Poverty has many causes and expressions– including political, environmental, educational, cultural, and spiritual–economic reform is therefore not a panacea. To eradicate poverty, we must instead develop a multidimensional set of remedies. Most importantly, we must realize that economic growth is not an end in itself, it is simply the means by which civilization can advance and sustain the cultural and spiritual values of individual and society.
Despite tremendous advances in technology, economic development, and an increase in global wealth, the economic disparity between rich and poor has grown dramatically over the past 30 years. Growing numbers of people, primarily in the Southern hemisphere, do not have adequate access to life’s basic necessities–food, water, shelter, education, healthcare and employment. But economic poverty is not the only form of affliction that bankrupts human life. For among the affluent fifth of humanity–the car drivers, the internet surfers, and the throwaway buyers; in short, all who have access to the fruits of the global economy–another form of poverty is on the rise: the poverty of affluence, the poverty of the spirit. And, in an ironic twist of fate–the more the global economy tries to feed the social, psychological and spiritual hungers of the affluent with an ever-increasing array of material goods, the more the poor people of the South are effected, the more the environment suffers.
Therefore, to many of those who are concerned about the fate of humanity and the earth, the issue that looms larger and larger is this: how can we create a society that is free from poverty–both material and spiritual–and how can we do this without destroying the earth we live on in the process? In other words, since the dominant neo-liberal economy has failed us so utterly in eradicating poverty, what can we replace it with?
The influential, UN sponsored Brundtland Report, issued in 1987, declared that the answer is “sustainable development.” Now, more than a decade later–as both material and spiritual poverty has increased dramatically–it has become evident that deeper solutions are needed. Because, as sustainable development has become increasingly part of the global discourse, it has also maintained the fatal flaws of the neo-liberal development paradigm.
We need to move “beyond sustainable development” toward a spirit-centered vision of progress and economic prosperity. We need a development model that is life-centered rather than matter-centered; one that grows from local communities, that is cooperative rather than competitive, one that shares wealth equitably, maintains harmony with the earth, protects local markets, vitalizes local cultures, and makes spirituality the defining context of progress.
2. Global Poverty and Inequality
2.1 Poverty: A Rising Tide
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Despite the growing globalization of economic and political affairs, for most of humanity today, these rights have become increasingly inaccessible.
Indeed, the combined accumulated wealth of the three richest individuals is greater than the combined gross national product (GNP) of the 48 poorest countries, or a quarter of the world’s nations.
Despite promises of greater equality by many politicians and economists, there has instead been a tremendous increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years. According to the UN’s Human Development Report (1998), in 1960, the income of the richest countries was 30 times greater than that of the world’s poorest countries. By 1995 this income disparity had increased to 84 times. In over 70 countries, per capita income is lower today than it was 20 years ago. And according to World Bank sources in 1999, almost three billion people–half the world’s population, live on less than two dollars a day.
Despite the conventional belief that the world’s economy has experienced soaring economic outputs during the past 30 years, the ranks of the world’s poor has continued to increase dramatically. Some 1.5 billion people now meet Robert McNamara’s 1978 definition of absolute poverty: ” a condition of life so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.”
The dismal reality of global poverty and hunger is even more disquieting when considering that goods and foods are more abundant than ever before. Yet the number of people without adequate shelter and enough purchasing capacity to buy decent food is growing. Clean drinking water is another growing problem. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, it is estimated that almost a third of all people in developing countries lack sufficient drinking water. A fifth of all children receive insufficient intake of calories and protein, and two billion people–a third of the human race–are suffering from anemia.
Although 30 million people die of hunger each year and 800 million suffer from malnutrition, the world’s food supply is abundantly high. “In fact,” writes Ignacio Ramonet in the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, “food products have never been so abundant.” Indeed, according to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, there is enough food produced in the world today to supply each citizen with at least 2,700 calories per day. Millions of people, however, do not have the ability to purchase and consume enough food to avoid malnutrition and hunger.
Poverty and economic inequality are not just problems faced by poor nations. Amid the food bounty of the world’s richest nation–the United States–millions of children’s growth is stunted by malnutrition. With its unparalleled industrial and service economy, there are millions of unemployed and homeless people in the United States. Millions more work full time jobs while still remaining in poverty.
Economic inequality and material poverty are global problems facing people in both industrial and pre-industrial countries. Only in some countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and a few other countries, where economic rights are seen as integral parts of democracy, has abject poverty been eradicated.
3. Toward A Broader Definition of Poverty
3.1 Beyond Facts and Statistics
To further understand the daunting economic inequality in the world, let us look at a few staggering facts gathered from the United Nation’s Human Development Report in 1998 and 1999. This data illustrate the growing inequity between rich and poor, between the North and the South.
An analysis of long-term trends shows that the economic disparity between the richest and poorest countries was about:
3 to 1 in 1820
11 to 1 in 1913
35 to 1 in 1950
44 to 1 in 1973
72 to 1 in 1992
84 to 1 in 1998
- The 48 poorest countries in the Southern hemisphere account for less than 0.4 per cent of global exports.
- The combined wealth of the world’s 200 richest people hit $1 trillion in 1999; the combined incomes of the 582 million people living in the 43 least developed countries is $146 billion
- According to an Oxfam report, the lives of 1.7 million children will be needlessly lost this year  because of failure to increase the standard of living of poor people.
As important as these economic facts are in illustrating the disparity between rich and poor people today, it is important to understand that poverty does not simply signify a threat to one’s physical existence (subsistence poverty), but, rather, the failure to achieve the standard of living that is usual in one’s own society. In other words, as Godfried Engbersen, professor of sociology at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, writes: “[I]f we define those in the bottom 10 or 20 percent income bracket as poor, then there will always be poor people. But the bottom 10 or 20 percent in a very rich country can be prosperous. The term does not only denote the relative disadvantage of one group compared with others, it implies a threshold.”
Poverty, in other words, is a relative term that cannot be exclusively quantified through an economic framework. A farmer in the state of Kerala, India ( known for its high literacy and employment rates, its low birth rates, and its environmental awareness) is considered poor by Western standards. Because of relatively easy access to healthcare and education, however, the farmer can be considered “rich” compared to the landless, slum-dwellers of Bombay. Similarly, a Mexican, migrant farm worker in California may consider himself fortunate compared to his poverty-stricken relatives living in a shantytown across the border.
If we compare the Indian farmer with the Mexican farm worker, strictly on the basis of per capita income, the Mexican farmer comes out ahead. However, if we use the broader definition of poverty as described above, the Kerala farmer is better off. Although he may never be able to afford, or even need a car, by the standards of Kerala, he has all the basic requirements in order to lead a relatively healthy and fulfilling life, including a supportive community and family. Yet, while the Mexican farm worker drives a car and earns many times more than the Kerala farmer, by the standards of America, he is simply “a poor, migrant farm worker.” His work is seasonal; his home is a shack shared with five other men; he has no health benefits; he is illiterate; he cannot afford to rent an apartment or a house. Most importantly–as an economic refugee–he is separated from his family and his community. In short, his life has all the trademarks of poverty.
By thus broadening the definition of poverty, a household can be considered poor when its income is below a certain level depriving its members of material and other conditions necessary for proper participation in their society.
3.2 Impoverishment of People and Culture
Current development practices often creates poverty where there was virtually none before. Ladakh, or “Little Tibet,” is a case in point. When Swedish linguist Helena Nordberg-Hodge was introduced to a remote Ladakhi village by a young man named Tsewang in 1975, she was surprised to see that all the houses in the village were both large and beautiful. She therefore asked Tsewang where the poor people lived. “We don’t have any poor people here,” he said, even though, according to Western, capitalist development standards, the village would be considered “poor.” Almost a decade later, however–after Ladakh had received its share of Western- style development– Nordberg-Hodge overheard the same man talking to some tourists. “If you could only help us Ladahkis,” Tsewang said, “we’re so poor.”
In fact, over a period of two decades, Ladakh had indeed become poor in various ways. The people had become psychologically impoverished by feeling inferior to the newly introduced Western lifestyle after being invaded by the messengers of development–tourism, film, and advertisements. The new cash economy undermined their traditional barter system, which in turn, for the first time, created unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor. The sudden introduction to pesticides, hybrid seeds and new growing methods, caused the precarious ecology of this arid area to become imbalanced. According to Nordberg-Hodge: “I have watched the appearance of unemployment and inflation and a dramatic rise in crime; I have watched population levels soar, fueled by a variety of economic and psychological pressures; I have watched the disintegration of families and communities; and I have watched people become separated from the land; as self-sufficiency is gradually replaced by economic dependence on the outside world.”
During the past 30 years, the South’s complex, cultural diversity has systematically been assaulted and impoverished by a new, commercial and global monoculture based on pop-music, violent films and seductive advertisements. “Westernized Indian films have,” according to Nordberg-Hodge, “had a profound impact on young Ladakhis, making them feel ashamed of their own traditions and values.”
This sudden imposition of a foreign culture upon another has become quite extensive through the globalization of the corporate economy. The newly adopted “pseudo-culture” often makes the indigenous peoples believe that their own culture is “inferior.” Thus they become easy prey for economic exploitation. P. R. Sarkar, propounder of the Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT), terms this form of economic bondage “psycho-economic exploitation.”
The eradication of poverty must therefore be seen in a larger, cultural context. That is, to maintain and strengthen local culture, language, and indigenous values is integral to the struggle against hunger, unemployment and loss of natural resources.
3.3 Child Labor: Beyond the Myths
The International Labor organization’s “aim is to work towards the progressive elimination of child labor by strengthening national capacities to address child labor, and by creating a worldwide movement to combat it.” Most people in the North would agree that this is a noble goal. However, a closer look will show that people in the South do not all agree, especially not the poor children and parents involved. Just ask Khalid. You can meet him at the website of Save the Children Fund (www.oneworld.org/scf). Here he’ll tell you that “most people in my village stitch footballs. If there was a ban on child labor, most of [us…] would go hungry.”
Prompted by recent campaigns against child labor that backfired badly, Save the Children Fund (SCF) have had to rethink their strategy. In 1994 the US threatened to boycott garments made by children in Bangladesh where 50,000 children consequently lost their jobs only to end up as beggars and prostitutes. According to Rachel Marcus of SCF, the boycott had good intentions but “in Bangladesh it was seen as a case of Westerners selectively applying universal principles to a situation they did not understand.”
What organizations such as SCF is starting to understand is that “child labor,” in which children are exploited by multinational corporations, is merely a symptom of an unjust economic system that profits on the labor of the poor. In the words of an Indian NGO: “Only a total destruction of the monstrous economic system that dominates the earth today will help us put an end to child labor and starvation. This is what all well-wishers and friends of children in India should strive for.”
Recent statistics have revealed that only five percent of all the world’s child laborers are involved in sweatshops run by multinationals. The rest are working in the rice fields in India, in small artisanal businesses in Nepal, as herders in Africa, or as apprentices in Pakistan, in businesses which their families have run for generations. Thus many researchers and activists are now claiming that to ban such work is to destroy local cultures and economies, which would then simply facilitate the growth of the global market.
The issue of child labor thus illustrates the complex tapestry of reality we call “poverty.” It forces us to forego our Westernized assumptions and to ask questions such as: What is culture? What is a local economy? What is the role of children in a local culture and economy? What is work and what is education? For Nordberg-Hodge these questions are important, because the issue cannot be simply defined: “There is a blanket assumption that wherever children work, it is an abuse. But working with the family and community helps to shape their identity, gives them a vital role in life and a feeling of responsibility and belonging.”
4. Two Economic Myths
4.1 The Myth of GNP
Today the most widely used indicator of a country’s economic health is the gross national product (GNP). It is almost universally accepted that a climbing GNP means that a country’s people are becoming better off. But is this really true?
When Ladakh was a “poor,” sustainable subsistence economy, with a very low GNP, its frugal, yet culturally advanced inhabitants lived more in accord with the United Nations’s declaration of human rights than in the years since Western development arrived. In other words, an increased GNP caused by Western-style development did not, according to Nordberg-Hodge, increase the overall well-being of the Ladakhi people. Neighboring Bhutan is also an example of the limits of describing a society’s standard of living in strictly economic terms. In this Buddhist nation, people provide their own basic needs and live a life of relative leisure, which enable them to produce great art and music. The World Bank, however, describes Bhutan as one of the poorest countries in the world, simply because its gross national product (GNP) is one of the lowest in the world.
Another limiting factor of using GNP as a gauge is that it does not account for the environmental deterioration caused by development. As forests are cut and rivers polluted, no loss appears in the national accounting of GNP.
The predominant development paradigm’s one-dimensional view of progress hails that the regular and eternal improvement of the human condition can largely take place through the exploitation of nature and the acquisition of material goods. This view–widely favored by economists and development experts–often masks the negative economic, environmental, social, and cultural impacts of industrial growth. Moreover, the industrial nations’ rhetoric, as often expressed by the World Bank and the International Monetary fund (IMF)—that increased, capitalist development is the only solution to eradicate poverty–has often proven to be false. As the examples and facts above have shown, development programs may have increased a country’s GNP, but at the same time lowered the standard of living for a large percentage of the population, as well as increased the impoverishment of both environment and culture.
4.2 The Myth of Per Capita Income
In the United States per capita income is currently $48,000–the highest in the world. However, this national average income conceals the rampant disparity between rich and poor Americans. It conceals that about half of all American households earn less than $35,000 a year–not enough money for most people to buy a home. It conceals that millions of American households earn less than $12,000 a year. It conceals that nearly 40 million Americans do not have medical insurance. It conceals that Second Harvest, the largest hunger relief organization in the country, serves more than 25 million people annually. An increase in per capita income is, therefore, not sufficiently reliable as a scientific index to determine the standard and progress of a particular country.
Instead, suggests Sarkar, a person’s purchasing capacity is a far better index for how one’s economic needs are met. “Per capita income,” writes Sarkar, “is not a proper indication of the increase in the standard of living…because, while people may have very high incomes they may not be able to purchase the necessities of life. If per capita income is low, and people have great purchasing capacity, they are much better off. So, purchasing capacity and not per capita income is the true measure of economic prosperity. Everyone’s requirements should be within their pecuniary periphery or purchasing capacity.”
5. The Limits of the Development Paradigm
5.1 The Development Partition
The rationale behind the linear model of development, as implemented through economic liberalism today, was first advanced by U.S. President Harry Truman in his inauguration speech before Congress in 1949. In his address, Truman spoke emphatically about the deplorable conditions of the poorer countries, and he defined them for the first time as “underdeveloped areas.” In one grand, rhetorical sweep, Truman had created a concept that soon would divide a diverse world into three neat categories–developed, underdeveloped, and undeveloped nations–that could effectively further a new worldview. According to this new vision, all the people of the world were climbing up the same economic ladder, some slow, some faster, but all toward the same material goal. On top of this ladder were the Northern countries, most particularly the United States, and at the bottom were the countries of the South, with their hopelessly low GNP’s.
5.2 The Failure of Economism
The worldview that Truman so successfully articulated, and which now has become an accepted and entrenched development model, may be termed economism. According to this worldview, a country’s level of civilization is based on its ability to produce material goods–that is, to increase its GNP. To the societies in the South, who had, for centuries, advanced a more or less sustainable agricultural economy and advanced some of the world’s most sophisticated cultures, this model appeared to have little meaning. Yet, according to the Truman doctrine, these Southern countries were from now on to be recognized as poor, struggling nations, whose main goal was to copy the North by climbing to the top of the ladder of material progress.
Thus economic values superseded all other societal values. According to Wolfgang Sachs of the German Wuppertal Institute, a society no longer had an economy, society simply was the economy. However, this materialistic and one-dimensional ethos was not always embraced by the countries of the South. Instead society included a tapestry of functions, ideals, modes of knowing and cultural legacies that were often diametrically opposed to a society driven by the streamlined dictates of maximum economic output.
Consequently, over the past 40 years, the North’s development strategies have caused tremendous cultural upheaval. Thousands of local or indigenous subsistence cultures have been decimated during the forced process of joining the global race toward economism. However, the gap between the so-called underdeveloped and developed countries has not been closed. To the contrary, it has widened. In the process, millions of people have become uprooted from their local environment to join the poor day laborers or unemployed struggling to eke out a living in dilapidated and burgeoning shanty-towns from Mexico City to Calcutta. In short, modern development practices have been, for the most part, detrimental to both local economies and local cultures.
5.3 Economic Development and the Pooring of the Environment
The myth that the global economy can continue along the path it has been following since Truman’s speech in 1949 stems in part from the narrow worldview of economism. According to the business weeklies and forecasts by economists, the world’s economy is relatively healthy and long term economic growth prospects are promising. That is, relatively healthy for those countries with an advanced industrial or post-industrial economy, fueled, in part, by cheap labor and raw materials from the South. In Africa and Asia, for example, the economic prospects for most people are not promising. But more to the point, when it comes to relate economic demand levels to the health of the natural world, economic planners are at a loss. In fact, economic planning, guided as it is by economic indicators and basing its future predictions on past performances, have worried little about its impact or relation to the environment. Economism, in other words, often do not see the intricate relationship between economic output and its effect on the global ecosystem. This shortsightedness has had disastrous environmental consequences with often equally calamitous consequences to people, their culture and livelihood.
Some examples of the impoverishment of people and environment caused by modern development practices:
–It is estimated that almost half of all the rivers in the Philippines are biologically dead due to mining operations and deforestation by multinational corporations. In this country, with an annual per capita income of $680, millions of indigenous farmers and hunter gatherers have become landless due to erosion and loss of habitat caused by deforestation. Most of the wood harvested is exported to other Asian countries, such as Japan where it is used to make furniture, tooth picks and chop sticks. Most tropical countries in the world, which incidentally are the countries with the world’s richest biodiversity, experience problems similar to the Philippines.
–Deforestation is a worldwide phenomenon that has displaced and impoverished numerous indigenous peoples. “When a timber company moves into the forest, it doesn’t consult us or pay us any compensation. It has no respect for our holy places or burial grounds,” says Anderson Mutang Urud, leader of the Malaysian Indigenous People’s struggle Against the Destruction of the Sarawak Rainforest. By the late ’80s, the world’s forests were shrinking by an estimated 17 million hectares each year. As the need for cropland increased–in order to feed the world’s growing hunger for meat, paper, firewood and lumber–deforestation, dislocation of people, and poverty in these areas have also increased.
–A typical example of so-called Third World development is a World Bank funded coal-mining project in the Indian state of Bihar. This project has caused destruction of tribal people’s land and now threatens the remaining tiger habitats of India. Massive amounts of foreign capital has flowed into this area and caused a rapid growth of Mafia activities and further deteriorated the life of the local people.
–About 70 percent of the 5.2 billion hectares of dry land used for agriculture around the world is at risk of being turned into deserts due to the Green Revolution’s excessive use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, etc. More than one billion people in 135 countries depend on this land for their survival.
–Initiated in the late 60’s, the Green Revolution’s goal was to increase grain yields, and, thereby, to end world hunger in a few decades. While the Green Revolution indeed has delivered its promise of higher yields, it has failed to alleviate hunger. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, there is now more food in the world but also more hunger. A narrow focus on increasing production–as the Green Revolution does–cannot alleviate hunger, because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power, especially access to land and purchasing power.
Global development, spearheaded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, too often serve the interests of transnational corporate interests over those of national and local economies, cultures and environments. This type of development has, in the name of growth and profit, more often than not, increased the gap between rich and poor and furthered the deterioration of the planet’s precarious ecology.
5.4 Five Reasons Why Development Has Not Eradicated Poverty
The dominant neo-liberal development model has failed to deliver its promise of eradicating poverty in the world. Here is a summary of the five main reasons:
1. It has failed to bring economic equity. Economists Herman Daly and John Cobb maintain that development itself contributes directly to the growth of global poverty: “On the whole,…development policies in the Third world have made many landless, filled the vast slums surrounding Third World cities, and added to the problem of hunger.”
2. It has failed to integrate economic and ecological concerns. Too often we are consuming and destroying our biosystems instead of living in harmony with them. More to the point, the materially rich Northern countries extract natural resources from the biologically rich Southern hemisphere, thereby causing both economic and environmental breakdown in the
so-called Third World.
3. It has failed to protect local cultures and communities. Multinational companies generally do not ask the local people for permission to profit from its extraction of resources from an area. A typical example is the Choco region of Ecuador were oil and other natural resource companies have built a destructive network of roads, colonized and destroyed half of the country’s rainforest, and devastated the lives of thousands of native peoples.
4. It has failed to establish a global, human security policy, to bring about human rights, peace and justice. According to Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute: “A human security policy [must] include…redistribution of wealth, debt relief, job creation, technology development , more democratic and accountable governance, and the strengthening of civil
5. It has failed to provide depth of meaning. Official development policies have expanded the money economy ever more deeply into every sphere of human life. The increasing hunger for more material goods and profits has created a world of inequity, but also an impoverished global culture lacking in deep, human and spiritual values.
6. Toward Sustainable Economics
6.1 Questioning Current Economic Assumptions
The most basic tenets of free market capitalism or economic liberalism, which is the predominant economic model today, can, according to David C. Korten, be described as follows:
- Sustained economic growth, measured by Gross National Product, is the foundation of human progress and essential to alleviate poverty
- Free markets are the most efficient and socially optimal way to allocate resources
- Economic globalization–the free flow of goods, irrespective of national borders, in an increasingly integrated world market–is beneficial for all
- Local economies should abandon goals of self-sufficiency and instead attract outside investors in order to become internationally competitive
“These tenets,” according to Korten, “have become so deeply embedded within our institutions and popular culture that they are accepted by most people without question… To question them openly has become virtual heresy and invokes the risk of professional censure and career damage in most institutions of business, government, and academia.”
Moreover, the philosophical underpinnings upon which economic liberalism rests are rarely questioned. Briefly, according to Korten, these are: 1) humans are motivated by self-interest; 2) the action that yields the most profit is the most beneficial to individual and society; 3) competition is more beneficial than cooperation; 4) human progress is best measured in consumption, i.e…. those who consume the most contribute more to progress.
“The moral perversity of economic liberalism,” according to Korten, “is perhaps most evident in what it views as economic success in a world in which more than a billion people live in absolute deprivation, go to bed hungry each night, and live without the minimum of adequate shelter and clothing.” This moral perversity is even more appalling in light of the mounting evidence that the recent years increase in poverty and deprivation is a direct result of economic liberalism’s monopolistic domination of the Third World.
6.2 The Need For New Models of Development
Central to the question of how to eradicate poverty is the question of which type of development is best suited for the task. According to the dominant model of development that arose during the post-War era, economic growth is seen as the best way to eradicate poverty. Furthermore, economic growth is best promoted by privatizing community assets, deregulating markets, removing barriers to free-trade and investment, and protecting intellectual property rights. However, this model, as promoted by the so-called developed nations, has so far failed to eradicate economic inequality, human oppression, environmental imbalance, and the destruction of local cultures. In other words, development has failed to curb the underlying causes of global poverty. Consequently, new development models have arisen as alternatives to the dominant model. These new models are often referred to as “sustainable development.”
6.3 Two forms of Sustainable Development
1. As mentioned earlier, the sustainable development paradigm was first defined by the UN’s Brundtland report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Development is defined as “a progressive transformation of economy and society.” Said another way, sustainable development involves balancing the environmental demands of human economic activities with the regenerative capacity of earth’s eco-systems. While sustainable development calls for substantial reforms in the functioning of the global economy, it does so–in most of its variants–within the context of the neo-liberal, free-market economy dominated by transnational corporations, the IMF and the World Bank.
2. Herman Daly and John Cobb, Jr. advanced a concept often termed “Strong Sustainability.” Their analysis starts out by pointing out that the Brundtland version leaves the definition of sustainable development vague in several respects: (1) development and growth are not clearly distinguished; (2) needs are not distinguished from luxuries; (3) the standard of assuring “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” assumes that the future generations’ needs can be assessed by the present generation. To give an operational definition to sustainability, they advocate a system of capital accounting in which natural capital, and in which a portion of the income generated through exploitation of non-renewable resources are invested in developing comparable renewable resources. These renewable resources would be available for use by future generations.
6.4 Alternative Development Models
These development models–which also are referred to as sustainable–call into question some of the core institutions and ideological foundations of the world economy, such as growth, centralized economies, unprotected local markets, private domination of resources, and material increase as the sole measure of progress.
Post-development–holds the view that development theory is riddled with the fundamentally flawed assumptions of Western, industrialized civilization. This very notion of development is inherently intertwined with the free market conception of growth as economic expansion, with the acceptance of sovereign nation-states, with the privileging of commercial interests over civil society, and with the alienation of society from nature. As a result, it cannot possibly give a workable framework for solving the global poverty crisis.
The discourse of development theory must be abandoned, and new models must be formulated, informed by the traditions of indigenous peoples, spiritual values, and authentic regional cultures. Post-development supports the critique that, as expressed by Vandana Shiva, “development devalued people by declaring them underdeveloped.” Thus, development promotes a perception of “the Other,”–in this case, the global poor–instead of asserting humanity’s inherent unity.
Sustainable society–holds the view that sustainable development as held by the Brundtland Report is inherently unsustainable, as it calls for dramatic growth in the world economy in order to eliminate poverty. Gowth on such a scale, according to founders Justin Lowe and David Brower of Earth Island Institute, would be “attainable only with cataclysmic costs to the Earth and the future.” At the same time, it recognizes that the growing income gap between rich and poor societies is a fundamental problem. To create global equity, while protecting the planet, will require curtailing overconsumption by the affluent nations and controlling the exploding population in poor nations. As “sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms,” humanity’s goal should be a sustainable society, in which the emphasis is not focused on growth, but on policies that “redefine prosperity, alleviate poverty, assure justice, give priority to compassion, and recognize that these goals can only be achieved on a living planet.”
Balanced Development–proposed by social theorist Sohail Inayatullah, and others. This theory attempts to move away from the language of development theory by using the ideas of P. R. Sarkar and his PROUT theory. It calls for a dynamically balanced use of physical, mental and spiritual resources for the development of individual and society, and within the context of a strong ecological ethic. Development is not only balanced and dynamic, but is progressive; progress being conceptualized as movement toward spiritual enlightenment.
Grass-roots development–term coined by the New Internationalist magazine to signify a decentralist approach to sustainable development in which individuals and local communities take increasing control over their economic and social destinies, with a corresponding elimination of the influence of big business and, for the most part, big governments. This view has close affinities with the agenda of the bio-regionalists, who would add the need for local control over culture as well.
People-centered development–popularized by David C. Korten of the People-Centered Development Forum. Attempts to advance the emergence of “an awakening civil society,” particularly as it is seeking expression by progressive citizens organizations. Suggests that truly sustainable development can only occur where culture and the institutions of civil society are strong, local communities exercise economic self-determination, ecological systems remain vital, and societies are just and economies equitable. Also asserts that sustainability must be grounded in the realization that all life has a single spiritual unity, and that instead of pursuit of material wealth, we should actualize our spiritual awakening.
Natural Capitalism–proposed by Paul Hawken. Advocates socially responsible business practices in order to reverse global environmental and social degradation. This “double bottom line approach” to economics holds that commercial activity should generate both financial and social dividends. Economic reform will occur by holding corporations responsible for their actions through green taxes and external cost accountability. The task of this “capitalism with a green face” is to create new industrial and market designs that are “self-actuating as opposed to regulated or morally mandated.”
Emerging from these alternative models of development is the need for a comprehensive theory of development, one which must address, in integrated fashion, economy, ecology, society, and spirituality. To establish this new concept of development in practice, however, that will require a fifth element–the political. All these five elements are today to be found in the dialogue on sustainability and development. But how can they be brought together in an integral fashion? This can, in part, be achieved through the large scale integration of political action with the creation of model community-based socio-economic development projects. These locally based, small scale model development projects can spearhead a development movement that can counter the top-down planning characterized by today’s global economy. Nothing less, it appears, will suffice if we are to replace the world-wide dichotomy of affluence and poverty with a more equitable, humane, and ecological economy.
7. Economics As If All Living Beings Mattered
7.1 Toward New Economic Values
What will be the underlying values of the new economy? David C. Korten claims that “a sustainable society needs a spiritual foundation. Why? Because spirituality, not materialism, is the ultimate foundation of life. Economic liberalism has partly failed, he claims, because of its denial of the human quest for inner meaning and meaningful relations. The late British economist E. F. Schumacher concurs. In his seminal book, Small is Beautiful, he warned against the unsustainable nature of capitalism’s rampant materialism: “Economy as the content of life is a deadly illness, because infinite growth does not fit into a finite world. That economy should not be the content of life, has been told to mankind by all its teachers; that it cannot be, is evident today… If the spiritual value of inner man is neglected, then selfishness, like capitalism, fits the orientation better than a system of love for one’s fellow beings.”
Here Schumacher points out a central dogma in current economic thinking: that it is possible, even desirable, to fulfill infinite human longings with finite things. This materialist philosophy forms the underlying economic doctrine of today’s market capitalism, of our system of unlimited control over productive property. Put bluntly, it supports the dictum that selfishness and greed are good, even necessary fuels for the capitalist engine of growth.
This paradoxical philosophy has resulted in a market system in which land, food, and intellectual ideas are bought and sold without restrictions. As we have seen above, this “free market system” has created an economy of disparity, of unequal buying power, and of a deep schism between rich and poor. More specifically, this philosophy grants the concept of “the divine right of kings” to corporations. In other words, corporate owners are ultimately only responsible to themselves and their shareholders, not to their employees, nor to the environment, nor to the human community at large. Finally, this philosophy grants that unlimited accumulation of wealth is both positive and a basic human right.
Today it is widely accepted that unlimited exploitation of the globe’s finite natural resources is unsustainable. There is little support, however, for the idea that an economy based on unlimited accumulation of wealth, or unlimited control over private property, may be the direct cause of today’s economic and environmental problems.
Nevertheless, the accelerated accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, has caused both economic disparity and environmental degradation. In short, while there has been an increase in the unbridled accumulation of wealth–which has resulted in an increase in GNP and per capita income, particularly in the Northern countries–there has also been an increase in the spread of poverty–both in the North, and, particularly, in the South.
As long as the basic tenet of unlimited hoarding of wealth remains fundamental to our economy, economic disparity and environmental degradation will continue. We will continue to accept as fair and inevitable that economic growth creates concentration of wealth, on the one hand, and unemployment, displacement of people and poverty, on the other. Without a fundamental rethinking of the current economic dogma of private property rights as an absolute right above all other values, and that human progress is best measured as increased material consumption, we cannot create an environmentally sustainable and poverty-free society.
7.2 Cosmic Inheritance
Economist E. F. Schumacher wrote that “no system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own two feet: it is variably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon our basic outlook on life, its meaning and its purpose.” The “metaphysical foundation” of economic liberalism is motivated by self-interest, individual property rights, and the fulfillment of our material or economic needs.
What, then, should be the basic outlook on life of the new economy? The spiritual conception of wealth, as described by Sarkar, expresses a common sentiment among many alternative development thinkers: “This universe is created in the imagination of the Supreme Entity, so the ownership of this universe does not belong to any particular individual; everything is the patrimony of us all. Every living being can utilize their rightful share of this property…This whole animate world is a large joint family in which nature has not assigned any property to any particular individual.” Sarkar termed this concept of wealth “cosmic inheritance,” and made clear its implications for economic theory: “The system of individual ownership cannot be accepted as absolute, hence [economic liberalism] too cannot be supported.” With a spiritual worldview as the basis for a new economy, the psychology of greed and selfishness is replaced with the psychology of collective welfare and cooperation.
7.3 Spiritual Progress
If the purpose of development–as presently conceived–is to increase material amenities, then sustainable development will certainly help us to continue to consume, but it will not help us attain inner fulfillment. Therefore, sustainable spirituality–the idea that true progress is movement toward inner fulfillment, toward self-realization– must be embraced by the sustainable development program. Spiritual progress subsumes material development, as people cannot pursue spiritual growth without adequate basic necessities such as employment, food, shelter, education, and medical care. So, the purpose of development, guided by a sense of spiritual progress, is to help us pursue personal and social pursuits that foster inner growth and communion with people and nature. Activities such as sports, art, music, theater, yoga, meditation, hiking, etc., do not simply fill our lives with more material things, instead they fill our lives with enjoyment, purpose and meaning.
Reverence for nature, for all non-human creatures is a natural extension of such concepts as cosmic inheritance and spiritual progress. “Our universe,” according to Sarkar, “is not only the universe of humans, but the universe of all; it is for all created entities.” Economic activity, therefore, must take into account the existential rights of other species. This outlook is an integral aspect of what Sarkar terms neo-humanism–the view that expands humanism to include a common, unified consciousness behind the diversity of nature. This outlook, this spiritual ethic, is growing amongst many seeking an alternative to the disparities of the global economy. According to Nordberg-Hodge, “we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes form making a connection to others and to nature. This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are among the strands.” Thus, neo-humanism–in essence a fusion of spirituality and humanist rationality–is based on principles of love and respect for all beings, sharing, cooperation and spiritual progress. This is in stark contrast to economic liberalism’s idea that the most conspicuous human motives are self-interest, competition, and hoarding of wealth.
8. Beyond Poverty: Two Strategies Toward Eradicating Poverty
8.1 Short Term Strategy
The fluctuating stock markets in the Makati business district in the Philippines means little for the thousands of poor searching the dumps nearby for food and salable trash. From Moscow to Manila, millions of scavengers are oblivious to the economic decisions made by wealthy CEO’s of multinational corporations. While billions of dollars circle the globe in daily electronic transactions, it is estimated that four-fifths of the world’s 6.1 billion people barely scrape by. For them, high-sounding phrases such as cosmic property and spiritual progress are meaningless. Instead, they are in dire need of a global Marshall plan that can rapidly turn their lives around. Such a plan, however, is not likely to arrive on the global horizon before world economic and political leaders embrace a neo-humanist vision and a strong, moral impetus for change. Meanwhile, is there any hope for the poverty-stricken captives at ground zero? Is there any hope to increase their welfare and purchasing power? There is. Here are some short term strategies that can eradicate poverty from the bottom up:
Debt relief: Poor countries “would be better able to marshall resources for human security purposes if their foreign debt burden were substantially lighter,” writes Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute. Without a more determined debt relief strategy, many countries–particularly the most severely indebted low-income countries–will be unable to rise up from poverty and dependence.
Land reform: It is a common myth that to take land away from big producers will lower food output and therefore increase poverty and hunger. But in reality, smaller farms produce more per acre than larger farms. Moreover, wealthy landowners utilize only part of their land. In Brazil, for example, landowners cultivate only 11.3 percent of their land. While incomes in Sao Paulo are double the national average, half of the city’s 12 million inhabitants live in squalid favelas (slums). If land is made available for small family farms and cooperatives, the growing exodus from rural to urban areas in countries such as Brazil could be reduced dramatically. While many half-hearted land-reform efforts have given this anti-poverty strategy a bad name, genuine redistribution of land has shown great benefits in productivity, efficiency, and alleviation of poverty. In Kerala, India, for example, over 2 million acres have been redistributed since 1969, and given ownership to 1,5 million farmers.
Land titles: Millions of poor people all over the world are squatters on government or private land. According to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, many of them are entrepreneurial, but they need economic support to either start or expand a business. The key to this, he claims, lies in giving them property rights. With such rights, a land title can be leveraged with a mortgage, used as collateral for a bank loan, or sold. With this money, poor families can pull themselves out of an otherwise doomed future. Furthermore, combined with a system of land titles, micro-lending would be less risky. De Soto has initiated such programs with great success in Lima, Peru and is currently consulting with several governments in South East Asia.
Land plot cooperatives: There are millions of acres of uneconomical land plots in rural areas throughout the world. These plots can be brought under immediate cooperative management. By merging many small plots of land together, the owners of these landholdings can join as members of a cooperative. According to Sarkar, “In cases where the landowners employ labor for cultivation, fifty percent of the net profit will go to the landowners and fifty percent to the laborers who work in the cooperatives.”
Subsidies for small farmers: Agricultural subsidies now favor large scale agribusinesses. Shifting a portion of those subsidies to small-scale farming will revitalize poverty-stricken rural areas by promoting employment, diversified agriculture, healthier soils, and reduce the exodus to city slums.
Low interest loans to farmers: The World Bank and the IMF could initiate a “Marshall plan” based on low interest micro-loans to poor farmers in the Third World. By directly lending to the poor farmers and sharecroppers–who often are enslaved in poverty for the rest of their lives due to exorbitant high interest loans from village loan sharks–local, rural communities could quickly be revitalized.
Eco-villages: Although most eco-villages are located in the affluent countries of the North, some also focus on helping poor, rural communities in the South achieve self-sufficiency. One such project is the Parque Ecologico Visao Futuro (Future Vision Ecological Park) in the interior of Sao Paulo state, Brazil. According to its founder, Didi Anandamitra, the goal of this project is “to provide a practical model for social and economic life that can be replicated in communities, especially rural communities, everywhere.” The eco-village features many projects that involve participation by the local community, including organic gardens, waste recycling, a sewing cooperative, a bakery, seminar programs, and plans for a low-cost, preventive healthcare facility. Integrated projects, such as these, can–in conjunction with aid agencies from both the North and the South–help reduce the exodus of poor people from rural villages to city slums.
Micro-lending: There are two types of micro-lending. 1) Micro-loans that consist of a support group of four or five peers, each of them receiving a loan for their business and each of them responsible for one another. Instead of material collateral, the system is based on honor and mutual dependence. This system is well suited for labor-intensive businesses that normally are unable to get a bank loan. 2) Micro-loans disbursed to small, already existing or start-up business enterprises and solo proprietors. Micro-lending, recently endorsed by the World Bank and other antipoverty agencies, has already helped thousands of businesses thrive in Europe, North and South America and Asia.
Selective trade protectionism: Since the global economy’s free trade policies have proven utterly ineffective in alleviating poverty in the South, it is in the immediate interest of local Third World governments to initiate a careful policy of using tarrifs to regulate the import of goods that instead could be produced locally.
Child-labor cooperatives: CREATE–an organization based in Ferozabad, India helps glass-bangle producing children form cooperatives and deal directly with company owners instead of middlemen. Through a combination of programs that include skills training for older children and education for younger children, CREATE is aiming to eradicate child labor in harmful operations such as welding. As direct bans on child labor have proven counterproductive, seed money from international aid agencies could instead duplicate CREATE-cooperatives in countries were child labor is an integral part of the local economy.
It is commonly believed that we must choose between globalized, more efficient production systems and less productive, more localized systems. This tradeoff is a myth. Greater equity, more fairness in economic production, and increased ownership of land can not only release untapped productive capabilities, it is the most effective way to create an economy free from poverty and hunger. Global poverty is a global malady that requires immediate attention. The sooner politicians, economists and scientists realize that this ailment can not be treated by increased globalization and centralization of the economy, the sooner these short term strategies can be implemented.
Continued in Part Two