the No-Nonsense guide to

International Development

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 virus.

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 camps.

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 case.

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 [1973] 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

(selected countries)


Foreign Aid as % of GNP















 United States


Source: The Reality of Aid 2000 - Earthscan

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 following behind.

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 Armageddon.

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 food production.

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 services.

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 the US.

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 prevailing tide.

Harnessing technology

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 monsoon.

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 industrialized world.

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.

Planetary threats

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 was inseparable.

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 aid.

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 not help.

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 intensified.

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.

Water wars

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 livelihood.

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 alternative.

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 depended upon.

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 treaties.

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 [ UDHR]
Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC]
Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women {CEDAW]
International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination [ICERD]
International Convention on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR
International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]
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 political movement.

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 life.

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.

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