and civil conflict were rife. A uniform descriptor
for these many conditions as 'developing', not to mention any
common prescription for 'development', no longer seemed appropriate.
No matter. The terminology and perceptions were indestructible.
Already splintering as a concept, the
vision of world development dramatically receded in the 1980s.
Recession in the industrialized world reverberated in countries
heavily dependent on richer trading partners. In 1982, Mexico
suspended interest payments on an accumulating mountain of debt,
and sparked off what became a crisis of developing country indebtedness.
In 1980, the debts of the developing world stood at $660 billion;
by 1990, they had more than doubled to $1,540 billion. No fewer
that 60 developing countries experienced declining per capita
income over the decade. By its end, the 1980s had become known
- especially in Africa and Latin America - as a lost decade, a
decade of development reversal.
In the US and Britain, these were also
the Reagan-Thatcher years, with the new orthodoxy of market supremacy,
reduction of government and attacks on the welfare state, especially
the provision of health, education, water, energy and transport
by the exclusive agency of government. Lambasted for domestic
purposes, the use of public funds for investment in other countries'
social and economic infrastructure was way out of line. Under
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the UK aid budget was only given
the kiss of life when it was pointed out that it was useful for
strategic leverage with allies, and that much of it went to the
British end of the development industry - UK companies, consultants
and academic institutions. Over the decade, aid generally declined.
At the same time, with export earnings
hemorrhaging away to pay their debts, an increasing number of
developing countries were forced to initiate 'structural adjustment
programs' as a condition of IMF loans. Before long the enforced
austerity and its human costs were prompting outrage in both North
and South. From Tanzania, President Nyerere demanded: 'Must we
starve our children to pay our debts?"
Internationalism in crisis
The end of the Cold War, with its triumphant
endorsement of global capitalism, was heralded by the writer Francis
Fukuyama as the 'end of history'. It was certainly the end of
any coherent 'Third' or 'developing' world, however tenaciously
this idea and its corollaries persist.
Today, the aid industry is still intact,
dispensing around $55 billion every year in a climate of increasing
global crisis. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has claimed 30 million lives,
mostly in Africa. Ethnic and religious tensions, previously kept
in check by the stasis of superpower stand-off, have blown nations
apart. The Asian economic miracle ground to a halt. In spite of
a special debt relief initiative, many heavily-indebted poor countries
still languish impecuniously, diverting $59 million daily to much
richer governments and financial institutions. Around 1.2 billion
people live in direst poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day.
Only four countries meet or give more than the UN's target of
0.7 % of GNP - Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, and Sweden.
Overseas Development Assistance
as a Percentage of Donors' Gross National Product (GNP) - 1998
Foreign Aid as % of GNP
Source: The Reality of Aid 2000
This idea of aid as instrumental in development has been extraordinarily
tenacious. This is because aid and the institutions associated
with it, from the mighty international funds and banks to the
smallest charitable endeavor, are the principal international
expression of humanity's commitment to the development mission.
Without these bodies and the many types of transfers they provide,
development would be entirely a local affair, controlled by a
recipient country's administrative policies and budgetary investments
and bolstered by voluntary and philanthropic activity in the society
concerned. The 'international community' in the form of donor
agglomerations would have no say over a country's financial, economic,
agricultural, health, water resources, education, or any other
policy. Because aid has given development an international dimension
and the character of a global crusade, and because ODA [official
development assistance] packages have been used as a lever for
all kinds of policy impositions, the concepts of aid and development
are difficult to disentangle.
However, it is important to recognize
that much international aid has a remote relationship with anything
recognizable as development. Much of it never goes near the Southern
countries at all. Some is spent on debt relief, some on international
bureaucracies based in donor countries; some on vast displays
of international discussion. Even a significant component of 'program
aid' - that spent directly on activities in developing countries
- goes on personnel and machinery set up to administer it, much
of which belongs to donors.
Well-informed observers estimate that, at best, one-quarter of
official development assistance reaches people who are poor.
There are all sorts of other obvious ways in which development
assistance machinery serves the agenda and requirements of donors.
In the case of country-to- l country aid, spending policies are
biased in favor of strategic and commercial interests. The list
of recipient countries to which any donor country has given most
of its ODA over the years has, with some exceptions, almost invariably
reflected these considerations. To take an example, between 1982
and 1987 the UK annually provided from its aid budget the equivalent
of $1,075 for everyone in Gibraltar, $7,705 per head to the Falklands/Malvinas,
20 cents per head to India and 0.0037 cents to Cambodia.' Israel
has been a disproportionate receiver of US aid. France focuses
heavily on Francophone Africa, Portugal and Netherlands on their
ex-colonies and so on.
Donor countries have been reluctant to
apply poverty criteria and spend more aid in lower-income countries
as a principle, but the record has improved. There are also many
examples of notorious ODA expenditures: in the early l990s the
UK Government spent $351 million on a hydroelectric dam in relatively
wealthy Malaysia as part of a major arms contract, which was subsequently
found to be an illegal aid expenditure in the British courts.
This kind of aid - and there is still a lot of it - is all about
building political alliances and opening up lucrative contracts
for home-based companies. Even where the principle of poverty-related
spending is established for aid, a clash with trading interests,
including the sale of armaments, will usually find the donor's
policy playing second fiddle.
Even when not used to promote its own
interests, much of any country's ODA is spent on its own cadre
of technical experts, and through its own academic, research and
consultancy institutions. Even such enlightened donors as Sweden
and Denmark still insist that a proportion of their aid budgets
be spent on their own products; the proportion spent by the US
is 70 per cent.
For much of its existence, the World Bank has not even pretended
to be addressing poverty, mostly supporting a wide range of infrastructural
projects: dams, power generation, roads, communications systems.
After a brief flirtation with poverty reduction during the 1970s,
its main activity became the provision of funds to promote the
'structural adjustment' of developing country economies along
free market lines. The social distress these reforms created became
so glaring that in the 1990s the World Bank rediscovered poverty
as an aid target and introduced country-based 'poverty-reduction
strategies'. But whatever the rhetoric, its support has always
been used as an instrument for binding countries into economic
policies it approves. World Bank reports deeply lament the scale
of extreme poverty in the world, but are reluctant to admit that
the policies it has espoused bear some share of responsibility.
International non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) also belong to the ideology and culture of the donor world,
but they do not have another agenda from the one they notionally
serve. They have generally been much better than donor governments
at spending money so as to enable disadvantaged people to improve
their lives. This is the reason that most official aid bodies
are now keen to spend through them and local affiliates, thereby
supporting 'civil society' - a term currently exercising a mantra-like
charm. Not all local or international NGOs are an unqualified
good thing. The availability of funds has brought many spurious
organizations into existence, and the plethora of agencies has
had the unfortunate effect of promoting a begging-bowl mentality.
NGOs make mistakes and some may be unscrupulous.
But at their best they are in touch with the myriad realities
of people's lives in a way undreamt of among the authors of the
macro-policy and the master plan. Some have helped find alternative
models of development that better serve the poor. This is not
a path along which government and multilateral donors have generally
been willing to follow.
After the Cold War
The 1980s can be seen as the nadir of
international development co-operation. Recession in the industrialized
world, high interest rates, debt and balance of payments crises
rained down on poor countries with disastrous consequences. Social
expenditures were dumped, and instead came stabilization and painful
structural adjustment. The use of aid was subjugated unashamedly
to donor agendas, to expanding the global economy, and protecting
it from financial risk. The World Bank and IMF pushed a macroeconomic
agenda known as the 'Washington consensus', which was all about
prudent fiscal and monetary policies, control of inflation, and
leaving things to the market. Their loan packages required countries
to cut services, depress wages and as a consequence throw millions
of people out of work. There was a new emphasis on private flows
of capital and on opening up private-public partnerships - often
a recipe for private profit by corporations and their allies,
and public theft of people's resource base and livelihoods.
When the Cold War ended, great hopes were attached to 'the peace
dividend' it would unleash, and images of major transfers of aid
to tackle world poverty dangled before the international imagination.
In fact, after a peak in 1992 aid budgets were cut: in 1997 they
reached an all-time low at an average of 0.25 per cent of GNP.
This was mainly to do with the end of ODA's use as a component
of Cold War strategy. In the past, development assistance was
awarded to any regime friendly to the West, but now there is no
strategic reason to do this, although other global politics operate.
'Right policies' became decisive in selecting recipient countries;
the pursuit of the global economic agenda and willing accommodation
to that became paramount concerns, the democracy and human rights
Although much lip service is paid to the need for social investments,
in fact there are very few donors who commit more than 10 per
cent of official aid to basic health and education expenditures
- the average is less than four per cent." Even when they
do, all the inhibitions on reaching the really poor - lack of
outreach, lack of motivation, bureaucratic inertia - cannot suddenly
be overcome because this is what enlightened donors say they want
their aid to do. In many settings government personnel still rarely
go near poor communities. When they do, few demonstrate empathy
understanding, motivation to make services work.
This does not mean additional aid could
not be spent well - on writing off debt, building up government
capacity, re-creating security systems where these have broken
down, funds for cheap drugs, better data collection and regulatory
mechanisms to stop 'development' scams which exploit people and
violate their rights. Some of these are current directions in
donor policy, but in a relatively minor way. The opportunities
for doing them effectively are hard to find, and still the problem
remains of how to carry them out through existing administrative
structures. In most poor countries these desperately need to be
improved, but instead their reduction is often sought as a component
of donor-driven 'economic reform'.
Aid, even in larger quantity, will do little to repair the damage
caused by the policies recipient countries are forced to accept.
These demand that their markets be opened as a condition of aid,
while the donors keep their own markets locked and their borders
shut to people fleeing destitution. The fragile modern economies
of some countries are near collapse. Millions of the 'very poor'
live in failed or 'non-performing' states. It is in these environments
that alienation and exclusion flourish, but which most donors
- notably the US - do not want to touch, because in them aid will
be 'wasted' or not used 'effectively'. According to this view,
aid is only useful if it helps bring countries into a global economy,
on terms that the dispossessed of the world perceive as their
In 1960, the income gap between the fifth of the world population
in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 30 to
one, by 1960 it had become 60 to one and by 1997, 74 to one. In
70-80 developing countries, the average income per head is today
lower than ten or even 30 years ago.
No-one now disputes that the globalization
of the world economy has contributed to this trend, concentrating
opportunities and rewards in certain groups while marginalizing
others. Although there is no apparent connection between the economic
aristocrats of the company boardroom and those who live by carting
loads or pounding yams, the effects of corporate decisions still
reverberate all the way down from global and national balance
sheets to the alleys, huts and shanties where poor people live.
Their resource base is reduced, the prices they can fetch for
their produce or labor stagnate or decline, while those they pay
for essentials rise, and services that used to be free now have
to be paid for.
So while the world economy goes on growing
and extending its consumerist lifestyle into millions of households,
its record of offering opportunity and progress to people who
languish at its edges has been disastrous. Yet economic development
is central to any significant advance in social well being, and
there can l be no release from poverty without economic growth.
Non oil-producing developing countries, especially the poorest,
were hard hit by the oil-price rise. Between 1980 and 1991, they
lost $290 billion due to lower prices for their exports - but
the prices for manufactured goods they had to import continued
to rise. The stage had been set for the debt crisis and the end
of hopes that many developing countries could ever 'catch up'.
The huge petrodollar windfall accruing
to OPEC members ought surely to have been used for productive
investment in impoverished neighbors. Here, finally, was the cash
- $310 billion between 1972 and 19778 _ for investment on a massive
scale that protagonists for an end to world poverty had sought
since the 'big push' began.
Instead, a travesty occurred - a travesty
in which Western banks and key financial institutions on the one
hand, and Southern dictators and governing elites on the other,
colluded. Some of the new wealth went on construction. But much
of it wound up as investment in equity markets or was deposited
in Western banks. These were desperate to lend, and lend they
did to loan-hungry Southern borrowers for a variety of loss-making
ventures. Some went into the pockets of corrupt regimes and kleptocrats
who, during the Cold War, were immune from standard economic scrutiny
if their alliance was valued, and if they bought Western products
and services, including arms.
Not productivity but debt
As the debt burden on poor countries grew
and balance-of-payments crises multiplied, the IMF and the World
Bank began to impose stringent conditions on debtor nations in
return for rescue packages. 'Structural adjustment' became the
new route to economic health. But the prescription was steeped
in the new orthodoxies of deregulated markets, dismantling of
trade barriers, privatization, the shrinkage of government, and
cutbacks in social expenditures that gained ascendancy in the
Reagan-Thatcher era. There were massive lay-offs in the public
sector, unemployment spiraled, and budgets for health, education
and social safety nets were reduced. Exports to earn foreign exchange
were preferred to investment in basic necessities and domestic
Structural adjustment may have helped
salvage the international banking system, but it did little for
struggling local economies and released few countries from debt.
So both debt and the measures imposed for its redemption served
to push poor communities living in the cracks of the tottering
modern economy into deeper trouble.
Meanwhile, the new behemoths of economic growth - the transnational
corporations - were getting into their stride. In the last quarter
of the 20th century, they became the principal designers and controllers
of the economy in which the world's citizens - if they could afford
to - ate, drank, smoked, dressed, drove, played sports, listened
to music and watched TV. In 25 years the numbers of these corporations
grew from 7,000 to 38,000, with 250,000 subsidiaries, spreading
an identical lifestyle all over the world. Although a third of
the world's population could not remotely afford to join in, that
still left potential markets of hundreds of millions who could.
These corporations and their offshoots now conduct two-thirds
of the world's trade, and they decide worldwide where, what, how
and for whom their products shall be produced. Many are richer
- and more powerful - than nation states.
The giant logo-land they promote is the
familiar face of globalization, and the part which has been most
heralded as improving the economic prospects of the developing
world by creating jobs and purchasing power. And although there
are many appalled critics of the sweatshop conditions in which
clothes, electronic gadgets, toys, computer parts, CDs and a host
of other products are made - often in 'export processing zones'
where the companies enjoy freedom from taxes and labor regulations
- it is hard to make out that they have done nothing at all for
people in poor societies. The employment of women in the garment
export industry of Bangladesh, for example, has brought them a
status and a bargaining position they never enjoyed before.
What also cannot be denied, however, is
that the ) power these companies exert is devoid of moral purpose:
the top line and the bottom line are profit, not l the advancement
of the human condition. Poverty, in J the form of rock-bottom
wages, is the 'comparative advantage' these environments offer.
If labor is cheaper and as malleable elsewhere, if better deals
can be cut for tax holidays and the political environment is more
secure, the women of Bangladesh will lose their jobs tomorrow.
The 'free trade' treaties sponsored by such bodies as the World
Trade Organization (WTO) pave the way. So do national authorities
keen to bring in the investment.
Another side of the picture is the image
of the good life peddled to the next generation of the global
market's would-be consumers - that condemns them as second-class
citizens. Fantasies of affluence, freedom and power flash via
television into the remotest places, opening a window onto a fairytale
world, but no door to get there. The global monoculture these
images purvey can destroy the values of ancient societies with
shocking speed, its busy tentacles reaching into their existing
way of life with crushing effect. Their growing familiarity with
images of modern life comes with growing awareness of their exclusion.
People whose way of life once had self-sufficiency and self-respect
become insecure appendages to its embrace, reduced to menial and
servile labor at its fringes.
In the l990s, the IMF and World Bank backed the opening up of
financial markets in developing countries as the latest prescription
for economic growth. As country after obedient country did as
it was told, there was an explosion of currency transactions aided
by electronic communications. In 1980, the daily average of foreign
exchange trades was $80 billion; today, $1,210 billion changes
hands. Virtually none of this has to do with producing goods and
Money chasing money in short-term speculation
has replaced productive enterprise as the global economic motor.
The advent of microcredit
... In 1974, when Bangladesh was in the
grip of famine, Mohamed Yunus, a professor of economics at Dhaka
University, visited a village just outside the campus. He was
horrified to discover that a woman making bamboo stools earned
the daily equivalent of $0.2 cents profit on an output of $0.22
cents for materials. Her economy had no connection with the economics
he taught, and he set out to remedy this state of affairs.
Over the next decade, Yunus created the
Grameen Bank, an institution which upended all banking conventions
to lend money in tiny amounts to the most economically excluded
people in Bangladesh - landless women. They had no collateral
and were regarded as 'unbankable' from every point of view. His
workers met potential clients in their homes, and peer groups
of borrowers committed themselves to abide by Grameen's lending
and repayment code. By 1998, Grameen had 12,000 employees, 1,112
branches, and 2,300,000 borrowers; $35 million went out in loans
every month. Over 500 types of economic activity were listed in
their annual report, including manufacture of cosmetics, toys,
perfume, mosquito nets, candles, shoes, pickles, bread, clocks,
umbrellas, spices, firecrackers and soft drinks. The repayment
rate was 98 per cent, to which Yunus compared the risible ten
per cent recovery rate of the Bangladesh Industrial Development
Bank. Its propertied debtors endlessly defaulted on their loans,
pleading a difficult industrial climate. Meanwhile illiterate,
landless and secluded women had proved that, given a bank with
which they could easily interact, as borrowers they represented
almost no risk at all.
Yunus was not the only pioneer in micro-loan
financing. Esther Ocloo of Ghana and Ela Bhatt of India - both
of whom worked with market women in the informal economy - helped
set up Women's World Banking in 1979. Like Yunus, they initially
accepted soft loans from international bodies to recycle them
in tiny amounts to customers; but the ultimate aim was self-sufficiency-
dependence on people's own energy and resourcefulness. In the
years since these organizations began, 31 million people, three-quarters
of them women and two-thirds classified as the 'poorest of the
poor', have received micro-loans in more than 40 countries. The
Grameen model has been exported to 58 other countries, including
Small-scale entrepreneurship fuelled by
small-scale loans has proved an alternative path to economic advancement
for the poor - one that has immaculate capitalist credentials.
The vital clue to its success is that the system operates within
the economy of the customers, not the economy of the industrialized
world that could never afford to service the tiny loans and minitransactions.
So bridges can be built between traditional and modern economies,
but they require imagination and huge determination to buck the
For others starting where people are and
working with them to transform their economic productivity, the
key input has not been to do with financial transaction, but with
its partner in progress: technology.
One such pioneer is Rajendra Singh. In
1984 he visited Alwar district in the parched Indian state of
Rajasthan. He found waterless villages and people migrating away
to the towns in droves. At the suggestion of a village elder,
Singh resurrected a traditional water-harvesting technology fallen
into disuse. He built johads - small earthen embankments or 'checkdams'
- in the beds of seasonal rivers to arrest rainwater during the
Since then, the organization he formed,
Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), has helped build 4,500 small dams and
other rainwater harvesting structures. This has led to the regeneration
of dried-up rivers and transformed the agricultural economy of
147 villages. Two-thirds were built without the help of an engineer,
and at a ridiculously low cost compared to the concrete massifs
favored by the planners. The water table has risen from a depth
of 61 to 9 meters, and after successive years of drought, most
johads contain water when everything else is dry. The johads represent
an assertion by local people of ownership over their critical
economic resources - land and water, and of their capacity to
manage them without government help.
Demand and willingness to pay
... in the economic sphere ... the economists
have latched on to 'willingness to pay' as an indication of market
demand's supremacy even in the social sphere, even among people
with very few cash resources. They talk of 'full cost recovery'
and advocate cuts in subsidies at the earliest opportunity, even
when it is clear that many services cannot reach the periphery
without subsidies, nor were they ever expected to do so in the
In many Southern settings, the provision
of services is already skewed by the realities of social hierarchy,
wealth and political influence. They are subsidized in favor of
the elite; it seems grossly unjust therefore to make people who
are much worse off and suffering discrimination pay fully for
them. Yet this is the cornerstone of the World Bank's poverty
reduction strategies - its latest display of commitment to the
idea that social investments matter. Yes, they matter, but they
will have to be paid for. This applies to healthcare, schooling,
water and sanitation. Ghana, held up as a textbook case of the
efficacy of the IMF/World Bank strategy for economic recovery,
expects even the poorest pregnant mother to pay for her hospital
delivery, and even a bucket of water from a standpipe carries
user-charges. People's 'willingness to pay' for things they cannot
do without has been interpreted as an indication of their 'demand'
- and become a stick with which to beat them.
Meanwhile, if there is evidence of a demand
for services within a traditional economic framework, they will
be commercialized by the advocates of market economics. People
in traditional occupations are cut outwater sellers, waste-collectors,
street cleaners, snackfood makers, for example. The prices of
the new goods and services invariably end up higher than those
of the traditional providers they displace. 'Efficiency' requires
involvement from the modern economy with its superior technology
and know-how; but the higher costs of its apparatus and profits
have to be passed down. Not only are services provided by commercial
water and fuel companies unaffordable for those in low-income
groups but they destroy the invisible economies on which informal
systems were based. Governments that have been corrupt and inefficient
in service delivery cannot be expected to regulate the private
sector effectively, nor do they have any incentive to do so. And
so the carousel of exclusion goes round.
By the time the Brundtland Commission
delivered its report on Our Common Future in 1987, population
growth was no longer seen as the major threat to the harmony of
the planet. Almost all population growth was among poorer people.
And it was not they who were consuming the earth's supply of fossil
fuels, warming the globe with their carbon emissions, depleting
its ozone layer with their CFCs, poisoning soil and water with
their chemicals, or wreaking ecological havoc with their oil spills.
In fact, their consumption of the world's resources was minute
compared to that of the industrialized world.
Brundtland declared that poverty in the
developing world was less cause than effect of contemporary environmental
degradation, the outcome of insensitive technology transfer that
pauperized people and natural systems. If all the world's people
were to live like North Americans, a planet four times as large
would be needed. Only 'sustainable' development could blend the
fulfillment of human needs with the protection of air, soil, water
and all forms of life - from which, ultimately, planetary stability
Thus the concept of 'sustainable development'
was launched: social and economic advance to assure human beings
a healthy and productive life, but one that did not jeopardize
the right of coming generations to their own slice of the world's
pie. Sustainable development was a big new idea. It brought environmentalism
into poverty reduction and poverty reduction into environmentalism
in a neat and simple formula. And the Brundtland Report attracted
huge attention. It led on to the Earth Summit - the UN Conference
on Environment and Development - at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and
to the formulation of Agenda 21, an internationally accepted 'blueprint
for survival' of its day. The word 'sustainable' was absorbed
into the development lexicon and has since been flogged, for everything
from 'environmentally sensitive' to 'respect for indigenous ways
of doing things' to 'affordable over the longer term'.
So what is the reality? Is sustainable
development practicable, and if so, can it help the poor?
South versus North
When the first UN conference on the global
environment was convened in Stockholm in 1972, the agenda was
dictated by the West. There was resentment from the developing
world: a regime of international ecological regulation - not in
place during Western industrialization - would deny them a 'developed'
future. Blocks on resource use would fix the world in permanent
inequality between haves and have-nots.
Unlike 'development', which has always
been perceived as exclusive to the South, environmental issues
stretch all the way up from inside and outside anybody's door
- be it in a suburban street, a rainforest clearing, or a stretch
of African savanna - to the global commons of the biosphere. What
everyone does affects 'the environment', and everyone else.
The US, with five per cent of the world's
population, consumes 25 per cent of the world's yearly consumption
of fossil fuels, and emits 20 per cent of its greenhouse gases.
But the effects don't confront Americans daily on their doorsteps
- on the contrary, there is no immediate sense of damage to the
ecosystem. But the brunt of sea level change from global warming
will be borne by people who live on delta plains in densely populated
countries in Asia and Africa. A one-meter rise would displace
four million coastal inhabitants in Nigeria, ten million in Vietnam
and 15-20 million in Bangladesh.
Here is a set of issues that imbue the
cliché about living in an interdependent global village
with real meaning. That does not necessarily make it easier to
create a common sense of purpose between North and South. Growth-led
industrialization and trade is still the favored path to development
of many countries set on becoming card-carrying members of the
modern world, and they still raise the objections they raised
in 1972. They do not want inhibiting and expensive environmental
regulatory regimes - unless the industrialized world is willing
to pay for them. The sum suggested in Agenda 21 for this purpose
was $125 billion - more than twice what is currently spent on
Northern lack of restraint
Meanwhile the lack of willingness from
the North, particularly the US, to regulate its own energy consumption,
does little to encourage Southern governments to take resource
conservation seriously. President George W Bush's unwillingness
to sign the Kyoto agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions does
The 1992 Earth Summit provided an important platform for the expression
of activist concern from both North and South. The participation
of NGOs in the preparation of Agenda 21, and in the Summit itself,
showed a new legitimacy for citizen groups. This marked the moment
at which the development mission as a campaign against world poverty
became subsumed into the campaign for the environment under the
'sustainability' logo. The poverty of millions of people no longer
had the power on its own to ignite worldwide fervor against the
doctrine of unfettered growth. Whereas what this was doing to
the natural world - to the climate, forests, soils, water resources,
fish stocks, oceans, species, and to ecological integrity - became
a universal banner under which activism in all parts of the world
Campaigns became specific and treated
social and environmental aspects in tandem. No longer were the
conservation of nature and the pursuit of humanity's well-being
seen as mutually antagonistic. 'Sustainability' put them in bed
together and gave impoverished societies a new platform and voice.
More than 230 million people live in the
26 countries already designated as water-short, mainly in Africa
and the Middle East, and their numbers are growing. There is talk
of a global crisis of over-extraction and consumption of water,
leading to 'water wars'. By 2025, three billion people will live
in countries that have less than 1,700 cubic meters a head, the
quantity below which populations start to suffer from water stress."
Putting a price on water
... the main tool proposed for its conservation
is to put a price upon it that reflects its economic value. Undoubtedly,
aquifers are being over-pumped and surface water supplies wastefully
squandered. But the notion of making people in traditional rural
communities pay for a 'free' natural resource has also provoked
outcry - it is not their overpumping, industrial plants, leaking
pipelines, sewerage systems and major irrigation works which are
causing the problem. The idea of allowing them a basic right to
a small quantity of water - 15 liters a day is one meager suggestion
- for drinking and the basic minimum of domestic tasks misses
the point. The rural household needs water not just to survive,
but to grow food, water livestock, and secure other parts of their
Even in water provision, the corporate
sector increasingly enters the frame, displacing government and
ending the subsidization of services. In the name of efficiency
and water savings, the prospects are that they will gain ascendancy
over both the resource and delivery systems. In the process they
will also destroy traditional systems of water provision and those
in the informal economy who depend on these for a livelihood.
Thus the hold of poor people on another essential commodity, and
on incomes derived from its provision, also looks precarious.
GM - a magic bullet?
Many of the technological and market-oriented
solutions proposed to deal with land and water scarcity do, in
fact, amount to 'business as usual', only with extras: measures
that put tariffs between people and their natural resource base
in the name of 'efficiency' and 'management by demand'. The hybrid
seeds of Green Revolution fame, and the inputs of fertilizers
and pesticides that go with them, are costly to grow and can push
small farmers into debt or displacement. To bring about the next
food production breakthrough, a further revolution is proposed,
courtesy of biotechnology. Claims are made on behalf of genetically-modified
(GM) new rice varieties: that they will produce 50 per cent higher
yields, mature 30-50 days earlier, be more disease- and drought-resistant,
and grow without fertilizer or herbicides. They can even be fixed
to contain Vitamin A, which would dramatically improve young children's
health. Except that a handful of green vegetables, without the
high-tech costs, would do the same.
When the UN Development Program (UNDP)
announced in early 2002 that it supported GM technology as a way
to help those living in poverty, there was an outcry from the
non-governmental community. Vandana Shiva, a distinguished Indian
environmentalist, believes that promotion of GM crops is a betrayal
of the South, and of the poorest sectors of society and their
prospects for food security. Research shows, according to Shiva,
that 'farmers triple their incomes by getting off the chemical
treadmill and out of the debt trap created by purchase of costly
seeds and chemicals." Others believe that, at best, GM is
a familiar sort of magic-bullet distraction -just the type of
thing that earned a reputation for irrelevancy in the space-conquest
atmosphere of the 1960s. It diverts attention from other technologies
and farming practices that also raise productivity. And it overlooks
costs and economic misfit.
The truth is that in no case in history
has the introduction of this kind of technological innovation
favored the poorest in society: on the contrary, it erects barriers
between poor people and their resource base. There is too big
a gap between the economy in which such people currently operate,
and the one in which new seeds, additives and inputs are located.
If they accept the package they risk becoming locked into a technology
they can neither afford nor control. If they do not, they get
driven or priced out. Those who gain most are those in command
of the technology, and of wider agricultural commodity markets:
agrochemical companies and landowners who can afford to take the
risk of jumping onto the bandwagon and sharing in its profits.
To ensure that this will be the way it
goes, corporations are now busy taking out patents on seeds they
have 'discovered' in the South. Under the 1995 WTO agreement on
'Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights' (TRIPS),
corporate giants such as Du Pont and
Monsanto have managed to gain scores of
patents on strains of maize, rice and other key food crops. These
strains, originally the birthright of people who have grown them
for generations, are now undergoing transgenetic manipulation
to improve their performance. They are then promoted back under
license to the countries they came from. Vandana Shiva calls this
'biopiracy' and points out that small farmers who normally plant
from stored seed can easily fall victim to dependency on this
corporate attempt to lock up the food chain and keep its profits
in their hands.
When development is introduced in circumstances of gross inequality,
it too will suffer from gross inequality and in all likelihood
will reinforce it.
The rise of people's movements
While the international establishment
kept politically aloof from the growing state of North-South inequity,
progressive NGOs in the North complained vociferously about the
raw deal poor countries and poor people within them were getting.
In the UK, such organizations ran a protracted battle to be allowed
to campaign on these issues and were threatened with loss of their
charitable status for behaving 'politically'. Their attempts in
the field to help poor people exert more control over their lives
increasingly confronted the organizations with political dilemmas.
These emerged earliest in military-dominated Latin America, especially
in north-east Brazil.
Here, poverty's basics - low income, low
skills, illiteracy, hunger and ill-health - interacted with violent
oppression against indigenous groups in the Amazonian rainforests,
dispossession of peasant lands and continuing forms of rural slavery.
Recife, its capital, was a crucible of radical thinking on the
continent and the hometown of the internationally renowned Archbishop
Helder Camera: 'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.'
During the 1970s, under the inspirational
leadership of priests, local leaders and disenchanted professionals,
a number of grassroots movements emerged on the continent. Many
were intent on improving members' agricultural output, literacy
and health - an impeccable menu for social development; but they
set about this by mobilizing and 'empowering' people to act on
their own behalf. Their demand for access to resources was threatening
to the iron-clad disciplinarians then in power. The progressive
arm of the church became the seat of protest about the condition
of those living in poverty, and all the rhetoric and sometimes
the armed violence of anti-communism was used against them. As
civil war overtook Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, many
local leaders were arrested, and communities that had transformed
themselves with some outside help - in the Guatemalan highlands
for example - were deliberately massacred. For those caught up
in this, the politics of development were unavoidable.
Hard choices had to be made: 'empowerment'
could invite state repression. Without empowerment, assistance
merely propped up the forces of oppression. In such settings,
championing poor people had to mean opposing the state. Many Latin
American analysts held that poverty was structural and embedded
in the political status quo.
A new form of liberation struggle
During the 1980s, grassroots organizations
emerged in many parts of the world. Some of these began as actions
to enable poor people to exert control over resources they needed
- the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Gujarat, India,
for example, enabled women trading in the informal sector to avoid
dependency on money-lenders and resist police fines. Others mounted
resistance to large projects or destructive resource extraction.
These included the Chipko movement in the Himalayas which tried
to save trees and stop erosion of farming land, and a growing
number of movements against dams: one of the largest, in India's
Narmada Valley, was launched in 1985.
Another was the rubber-tappers union of
Brazil, a collective of associations under their leader Chico
Mendes, formed to resist forest clearances that were ruining their
livelihoods. Mendes was assassinated in 1988, tragically ensuring
that the world knew all about the bitterness of their struggle.
The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh was another example; although not
overtly political, it asserted the right of the 'unbankable' to
enter the credit-entitled world, thereby challenging anti-poor
discrimination inherent in many institutions critical to development.
By the end of the decade, the rise of social movements in the
South - a phenomenon compared to earlier liberation struggles
- was attracting considerable attention.
The key feature of these multiplying movements
was that they were authentic expressions of people's will and
action on their own behalf. All generated their own momentum,
avoiding the trap of dependency on external ideas or funds. They
wanted to show that they were not some appendage of a Northern-based
alternative movement or an offshoot of the development industry;
they could control resources, manage activities, develop policies
and protest injustice from their own mass base of support. Some
were overtly political, mobilized around a particular issue; mostly
they did not have a general ideological program. Northern solidarity
groups have given support, often providing an advocacy platform
to enable them to reach an international audience.
In the 1980s, when the Cold War was still
at full blast, the respective political positions of governments
and NGOs in both North and South were clear-cut. They were, in
a word, adversarial. Donor governments sometimes deplored their
allies' inefficiency and increasingly slapped their economic and
financial wrists, but they stayed aloof from the regime's internal
politics, pleading 'non-interference' as it suited. Whereas the
people's organizations stirring in many Southern countries often
represented the closest thing to a 'political' opposition practically
allowed. They not only expressed dissent with the existing order,
but also provided some basis for a developmental and democratic
Although such organizations had a left-wing
ideology, they were not usually aligned with existing political
parties. Even in so-called democratic societies, they usually
rejected party politics; though they might try to gain allies
within them, they believed that conventional political routes
to 'right the wrongs' were mediocre, corrupt and could not be
When 'people's power' as a political force
managed to topple authoritarian and corrupt regimes - Marcos in
the Philippines and Duvalier in Haiti - development could never
again be painted as purely economic and neutral. With the end
of the Cold War and the triumph of the capitalist and democratic
model of society, a different type of political engagement began.
The ascent of rights
During most of the Cold War, the pursuit
of rights at the international level was submerged within the
great ideological contest. In addition to the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, a number of human rights treaties were passed
by the UN General Assembly, but most accusations of human-rights
abuse were seen as a cloak for attacks on the Communist system
or other non-sympathizers with Northern values.
Human-rights activists mainly focused
on deprivations of individual civil and political rights, such
as freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest. Although
there were also international conventions on social and economic
rights, these were regarded as 'aspirational': freedom from poverty
was not a right that could be attained by legislation. The fact
that 'justice' could not be present where high proportions of
the population had no access to education, a decent diet, or a
productive livelihood was unfortunate, but development would have
to provide these before universal rights to such things could
be meaningfully claimed.
The end of East-West ideological confrontation
came at a time when this position was increasingly under challenge.
Development was not taking care of these problems, and instead
was often precipitating deprivations of 'freedom': conflict, forced
migration, child labor. The 'human needs' argument for development
had proved too puny. A much broader interpretation of human rights
than the old demands for liberty and freedom of expression should
now be brought to development's assistance. If that was done,
the inequalities reinforced by current development patterns could
be challenged, and the rights of the excluded could be upheld
with the aid of laws, constitutional provisions and international
Interestingly, the human-rights instrument
that did most to legitimize the new thrust for the fulfillment
of social and economic rights was the 1989 UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child. This convention, to which every country except
the US and Somalia became a party within a few years - a unique
human-rights achievement- combined social and economic rights
with civil and political ones. The rights of children to survival,
a family upbringing, access to health and education, were enshrined
in international law, alongside their rights to non-discrimination,
freedom from exploitation, and to have their voices heard.
Ratification of human-rights treaties
Since the 1948 Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, a number of human rights treaties have been agreed
by the UN General Assembly and subsequently passed into international
law. Most countries have signed or ratified them. A major exception
is the US. which has been unwilling to ratify almost any, including
those protecting women, children and economic and social rights.
International Declaration of Human Rights
Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC]
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against
International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial
International Convention on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR
International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Convention Against Torture [CAT]
The tide of resistance
In November 1999, 50,000 people gathered
in Seattle to disrupt World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on
a new round of trade liberalization. Protesters and African delegates
outraged by their marginalization caused the collapse of negotiations.
This demonstration of people's power, accompanied by teargas and
street battles, witnessed the emergence of a new international
The vast majority of protesters were trying
peacefully to influence discussions that they believed had no
democratic legitimacy and whose intended outcome would impoverish
people and the planet. But reaction and counter-reaction became
violent. Every subsequent international meeting of this kind -
the G-8 (seven rich world countries plus Russia), World Economic
Forum, annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF - has since been
threatened by mass protest. Disruptions in Quebec City, Prague
and Genoa have led to their location in fortress-like settings.
Signs of resistance had been accumulating.
In 1998, Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas in
Mexico said: '[Our movement] is a symptom of something more...
When we rose up against the Government we began to receive displays
of solidarity and sympathy not only from Mexicans but from people
in Chile, Argentina, Canada, the US and Central America. They
told us that the uprising represents something that they wanted
to say, and now they have found the words to say it.'
Mass protests in many Asian countries
took place in the wake of the financial crisis of 1997, by farmers
and small-scale entrepreneurs for whom the crash brought ruin.
Other similar uprisings have since occurred in Ecuador, Brazil
and Nigeria. In India, a National Alliance of People's Movements
with over 100 member organizations resists the onslaught conducted
by economic liberalization against people's lands and ways of
The new politics, whose loose ideology
is the defense of social justice and environmental integrity lambasts
'globalization' - the integration of the global economy on terms
devised by international bankers and corporations with governmental
connivance. This common thread connects a patchwork of organizations
in North and South and their profusion of local agendas. Their
resistance underlines the contradiction at the core of global
economic advance: the existing strategy for mass prosperity comes
at the cost of creating immediate poverty for millions. Transnational
corporations exert increasing economic control over the lives
of poor communities, but have no allegiance to the countries in
which they live and no empathy with movements operating on their
behalf. Even organizations that ought to be in solidarity show
an extraordinary detachment. In the words of an official of the
UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), people displaced
from their lands are 'variable factors of off-farm production',
not families who have lost their livelihoods.
The outcry globalization has evoked shows
that the grand 'economic reform' agenda is in fact a political
project, eliciting a political response. Those who form part of
the new consensus are, in their different ways, rejecting development
in its contemporary form. Many see the international politics
of resistance as a glorious renaissance in a world de-politicized
by the Communist collapse. But the problem is that the movements
are anarchic in the political sense of the term: without political
leaders, without a manifesto, without a common platform or plan.
In most countries, even in the North but
especially in the South, they function outside the existing structure
of organized politics - which they deeply distrust. They are stating
clearly what they do not want, and illustrating within their own
structures a more humane, ecologically sound and democratic way
of being. But it is hard to see how they can effect a major transformation
of policy and practice either inside countries or globally without
assaulting, by an extensive political project of their own, the
current citadels of power. And to do that they need to play a
part in organized political life and to develop agendas which
carry political weight in their settings.
In the new world fearfulness created by
the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, in which dissident
views expressed by civil society are viewed with foreboding, that
task seems more daunting than ever.