If your interest is in "making it happen" – participating in the transformation of our societies to a more humane and sustainable way of life – there is one book you simply must read: David Korten’s Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda. The distillation of nearly three decades of research and field experience, Korten’s book is both tightly focused (on the primacy of non-governmental organizations and voluntary action in creating a better world) and expansive (his analysis weaves together such diverse elements as the environment, global economy, governance institutions, and the transformation of consciousness).
But while Korten’s agenda is radical in the truest sense, his roots are decidedly mainstream – M.B.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University Graduate School of Business; faculty positions at Harvard, the Asian Institute of Management, and other institutions; on staff at the Ford Foundation; and consultant to the US Agency for International Development [AID]. And his message – despite its challenge to the legitimacy of some of the world’s most entrenched bureaucracies – is being heard.
Korten is now Founder and President of the People-Centered Development Forum, "a voluntary organization … to encourage and support the definition and pursuit of a people-centered development vision as a global citizens’ movement." We are pleased to announce that he is also the newest contributing editor to IN CONTEXT. In this lengthy and wide-ranging interview, he traces the development of his thinking and sketches out the critical elements of an action agenda for getting to the 21st Century. His book is available from Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave., Suite 119, West Hartford, CT 06110 ($19.95 postpaid).
Alan: Development has, in the West at least, been considered too big for anyone but government to tackle. But in your book, you argue persuasively that such thinking is inherently flawed – and that, in fact, it leads to disaster.
David: Right. We have to think of development as a people’s movement, not as a government-funded project. Development issues relate to values and relationships – which you cannot buy with government funding.
That’s a trap we’ve gotten into – we think government can correct these things for us. But we cannot expect our "leaders" – in quotes – to provide the necessary leadership. What we see now demonstrated is quite the opposite – our current leadership is taking us very skillfully and powerfully in exactly the wrong direction with great intent.
Alan: How did you come to these conclusions, and move from large institutional settings such as USAID to developing something like the People-Centered Development Forum? What was the evolutionary pathway?
David: My start in the international development business was actually in business management and management education. The shift began when I was the academic director of INCAE, the Central American management institute. We were studying the family planning programs of El Salvador and Nicaragua, and one of the critical influences on my thinking was seeing how the structures of those systems thwarted any effort to both generate client demand and be responsive to it. The nature of bureaucratic organizations made such responsiveness impossible.
So, once back in the US, I began working with people from Third World management institutes and the heads of national family planning programs in a major effort to improve management in these programs. Some of us reached the conclusion that one of the important factors determining contraceptive use is the extent to which people feel that they are in control of their lives.
Then Gaby Mendoza, who was president of the Asian Institute of Management, made the observation that we have simply never developed any method or theory for managing an organization to empower its clientele. So we set out to create this new approach to management.
Alan: What was the problem with the old approach?
David: Well, the development management field was hung up almost exclusively on project management. There was a lot of talk about the concept of people’s participation in projects, but there was an absolute, fundamental conflict between every element of the project management process and participation.
Alan: So the focus was on getting the thing done, as opposed to getting people involved?
David: Exactly. The planning process is very narrow and mechanistic. It’s geared to coming up with a blueprint. Once you’ve got the project designed, all of the decisions are basically made – so after that, "participation" simply means getting free labor and materials to implement a design that somebody else created. To broaden the meaning of participation was a fairly radical departure. At the Harvard Institute for International Development, for example, economists considered the question we were concerned with – "How do you make participation work?" – to be non-legitimate. The only legitimate question for them is, "Does participation achieve development more effectively than non-participation?"
Alan: They don’t value participation, per se?
David: No, and of course their definition of development is the conventional economist’s definition – economic growth. As if that were the only human value!
So when the Ford Foundation invited my wife Fran and I to become staff in the Philippines, it was a very freeing experience – it was good to get out of the academic environment and into the field, where people were actually doing things. And in the Philippines, there are a lot of people concerned with how to make participation work.
Alan: What did you find there? Was participation working?
David: Well, one of the Ford Foundation grants that Fran became responsible for was to the National Irrigation Administration of the Philippines [NIA] for two very small pilot projects involving two associations of irrigators. The NIA, along with some former Ford staff, had realized that they needed to field community organizers to work with the associations, rather than approaching it purely as an engineering task. The Ford grant helped provide these organizers, and some research to evaluate the process.
Both projects were failures in the conventional sense. In one, the organizers used a conflict-oriented model – build cohesion by getting a group organized against something – that ended up deepening the chasm between two opposing factions in the community. Since both factions had to be able to work together to make the irrigation system work, that project was a non-starter. The other project looked very successful in terms of participation – the farmers were involved with the engineers in the design and construction – but the dam washed out because the engineers used a technology that was unable to withstand the frequent local flooding.
So it wasn’t that participation didn’t work. In fact, the data indicated that participation was absolutely essential. The problem was that the NIA didn’t know how to do it.
Alan: Not many people do, apparently. So how can a large bureaucracy such as the NIA support real grassroots participation?
David: That was the big question. John Ickis, a colleague at INCAE, did a study of some of AID’s rural development programs in Central America – they were trying to involve the participation of small farmers – and he concluded that these projects were failing because they were being implemented in existing organizations with entrenched strategies and structures. In other words, these programs ignored basic organizational theory – if you make a major change in organizational strategy, the structure of the organization has to follow the change in order to support it.
So it became evident that if we were serious about making participation work here in the Philippines, that also implied, ultimately, changing the whole structure of national agencies. Obviously, that’s not easy!
About that time, I began work on a paper for the Ford Foundation on community organizing in Asia. I tried to identify some success stories – cases of rural development programs involving participation that seemed to work – and to understand something of what was special about those cases. What I found, in essence, was that successful activities evolved through a bottom-up learning process.
Alan: "Bottom-up" means different things to different people. What does it mean in this context?
David: The basic pattern involves an outsider getting involved with a problem at the community level, and working together with the people of that community to solve the problem. Usually there are a lot of mistakes, but that’s part of the process – they keep trying and testing their assumptions, and embracing the errors, until they eventually figure out what works. Then they gradually build a supporting organization around what works, from the bottom up. The whole thing is grounded in experience, and the organization fits with the nature of the task. It might ultimately develop into an organization of national scope.
So Fran and I worked with our Philippine colleagues to develop a learning strategy within the NIA that approximated this process of creating a new organization. That meant developing field pilots, treating them as learning laboratories – with very intensive feedback between field and center – and going through a process of reviewing all the agency’s policies and procedures to identify the barriers they create at the field level. That way you begin to re-create the organization from the bottom up, with lots of attention to social process, so that you’re building new norms and ways of operating. [See Transforming a Bureaucracy, by Frances F. Korten and Robert Y. Siy, Jr., also from Kumarian Press, for more of this story. – Ed.]
Alan: And this was a very new approach to project management.
David: Actually, it was managing a process, not a project – which contrasts fundamentally to the way most development agencies program. Usually experts at the top in the capital city design a project blueprint, build an organization from the top down, and try to do everything at once. It’s the difference between what I call the learning process approach and the blueprint approach to program development.
This idea started getting a lot of attention from people in AID, who asked me to work with them to see if we could make this approach work within the AID system. I moved to Indonesia, and we set up a regional committee to study the most promising examples of participation in AID-sponsored activities. That committee developed a report that drew heavily on our Ford Foundation experience and essentially said that you cannot introduce a project into an existing bureaucratic agency, and demand participation as part of the project design, and assume that it will happen in project implementation – because it doesn’t.
The agency itself has to go through a learning process. You have to build a coalition of people within the agency committed to the change. You have to provide support for the process, including a lot more attention to social factors. You have to give staff the time to work with their counterparts, as well as small amounts of money that can be used flexibly for consultants and such. And there has to be a very long-term commitment – not to the implementation of a specific project, but to the transformation of the agency.
We discussed this report both with high level staff in Washington and at a meeting of all the AID mission directors in Asia. We concluded that the report made a lot of sense – but it was also clear that AID was moving further and further away from the ability to work in the required mode, and there was absolutely no prospect of turning it around.
Alan: Because it has the momentum of a supertanker?
David: Actually, that conveys a false sense of direction and purpose. I prefer the analogy of a brain-dead jellyfish that floats with the currents. Now, some people were committed both to participation and to staying in AID and weren’t willing to give up – but to me, the handwriting was on the wall. And the more experience I’ve gained, the more I’ve reflected on it, the more stupid I feel that it took so long for me to figure that out! [laughter] I mean, the whole AID system is geared toward big projects. The personnel system only sends people out on two- to four-year tours. But this process – transforming a bureaucracy to work in a strategic, participatory, nonbureaucratic mode – takes on the order of ten years.
Alan: So the AID system guarantees that the only constant is the project, rather than the people.
David: Exactly. There’s an interesting project cycle that goes with AID’s system, and it has three phases: First there’s a new group with a terrific idea, and they go through the "fantasy generation" stage where everybody’s all excited. In our committee’s study, for example, we realized that the AID projects people were excited about were always the new ones.
But because of staff turnover and rotation, implementation is often done by a very different group than the one that designed the project. The new staff find themselves in what one might call the "damage control" phase – because the project never works out the way the designers fantasized it. Then they go through another cycle of turnover in staff, and this new group comes into the mission, reviews the old portfolio, and says "My God! What a mess! How could they have done this?!" They go through the final "slum clearance" phase, where they wipe it all away and start with a new fantasy.
These bureaucracies have got to transform. The question is, how do you make that happen on a sufficient scale? Even the Ford Foundation, a relatively small organization, has no internal learning mechanism. This bottom-up program strategy has become embedded in Ford’s Southeast Asia office only because people there learned it by working with Fran – but there’s no good way to transfer it to other offices.
So how do we get this methodology embedded in larger donors like AID? With time, it became clear that the strategy of focusing on the donors is a dead end, especially with even larger organizations like the World Bank. The Bank generally doesn’t even have staff on the ground – they parachute in a team to do the project design.
Alan: And they have larger wads of money, which seem to demand huge projects from the outset.
David: That’s right – and they’re way overfunded and overdesigned. So a group of us were struggling with the question, "Where do you get leverage on the system?"
There was a conceptual flip for me that came about here. Two of my AID colleagues in the Philippines had moved to Washington and become exposed to some of the things AID was doing with voluntary organizations in Africa. Suddenly I realized that I had been thinking of the Ford Foundation as a donor, when the characteristics that made it effective were those of a non-governmental organization [NGO] – in terms of flexibility, staffing, stability, and a variety of other things. That led me back to my original case-studies on success stories and the learning process. Four of these were NGO cases.
Alan: What’s one example of the kind of success story you found?
David: The purest one was the Amul Dairy experience in Gujarat, India, which has its origins in the late 1940s. Dr. Kurian, who is the key figure in this story, was at that time a young engineer assigned to a remote area of Gujarat, working with the government cooperative. That cooperative wasn’t doing anything, so he got involved with some of the local dairy producers who had their own cooperative – but it was struggling. He helped them develop a system of milk collection from very small producers. These were mostly women with one cow in their living room, who would take a couple of liters of milk in a can down to the cooperative’s central collection point.
That grew into a federated system of cooperatives at the state level, and now these cooperatives have enormous modern milk processing plants and tank cars carrying milk all over India. Kurian ultimately was asked to create the National Dairy Development Board, to support the development of dairy cooperatives all through India. Ironically, when they tried to replicate them in another state, they had very different outcomes – in part because they ended up working from the top down.
Now, these stories go on and on. What connects them is that the original model was built via this bottom-up process, and the managers worked up from the village experience and grew with the organization.
Alan: So where do NGOs fit into this?
David: Well, I believe NGOs can play this catalytic role. In the late 1970s many of the predominantly relief organizations were beginning to understand the truth of the old saying, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime." Many NGOs were starting to do community development – and trying to empower local communities to help themselves.
But a number of them were coming to realize that there was more to it. People near a fishing pond usually know how to fish – but either someone else owns the fishing ground, or confiscates the fish once it’s caught. Often the bureaucratic infrastructure of government is directly involved, extending its own control and fostering dependency. So again, if you’re serious about empowerment, you’ve got to develop a whole new set of policies and institutional arrangements.
Alan: It strikes me that what you’re describing sounds like a classic paradigm shift. What’s the essence of the new paradigm in development?
David: It’s captured in Kenneth Boulding’s concept of "cowboy economics" vs. "spaceship economics." The growth-centered world view has very deep historical roots – human society has for a long time lived in a world that did seem like the cowboy’s open frontier, with limitless resources to exploit. And for all practical purposes, it was an open frontier.
It’s not so much our paradigm as our reality that’s shifted, making it necessary to readjust our whole way of thinking – and our lifestyles – to match the spaceship realities. Presuming that we can pursue unlimited growth based on ever-increasing environmental exploitation is simply out of touch with our reality.
We’ve always approached development as though the agenda were to get Third World people consuming at the rate of First World people. But what I’m arguing now – and I really believe this is a fundamental shift in our thinking – is that we can no longer think of the world as divided into rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, but rather as divided between the over-consumers and the under-consumers, vis-à-vis our ecological resources. The under-consumers just aren’t getting enough, while the over-consumers squander far more than their fair share.
From this perspective, the over-consumers are every bit as underdeveloped as the under-consumers. That shifts the development education agenda fundamentally, because the main focus of development education efforts has been to push for increases in foreign assistance, with the idea that more money flowing from North to South will help the South overcome its poverty through increasing investment and growth.
But if we recognize that our predominant lifestyles here in the North are over-consuming; and that we are maintaining that lifestyle on a finite planet through the systematic extraction not only of financial resources, but more fundamentally, environmental resources – energy, minerals and so forth – from the under-consuming countries; and that we have been expecting the South to absorb an extra share of pollution, from greenhouse gases to shiploads of toxic waste – it becomes clear that in order to reverse those flows we have to make changes in our lifestyle.
In fact, much of our foreign assistance actually increases our ability to extract a net flow of resources out of the under-consuming countries of the South – to support our over-consumption. For example, loans from the World Bank and the other multi-lateral development banks add to the debt burden of these countries, giving us a future claim against their resources.
Alan: A claim on which we’re now collecting. We’re already getting back more money from the South in loan payments than we’re giving or loaning in new assistance.
David: Exactly. In a sense, while we distract them by putting a dime in their outstretched cup, we take a dollar from their back pocket. That’s one part of the redefinition of the problems of development.
The other part of the redefinition is creating an awareness of interdependence – the consequences of poverty and environmental destruction, and how that relates to the breakdown of social structures, the breakdown of family, the intensification of communal violence, and so forth. There is no way that the rich in the North can continue to escape the consequences of this mis-definition of our role in reality. If we continue with business as usual, we’re moving toward a breakdown in human civilization – and nobody escapes that.
Alan Durning, in the most recent Worldwatch State of the World report, observes that in the 1980s we saw a growing gap between the life experience of the rich and the poor. More people are becoming super rich while the poor sink deeper into desperation. He predicts that continuing business as usual will push 50% of the world population below the poverty line by the middle of the next century. Imagine the social implications of the resulting desperation and resentment!
Alan: I’ve seen recent figures that in the US alone, the top 1% are getting as much income as the bottom 40% put together.
David: That’s exactly the phenomenon, and the truly frightening thing is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Americans are facing up to that reality and its implications.
On the other hand, there are some positive indications. There’s a growing interest in simplifying lifestyles [see IC #26]. I even saw an article in one of the investment magazines cautioning investors that the consumerist orientation of the American public is beginning to shift, and that it may not be sound investment strategy to invest in stocks that are consumer-oriented! [See p. 9.]
But from my own experience, the thing that is most hopeful is the reaction among the development education community in the US to this message – their interest in playing a major role in the reeducation of the American society to the implications of our global reality.
Alan: Whom do you include in the development education community?
David: Those who teach about international issues in public schools and universities, as well as people responsible for educational outreach in mass-based organizations like the YWCA and YMCA – which have millions of US members. They are very seriously engaged in trying to increase global awareness among their members. Another major example is the Church World Service, which is a part of the National Council of Churches and tied into a major segment of the religious community in the United States. Groups like this are encouraging people to do various kinds of self-study, and to educate themselves in these global issues and their implications.
Alan: When you total it up, you’re really talking about a very large segment of the population.
David: Yes, and these organizations have direct links into the grassroots groups that are potentially the truly consequential actors.
Part of the task is to help people recognize that virtually every country has its own North/South, over-consumer/under-consumer dynamics. We can learn about the Third World by studying the dynamics of poverty in our own country. By realizing the extent to which we are dealing with a global phenomenon that replicates itself locally as well, we can begin to relate to Southern countries in a wholly new way, with much of the emphasis on people-to-people cooperation in solving the problems we all share in common.
This involves a far more powerful and meaningful engagement than responding to a TV ad to send your fifty cents a day to save a child in the South. The problems of illiteracy, AIDS, homelessness, abandoned children, etc. are replicated throughout the world, and they have to be addressed through much more direct civic action. Solving them involves re-creating community, as well as reexamining the whole set of political and economic structures that create an imbalance of power in our world – and ultimately re-creating these structures, too.
Alan: Given that analysis, what do you recommend to private voluntary organizations [PVOs] as the most effective strategy?
David: Well, for PVOs working in international poverty, the implications are quite profound. Many of those organizations continue to focus on field operations in Southern countries – which is basically an anomaly. The longer they do that, the greater the demonstration of our development failure, because true development progress would mean indigenous organizations were picking up that role.
But more importantly, a continuing focus on projects in Southern countries fails to recognize that the problem really starts back here – and our major contribution to resolving it has to start with ourselves.
We have to begin to redefine the development agenda in much broader terms, and at the very top of it, currently, has to be demilitarization. President Bush has helped to underline this issue rather dramatically. I find very distressing the lack of awareness in the United States that our involvement in the Middle East is the culmination of years and years of policy failure – specifically, our failure to reduce our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources, and the collective enthusiasm of the arms-producing nations for arming the world’s dictators with sophisticated weapons. Now we’re dealing with the results in a way that pushes a grotesque misallocation of resources into military spending – something the world simply cannot afford. So the number one item on the development agenda, in my view, is peace.
Number two on the agenda is lifestyle: how do we learn to live well, but not extravagantly, in terms of our use of nonrenewable resources? We face the problem that our whole economic system has been structured in a way that if it doesn’t keep growing – which means people continuing to consume – it starts to collapse. We’ve got to spend more time trying to understand why, because that certainly shouldn’t be the case. If we were well-off last year, why can’t we be well-off this year at the same level of output? Why is it that if output doesn’t grow by 3 to 6%, we think we’re becoming impoverished?
We’ve also got to get away from the basic mind-set – ironically, it’s most explicitly laid out in the Brundtland Commission report [Our Common Future] – that the poor are responsible for environmental destruction. The argument that comes with it is that you can’t deal with poverty through redistribution because that’s not politically feasible, so you have to eliminate it through growth. The common prescription for enhancing growth is to stimulate further consumption in the wealthy countries of the North, which stimulates more demand for products of Southern countries, which stimulates their economies – benefiting first the wealthy who control them – and ultimately pulls their poor above the poverty line through the miracle of trickle-down economics. That’s the theory – and it has got the problem turned around exactly backwards. Every policy geared to that set of assumptions will only deepen the problem.
But the larger issue on the agenda is changing our collective image of our world, and of the nature of human progress. All of these other things – peace and lifestyle and development and so forth – are derivatives of that.
Alan: What about international trade issues? They have to figure strongly in this analysis.
David: The trade and investment issues being addressed in the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] negotiations are crucial, because the predominant thrust – particularly of the US position – is locked into the growth paradigm and the concept of the open frontier. The GATT process reflects very strongly the fact that the whole system of economic thought is built around the well-being of the firm rather than the well-being of people and households. The push to remove all barriers to international trade and investment is an attempt to strengthen the position of transnational corporations in relation to the state, in terms of who regulates the economy, and in relation to the community, in terms of who controls productive assets.
Individuals and small businesses have a very difficult time competing against the economic power of transnational corporations, so economic control gets concentrated in a very large organization that has no roots in the community. That means the whole economic system is functioning in a way that tends to destroy community, the links among people at the community level, and the sense among people that they are in control of their lives and can make their own decisions about how to use their resources. And of course, if you own your own backyard, it’s more likely to be well stewarded than if you own a share in a transnational corporation that owns your backyard and wants short-term profits.
So I find the US positions on the GATT negotiations very frightening, because to the extent they’re accepted, they set up a dynamic that furthers destruction of the environment, community, and the empowerment of people.
There’s very little public awareness of these issues, partly because the whole set of negotiations is carried on behind closed doors. It gets almost no attention in the press. Decisions are being made which will have profound implications for our lives and for the future of the world that are not even discussed publicly. They are basically being decided by groups in which only the transnational corporations are represented. Achieving greater public education on these issues is quite essential.
Alan: Given the negative forces operating now, what’s operating in our favor? How can we turn these negative processes around?
David: To me, the greatest hope for change is the realization that we are engaged in a process of collective self-destruction. When we’re talking about change, we’re not talking about idealistic values. We’re talking about bottom-line pragmatism – survival, which is very much about self-interest. So we have to accomplish two things: We have to shake people to their very roots through blatant fear of the consequences of our actions; and at the same time, we have to create a sense of the alternatives and demonstrate that the end is not inevitable.
Alan: We need a carrot as well as a stick.
David: Exactly. There is a way out of it, and it offers the opportunity to restore community and beauty and meaning to our lives. Compulsive consumerism really is a psychological disease -it’s a response to our sense of alienation, loss of control and loss of community, and we will ultimately be much healthier when we are able to reorganize our lives and society so that we’re not caught up in that.
Alan: And since the larger power structures in the culture are relatively blind, at this point, to the magnitude of the dilemma, voluntary efforts to take action and raise awareness are crucial.
David: That’s absolutely right. There are several elements operating in this dynamic – our leaders have climbed their way up through the power structure, and so are very much a part of it. At the same time, they are under such enormous pressure that they have very little opportunity to reflect. They’re almost inevitably pushed into traditional perspectives and solutions.
People within the grassroots have much more awareness of the problems, as well as the luxury of being able to reflect, to experiment with alternative solutions, to educate themselves, to organize themselves and so forth.
But while working on encouraging the development of a people’s movement, we cannot neglect the political dimension, because we have leaders who are not only ineffectual – they are actively destructive. In some respects we’d be a lot better off without that leadership.
Among Southern NGOs, I’ve been seeing a growing awareness of the need to get hold of the political agenda, but they’re being terribly torn. The conventional political parties don’t seem to be surfacing alternative leadership. So how does a citizen respond? If you get into creating another party it will look very much like the existing ones, and probably be equally unresponsive to people’s real concerns. How then do you create a non-party politics that remains responsive to people, that is able to capture political power and the political agenda in support of transformation? This also has to be an issue for voluntary organizations here in the US.
Alan: The irony in this line of thinking is that one could construe our President as supporting it – the "thousand points of light" idea, his talk of "empowerment" and "self-help." Yet what you’re talking about seems different – it could lead to building a decentralized alternative political system that might, in the long term, define some of the more problematic aspects of centralized government out of relevance.
David: That’s an interesting argument, but of course, there are limitations to it because areas such as the military and defense inherently reside in central government. And if central government chooses to use that authority in irresponsible ways, it fundamentally undermines everything that the community-based activities are engaged in. We also need the state to counter the growing power of unregulated international capital, which otherwise is restrained only by the amoral forces of the market.
Alan: Clearly we can’t just ignore government and hope it will go away.
David: No, because many of the essential items on the agenda depend on control of government’s policy levers, as well as direct grassroots action. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the GATT negotiations, government has the capacity to pursue actions that are fundamentally detrimental to a people-centered development agenda, without ever being subjected to public scrutiny and debate. We’ve simply got to get more accountability in government, even while we press for a people’s movement and for taking responsibility for larger areas of activity.
Alan: To what extent do you think that your analysis might lead to a call for something like a global "velvet revolution" – a mass uprising similar to what happened in Eastern Europe, or the Philippines?
David: Well, whether we like it or not, we’re in a period of rather wrenching changes already that one could refer to as revolutionary. My own view of the change process is very much in the Gandhian tradition – the means have to be consistent with the end.
Our issue is one of the reconstruction of institutions. A revolution aimed at grabbing hold of the instruments of power is generally aimed at gaining control over existing institutions. It may even destroy some of them in the process – but a violent revolution does not transform them. And in the end, those who achieve power through violence too often rule through violence, which is the very antithesis of our goal.
My sense is that the real task is re-creation, the regeneration of institutional frameworks in a wholly new mode that is searching, experimental, and very mass-based. This is likely to have a much more productive outcome if it takes place through a non-violent process – but that non-violent process also has to involve capturing some of the traditional reins of political power. That happens through the removal of legitimacy from traditional forms of political process and traditional candidates, and the surfacing of alternatives.
Alan: Which translates, as usual, to savvy communication and good organizing.
David: Very much so.
Alan: Still, this is a rather revolutionary gospel you’re preaching – yet I hear that it’s being very well received in mainstream circles.
David: Yes, that seems to be the case – and it’s often startling to me. I face most new forums with a gnawing fear that my message is going to be perceived as too radical, not sufficiently documented, and rejected out of hand. Invariably, I am pleasantly surprised at the reception. Now, I haven’t yet walked into the dens of the hard-line right – but we have to try that also.
Alan: So people are willing to entertain, and even embrace, the idea that we’ve been doing everything wrong.
David: They seem to. For example, at one recent national development conference, I was on a panel where the central question was, "Is US foreign assistance still relevant?" We were speaking to a body of people whose livelihood, by and large, depends on that foreign assistance system. My basic message was that it isn’t relevant, that it has become self-destructive, and that it’s time to consider not reforming, but doing away with the major instruments of foreign assistance – specifically, the World Bank, the other multi-lateral banks, and AID. I thought I was likely to be tarred and feathered! [laughter] But people seemed to accept that those options need to be looked at. In fact, afterwards one of my friends said, "Well, that’s all very interesting, but I felt like you were pulling your punches. Why didn’t you really lay it on the line?"
Alan: Why are development professionals now ready to hear your critical message?
David: I think it comes from an underlying sense – generally not articulated – that we are in deep trouble. There is a lot of fear, a lot of uneasiness in people’s hearts; and when someone comes out and not only articulates things in a way that fits with what they know from their daily experience and their reading to be true, but also points to options – ways out of the dilemma – it becomes possible to acknowledge the previously unacknowledged. If you can provide a sense of empowerment – a sense that we don’t have to go down the drain, that we can do something about it – it’s actually very energizing.
I find this true with my writing as well. When I write something that people really respond to, what they tell me is that I’m articulating ideas that they feel at an intuitive level. When they hear something that rings true with their intuition, it validates their feelings, gives them the terminology to express those feelings, and a framework to act. That seems to be what Getting to the Twenty-First Century is doing for a number of people.
Alan: So, the perennial last question – how hopeful you are? What reasons for hope do you have?
David: Well, if I put on my academic hat and try to be objective – looking at trends and prospects and so forth – I get depressed. But if I put on the activist hat, I feel optimistic. Being an activist, you have to be an optimist and believe in the possibility for change.
I’m heartened in that regard by two very key events in recent history: the enormous shift in environmental awareness just since early 1988, and the changes in Eastern Europe which took place in an extraordinarily brief time. These are demonstrations of the potential for very rapid, positive change in our globally connected world. Now, of course, we’re going through a period of a very serious setback with the instability in Eastern Europe and the war in the Persian Gulf. But even these demonstrate how quickly and how profoundly events can change us.
I hope we’ll emerge from this Middle East situation with an awareness of the extent to which we created the problem through ill-conceived policies. But I’m afraid the euphoria of a swift and decisive military victory is even more likely to obscure our vision in this regard. Worse, it may lead us ever deeper into the misallocation of global resources for wasteful – and ultimately destabilizing – military expenditures, locking us more firmly on a course of collective social and ecological destruction from which there is no return.
We are clearly at a moment of truth.