37. A. The Emerging Sustainable Development Paradigm: A Global Forum on the Cutting Edge of Progressive Thinking

A development paradigm in need of replacement
Windows of opportunity to take advantage of: (Normative aspects)
The three pillars of an emerging sustainable development paradigm
Getting from the old to the new paradigm: The time for consolidating a transition is now!
Reevaluating the major development objectives in the late-nineties: Should social gains justify economic sacrifice?

Submitted for consideration for publication, Canadian J. of Development, 1999.


Target not the poor, but the processes that relentlessly lead to more poverty (..especially since there is seemingly no current international binding obligation to eliminate extreme poverty).


In the mid-90s, old conceptual clarities and development prescriptions are breaking down. The emerging challenge for progressive thinkers is thus to rethink and change strategies and tactics, and then get involved in doing a whole set of new things. The paper calls for a break with the ruling development paradigm. It points out that a growing new development ethics is emerging that calls for working with the poor as protagonists rather than passive recipients of development handouts. Actually, strong scientific, ethical and political imperatives are gaining new momentum in the late-90s. We, therefore, need to critique our own existing personal professional agendas and look for new windows of opportunity to replace a ruling development paradigm that is not delivering. We have to come up with a way of breaking the inertia and build effective coalitions and networks across sectors and across boundaries, fully knowing that imposing a new paradigm is a political task.

Despite growing support, the UNCED (Rio,1992) version of ‘Sustainable Development’ has not been able to break the ruling development paradigm. Therefore, ways of getting from the ruling old to the new sustainable development paradigm are explored based on the fact that neither the state nor the free market are truly up to reverting hunger or to putting an end to extreme poverty and environmental degradation; both are prisoners to particular vested interests; both need to be democratized or else be bypassed in favor of working through increasingly active civil society organizations.

The brand of Sustainable Development called for here is said to have to be guided by a scientific causal analysis, be ethically and politically explicit, be beneficiary driven and participatory, and be advocacy focused.

The paper then reevaluates the major development objectives in the late-90s asking whether social gains justify economic growth sacrifices. The response given is a resounding yes. An appeal is made for the acceptance of the fact that the central issues of equity and poverty alleviation are not social, but rather economic objectives. The Sustainable Development here advocated for needs to assure an ongoing shift towards decreasing the skewedness in the income and wealth distribution. It has to have a built-in poverty redressal objective.

A strategy combining capacity building, social mobilization and empowerment is explored. The promotion of empowering activities and processes is made central. An appeal is made to understand that the new truly Sustainable Development paradigm is dealing not with many problems, but with several aspects of the same problem. Finally, the role of moral advocates, mobilizing agents, social activists and political advocates is explored in the context of the new Sustainable Development.

A development paradigm in need of replacement:

In the late-nineties, the development challenges in the Third World are still pretty much the same than what they were in the early eighties. Governments and the Western Aid Establishment have had their chance and have basically failed; more people are poor and hungry today and our planet is in greater environmental distress. Actually, as for expectations, the prescriptions of international aid have failed for both the rich and the poor. In ODA’s ‘bottom-up development’, decentralization and participative democratization of decision-making still denote more lip service than reality. Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) are taking an inordinate toll on the poor. The debt burden is increasingly more intolerable to the Third World and net financial flows from the South to the North continue. (The world atlas of wealth is shrinking while the one of poverty is expanding). Relatively newer evils such as urban malnutrition, street children, AIDS, high maternal mortality, displaced people and urban violence are increasingly with us.

In development circles it is now amply clear that it is not enough to do the things right, but rather to do the right things; trying harder is simply not enough; development agents need to think and act differently today.

Old conceptual clarities and development prescriptions are breaking down. In the past few years, we are post-SUMMIT FOR CHILDREN (New York), post-INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON NUTRITION (Rome), post-UN CONFERENCE ON THE ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT (UNCED) (Rio de Janeiro), post-HUMAN RIGHTS CONFERENCE (Vienna), post-POPULATION AND DEVELOPMENT CONFERENCE (Cairo), post-WORLD SUMMIT FOR SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT (Copenhagen), post-INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S CONFERENCE (Beijing), post-WORLD FOOD SUMMIT (Rome) and post so many other purported landmarks that were to represent ‘true turning-points’. But I am not alone in thinking that we have still to see such turning points; their boundary is fuzzy at best. The international development community simply has a faint memory and a poor follow-up record. Public opinion -fed through exposure to daily TV- also has an inordinate capacity to forget (not to speak of world leaders and politicians who are busy managing daily crises).

After UNCED, Rio 1992, Sustainable Development -encompassing economic and ecological sustainability, and equity- represents the newest packaging of development strategies (remember Agenda 21?). Despite a broad-based (mostly NGOs) support and some new reconceptualization, ‘Sustainable Development’ has, in all honesty, not been able to break the ruling development paradigm.

The fact that the existing development paradigm is still dominant means we must learn to work from within to change it. This does not mean that we give up the effort to replace it, but rather that we recognize the reality of our situation and respond and organize ourselves accordingly.

We probably, therefore, need to first go into a critique of our own existing personal professional agendas [after all, some of us act as advisors to or are staff members of (pre-sustainable) development decision makers…]. Then, we have to take up the challenge of our age and look for new ‘ways out’ or for ‘windows of opportunity’ to replace a ruling development paradigm that is not delivering. (Schuftan, 1988)

Windows of opportunity to take advantage of: (Normative aspects)

The challenge thus still remains to install a new progressive sustainable development paradigm. Is the timing right? Are we at the brink of a paradigmatic break point? After the proclamations of the above mentioned UN Conferences and their respective (breath of fresh air) parallel NGO fora, I think we can safely say we are at such a point, and -being long overdue- proclaiming it loudly is our duty. But if we do, we have to have a counter-concept to propose instead.

To advance towards the next order, we need to change the terms of the discussion; if not, we will weary as campaigners and the campaign will die out. Such a new effort has to marry the visionary with the practical; the vision has to suggest a route for effective action. A dream is not to be confused with naivete. (“Be realistic, ask for the impossible!”, Paris, 1968). There being no forbidden agendas, the moment cries for us to press for more.

Windows of opportunity have a way of slamming shut.

We need to become experimenters, risk takers, innovators, intensifiers and diversifiers, pioneers, addicts of new information, practitioners of committed common sense, social and economically rational beings.

The challenge is to get away from the circularity in current Western development thinking; see not only what is wrong, but what there is to build on; intervene upon the status quo. We cannot merely denounce, we must also announce. We are in a race with time to overcome the problems before they overcome us [it is as simple and as deadly as that (particularly for mothers and children)].

The society we want, we must shape, and a change of development paradigm is needed for that. The role of an avant-garde is to cause fermentation; nobody is going to do it for us.

We may not exert effective political leadership yet, but we cannot run away from showing intellectual leadership at least.

A strategic overhaul of our actions requires a crisis in our thinking and if the crisis is not there, we have to precipitate it. Development is about change; and change brings conflict, pain, confusion; out of this emerges a new understanding.

Therefore, a constructive confrontation is unavoidable. You may ask with whom? With governments, members of learned societies, editors of scientific journals, international agencies, Northern and Southern NGOs, individuals freelancing advice on development, in short, whoever is indecisive towards reverting current trends of maldevelopment. We have to be willing to come into conflict with the ideas and values of the majority (…or a powerful minority?) and to precipitate public discussion; it is only through conflict that new (or perhaps not so new), ‘unpopular’ ideas become thinkable.

We need to explode the myth that things are fine; debunk the myth that the causes of ill-health, malnutrition, illiteracy, poverty and environmental degradation are independent -since all are connected. The challenge is to join hands with as many “single-issue” constituencies as possible (environment, womens’, human rights, health/nutrition, peace, AIDS, etc) to launch a progressive movement incorporating individuals, institutions, agencies and budding civil society organizations

The three pillars of an emerging sustainable development paradigm:

Strong scientific, ethical and political imperatives that oppose the current prevailing development paradigm in the Third World are gaining momentum in the late-nineties. Each of these three areas of global concern has distinct constituencies; each carries imperatives that have traceable underlying sources of motivation and identifiable basic theoretical and practical determinants at its roots. Expliciting these sources of motivation that lead to the day-to-day decision-making on development issues is crucial to the new paradigm. This, in a double attempt to find out where every actor is coming from, and to help identify and select our strategic allies and strategic enemies in this battle for a more truly sustainable development process.

Essential to the new sustainable development paradigm is the integration of the Scientific, the Ethical and the Political bases for change.

All social problems have a scientific, an ethical and a political aspect or dimension and each of these has a theory and a praxis.

What is here meant is better set forth in the diagram in Figure 1. (Modified from an original version by Urban Jonsson, UNICEF).

Figure 1 – The complex bases of decision-making on crucial development issues: Suggested interactions between scientific, ethical and political considerations affecting desired sustainable development outcomes. AVAILABLE FROM THE AUTHOR

The diagram in Fig.1 emphasizes the need for sustainable development recommendations to be based on a known science and on explicit ethical and political positions that take into account the existing correlation of social and political forces in each historical context. (This is indispensable to avoid falling into political naivete, a frequent development-linked disease).

This expliciting of the different development actors’ positions calls for regularly carrying out social and political mapping exercises as baseline and follow-up activities in regular development work under the new paradigm. (See below).

Getting from the old to the new paradigm: The time for consolidating a transition is now!

The transition process of reaching the desired sustainable development outcomes will be determined by the interactions of science, ethics, ideology, paradigms and contingent politics acting as a veritable umbrella on the evolving processes leading from the present context to the various desired sustainable development outcomes. In each specific context, concrete transition strategies will have to be invented or discovered to fit local realities.

Diagramatically, the elements of this transition process from the old to the new paradigm are presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Development: From the present context to desired outcomes

If we are to pursue the desired outcomes of each of the diagram’s relevant continuum, we are tacitly or explicitly accepting the idea of a need for a new sustainable development paradigm. (The old one is simply not taking us there, at least not fast enough). The processes in the handle of the umbrella are the ones influenced (facilitated or resisted) by the canopy of the umbrella in general, and by the development paradigm in it in particular. Quite a number of these processes still need to be identified -preferably locally- making them fully relevant to the local realities in each case.

The question we are left with then is what to do next -both strategically and tactically- to consolidate the desired transition.

First, our strategy, of necessity, must be political; that simply is the way the world ticks. Depoliticizing issues certainly does not lead to a more rational or faster resolution of conflicts and contradictions. The political and the social factors in development are simply inseparable as are the economic and the social factors. But what we are still seeing in the mid-1990’s though is that mostly economic growth interventions are being applied to solve social problems, ignoring the, by now well documented fact, that economic growth does not lead to the eradication of poverty. The ruling paradigm is telling us that underdevelopment is primarily an economic problem and that its associated poverty is a secondary social problem (or, to use a parody, when the workers enter the workplace, they are an economic factor; when they leave work, they are a social problem).

Let it be noted here that current orthodox Bretton Woods institutions’ practices are still not giving social, health, nutrition, ecological and other objectives prominence enough in their (stubborn) attempt to maximize economic growth. This simply perpetuates inequity, as we know that the fruits of economic growth do not really trickle down. Faster growth does not lead to (fast enough) poverty eradication. Period. Token calls by the World Bank for addressing the social costs of SAPs to the most destitute will just not do, because the process that leads to their impoverishment and ultimate poverty remains untouched.

Poverty reduction is a declared “high priority” for the World Bank itself though. As per Mr. Lewis Preston, its past-President, poverty reduction is “one of two WB benchmarks”, the other being… economic growth. But it so happens that the SAPs imposed by the IMF are deepening poverty. The primary focus of SAPs is simply not poverty reduction (…a vintage World Bank contradiction?).

In December 1993, even the UN General Assembly asked that special attention be paid to “eradicating poverty and addressing the social impact of SAPs”. The World Bank is of the opinion that the direct assault on poverty must come from “wider development and investment programs”.(…??). It even defines success as a “turnaround in per-capita growth”; this clearly calls for emphasizing macroeconomic, fiscal and monetary policies. These policies have, almost by definition, no impact on poverty reduction. With World Bank/IMF imposed reforms delivering only low levels of growth -and not even that- the impact on poverty reduction is almost non-existent. Ghana, one of the World Bank “stars”, would begin achieving poverty reduction goals a bit before the middle of the 21st century;…does one really have to wait that long? (Africa Recovery, 1993-1994)

The State and The global Free Market -traditionally called/relied upon by the World Bank/IMF (and by the ruling development paradigm) to solve development issues- basically serve the same vested interests. Neither the state nor the free market are today truly up to reverting hunger and to putting an end to misery and environmental degradation; both are prisoners to particular interests, not those with a vested interest in sustainable development.

The solution, therefore, is to change the direction of the development process. Both the State and the Free Market need to be democratized before they can genuinely serve the local needs and public rather than narrow private (increasingly foreign) interests.

Short of that, the new paradigm would require that both the State and the global Free Market be bypassed in favor of working through Non-governmental and Civil Society Structures and by strengthening ‘Real’ Markets (defined as actually existing local networks of exchange among specific producers, traders and consumers who themselves determine the conditions of access to needed goods).(Hewitt de Alcantara, 1993)

But focusing on the process of transition to the new paradigm shows only half the picture of the challenges ahead. What the new paradigm is going to strive for is what is explored next.

Reevaluating the major development objectives in the late-nineties: Should social gains justify economic sacrifice?

As regards this, by now, old controversy about what objectives to favor or outcomes to pursue, a new tool has emerged that can potentially strengthen the hand of those attempting to impose a new sustainable development paradigm.

MULTICRITERIA ANALYSIS is a methodology now being used to assess development policy options when progress depends on multiple objectives that are measured by different criteria. (Munasinghe, 1993) The diagram in Figure 3 illustrates the principles of Multicriteria Analysis:


ECONOMIC OBJECTIVES are traditionally measured by growth and efficiency indicators, both translated into net monetary benefits (thus putting costs and benefits in monetary terms).

What the new sustainable development paradigm suggests is that economic objectives be measured more as economic development objectives, i.e. in gains in equity and poverty reduction (thus also measuring costs and benefits in non-monetary terms).

[Adequate social policies are, therefore, deemed a prerequisite for achieving economic development objectives in an effective, sustainable economic reform].

The vertical axis of the diagram should thus be renamed ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OBJECTIVES. We are aware this will require a change of mentality by orthodox economists, i.e. to make them accept that equity and poverty reduction are not social, but economic objectives. This trade-off entails a replacement of the ruling development paradigm.

The trade-off would reduce economic growth from the tip of the “existing” ABC triangle to the tip of the “trade-off” DEF triangle in Fig. 3. (One can call this “the (monetary) cost of poverty reduction”). By choosing this approach, the new sustainable development paradigm attempts to demonetize the optimization of development goals. It does so by effecting a desired outward movement along the axes of the SOCIAL and the cluster of HEALTH/NUTRITION/ECOLOGIC/OTHER objectives. These outward movements, from A to D and from B to E in the diagram, trace improvements in those indicators that measure the achievement of social, health, nutritional, environmental and other objectives. (The ‘other objectives’ could each be taken individually in separate diagrams, if one so desires).

[Keep in mind that the above refers to relative weights society decides to place on improving the indicators in each of the three axes -with all the ethical, scientific, ideological and political connotations this choice carries].

The new development paradigm thus firmly advocates that social gains justify economic growth sacrifices! Its focus is, therefore, on the non-necessarily-monetary benefits and tradeoffs/payoffs of poverty reduction.

Key for the new paradigm to succeed is to strike the proper balance between growth-mediated and support-led security (in Amartya Sen’s terminology). One should constantly be measuring the tradeoffs between gains and losses when emphasizing one type of security more than the other. The equity issue (poverty reduction, social justice and distributional fairness) is very much No. 1 in the trade-off equation. Economic growth (-mediated security) alone does not guarantee trickle down, as was said earlier. And direct (support-led security) interventions leading to the provision of public health/nutrition/environmental services -even if targeted- promote equity only very indirectly and weakly. Therefore, directly increasing poor households’ income sustainably is a must, in the long run, to improve the standards of health, nutrition and the environment. Targeting the provision of public services to the neediest remains indispensable as well.

[One has to prominently keep in mind that, from an equity perspective, effective income or wealth redistribution is equivalent to ‘economic growth’, at least for the lower quintile income group. This, because an increase in their disposable income will then occur, even in the absence of increasing the size of the overall economic pie as a whole! Actually, the resources required to eliminate poverty amount to approximately 10% of total national income in Sub-Saharan Africa and India; for extreme poverty eradication, 4% only! If growth rates of income per capita reach 1% a year, poverty in these regions could, in principle, be eradicated in 10 years and extreme poverty in 4 years, if the entire increase in income per capita accrues to the poor. India has routinely exceeded growth rates of 1% per capita and income has not trickled down. (Desgupta, 1993)].

The new sustainable development paradigm contends that the proper balance between growth-mediated and support-led security can be reached if and when periodically measured indicators of income maldistribution consistently move in favor of the lower quintile income group. In other words, the mixture of direct income redistribution measures (e.g. estate taxes, taxes on luxury goods, VAT, land reform, targeted subsidies) and the provision of direct interventions in public and environmental services would have to assure an ongoing shift towards decreasing the skewedness in the income and wealth distribution. (Preferably, the financing of the expansion of services to the poor should come from targeted direct interventions in public health/nutrition/education/the environment and other, financed with state revenues mostly collected from the two upper income quintiles).

Such a sustainable development emphasis would require the setting up of a frequent (semi-annual?) household-level-monitoring-system (on a sentinel basis) of one or two easy/proxy indicators of income distribution: One could be the “proportion of the population consuming less than $5/week (or $7?) at purchasing parity exchange rates”; another could be the “percentage of income spent on food by the lower quintile income group” in the light of competing non-food consumption choices that come with modernization. (Schuftan, 1996 b)

If the income maldistribution indicators do not move in favor of the poorest, that would be an indication that more direct redistribution measures are needed. What this achieves, is to make sure that a tilt towards support-led security does not slow down or hamper growth-mediated security for the lower quintile income group. A ‘poverty redressal objective’ and its corresponding indicators are thus built-in and monitored ongoingly. Poverty alleviation will then lead to decrease certain types of environmental degradation.

Ultimately, it needs to be understood that the new sustainable development paradigm is dealing not with many problems, but with several aspects of the same problem! (As the pieces of meat in a shishkebab are united by the skewer). And this understanding needs to be promoted and disseminated from the transition period on.

Capacity building to bring about the new paradigm is to expose people to relevant information they themselves get involved in collecting, especially information about the real causes behind the problems they are facing on a daily basis. Figure 4 shows an example of a conceptual framework depicting the causes of malnutrition and early child mortality (taken from UNICEF’s Nutrition Strategy, 1990).

Figure 4:

The dissemination of a conceptual framework like this one is indispensable for widely sharing such a better understanding of causes of maldevelopment; it will educate and train people, and will prepare them to Assess, Analyze and Act on their surrounding reality and to press-on with the needed advocacy and with effective lobbying activities.

The aim is to have people go through a politically motivated and empowering “Assessment Analysis and Action (AAA) process” which can take them from their felt needs, to making concrete claims and to exerting effective demands on those claims; from there they have to go on to exercising their de-facto new power and engaging in networking and coalition-building. (Schuftan 1996 a)

We are faced with the challenge to convince and to persuade others and to build growing constituencies; and for that to happen, we have to plan new strategies and to launch bold interventions. The problems of maldevelopment have to be ultimately made global social and political issues to create a ‘global embarrassment’ among our leaders.

The new approaches called for by the new sustainable development paradigm thus require new types of civil society involvement and a new type of development workers actors/activists.

There is a role for: (in separate or the same individuals)

– Moral advocates who will influence perceptions by giving guidance on what is permissible and fair;

– Mobilizing agents or social activists who will influence action by giving guidance on what is possible and doable, on how it can be done, by whom and by when; and for

– Political advocates who will raise political consciousness by giving guidance on what people’s empirical and de-facto entitlements and rights are.

The role of these three types of cadres is to engage in capacity building and social mobilization that leads to empowering development’s beneficiaries so they can become real protagonists. They ultimately have to help the poor gain access and control over the (human, financial and organizational) resources they need to solve their own problems -with or without external help.

As a closing remark, it is perhaps fitting to quote Herman Daly, the ex Senior Economist of the World Bank’s Environment Department; he is quoted as saying: “I’m going to continue to work toward the way I think things should be. My working hypothesis is that the movement I am a part of will ultimately be successful. I have independent evidence that I’m not a genius and that other people are very smart. I think that the same arguments and facts that convinced me will ultimately convince others. I have faith that they will. Of course, I have to remain open to persuasion as well”. That is what this global forum on the cutting edge of progressive thinking is all about. Remaining indifferent will only give us more of the same.

Acknowledgements: The author importantly draws on previous ideas of Urban Jonsson and Bjorn Ljundkvist, both with UNICEF. He also acknowledges the valuable comments received from Dr Vicente Sanchez on successive drafts of the paper.


Africa Recovery. (Dec.1993-March 1994), 7:34, pp. 18, 19 + 47

Desgupta, P. (1993) ‘An Inquiry into Well-being and Destitution’, Clarendon Press, Oxford

Hewitt de Alcantara, C. (1993) ‘Real markets: Social and political issues of food policy reform’, Frank Cass/EADI/UNRISD, London

Munasinghe, M. (1993) ‘The Economists’ Approach to Sustainable Development’, Finance and Development, Dec., p. 18

Schuftan, C. (1988) ‘Multidisciplinarity, paradigms and ideology in national development work’, Scand. J. of Devpt. Alternatives, VII: 2 + 3, 241-290

Schuftan, C. (1996 a) ‘Towards operationalizing a sustainable development beyond ethical pronouncements: The role of civil society and networking’. Accepted for publication by the Community Development Journal in late 1999.

Schuftan, C. (1996 b) ‘Malnutrition and income: Are we being misled?’, manuscript submitted February for consideration for publication to The Ecology of Food and Nutrition.

Claudio Schuftan
Saigon, Vietnam.

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