37. B. Towards Operationalizing a Sustainable Development beyond Ethical Pronouncements: the Role of Civil Society and Networking

The context
The background
What commitments are needed beyond ethics?: From the normative to the operational in sustainable development
The primarily ethics-led process to sustainable development
The primarily politically-led process to sustainable development

Comm. Dev. J., Vol.34, No.3, July 1999.



This article is about coming to grips with the fact that we, who read it and share the values of a new sustainable development ethics, are not the ones who are actually going to make development sustainable. The people we (pertain to) work for will. More so if they participate actively in the process.

The main obstacle to such proactive participation of civil society in sustainable development is nowadays political and not ethical. The current, ruling development paradigm has for too long failed to turn-on civil society’s potentials to fight for its own rightful historical role. The new sustainable development paradigm is to give such a protagonist role to civil society. Agreeing on the politics -beyond ethical pronouncements- is where the challenge lies if what ought to be done is to get done the way the actual beneficiaries of development see it fit. This, because a question of power is at the very center of development. A new development ethics has already emerged which calls for working with the poor as protagonists. But how to go from the normative or prescriptive to the operational is what this article explores. It offers some generalizable strategies for genuine social mobilization and for networking for a sustainable development. It explores what commitments are needed to do this; it helps set out a counter-concept of a bottom-centered, civil society-rooted development process. How to deepen such a sense of common cause is explored next focusing on building the needed capacities to intervene. The article then goes on to compare primarily ethics-lead and politically-led processes to sustainable development comparing the role of moral advocates with that of social mobilizers and political advocates. It ends with a call to network with others and to build coalitions so as to make ‘single issue causes’ into global social and political issues.

The context:

Analyses of success factors in development projects worldwide are repeatedly showing that the proactive participation of civil society in such projects plays a make-or-brake role in their ultimate sustainable impact. Currently, the main obstacle to such a proactive participation of civil society in development is political. It is thus not far-fetched to say that the ruling development paradigm has gotten to a dead-end, primarily because it has ignored turning-on civil society’s potentials. And this is clearly one of the main political flaws in the ruling paradigm. Giving a protagonist role to civil society in sustainable development is thus one of the main challenges we all face.

Which then are the groups one can rightly call members of such civil society?

Others have attempted to taxonomically clarify this for us:

Civil society is to be understood as organizations without direct access to the established political power, and who are working towards a shared vision of a more just and equitable society and development process. Civil society is, therefore, a much broader, more complex and richer concept than NGO; civil society is not controlled by government, but accepts the role of the state; it aims at preparing communities for participation in the political process exerting their right to co-governance. Tolerance towards others and a sense of belonging -of having a common identity- are further characteristics of this civil society. It is said that their main role is to mobilize people and to open political and civic space in which they can operate at an advantage; their accountability is to their constituency only. (Roper Renshaw, 1994).

At least two key questions are raised by such a definition: First, where do organized community groups draw their mandates from (and how do they claim to get these mandates)?, and second, what kind of, capacity building, advocacy, social mobilization and empowerment of beneficiaries do they more precisely get engaged in? Unfortunately, much of the responses to these questions is in the eye of the beholder. (Schuftan, 1996). There certainly are many kinds of these groups with different purposes and serving different constituencies (or claiming to do so); many of them are ‘single issue’ (AIDS, pro-abortion, pro-environment, etc.) others have wider development scopes of action.

To start with a minimum-consensus-package to build upon, we can most probably agree that our universal common denominators in development work are only three. We all (presumably) depart:

– from a given science (which tells us what can be done),

– from a given ethics (that tells us what ought to be done), and

– from a given political stance (that tells us what must -or must not- be done, how, with whom and against whom it could best be done, followed by actually getting involved in doing it). (Jonsson, 1994)

Most of us will agree that science can be more absolute than ethics or politics.

Science, ethics and politics actually come together in conceptual frameworks that depict the different levels of causes of underdevelopment (or of ill-health or malnutrition for that matter). Such conceptual frameworks need to be shared in order for development practitioners to be able to agree on what can, ought to and must be done in a given historical context. (‘No common understanding, no agreement on action’). (Schuftan, 1982; UNICEF, 1990)

Agreeing on the science in development work is less frequently a problem. Agreeing on the ethics has come a long way in the short history of sustainable development. But agreeing on the politics -beyond ethical pronouncements- is the real challenge if what ought to be done is to get done the way the actual beneficiaries of development see it most fit.

Finding such a unifying core for these civil society organizations in the political realm is what this paper is mostly about. (Creating a new historical reality is a political act, especially if it is about involving development beneficiaries as protagonists). The paper, therefore, suggests some strategies deemed necessary to follow to achieve a strong social and political mobilization for sustainable development.

The background:

At the closing of the decade, the issue of power (mostly the lack of it to enact sustainable development changes) is still very much at the center of the development challenge. The issue remains largely unresolved or -looking at it from the opposite perspective, is actually very much resolved- but against the very odds of sustainable development.

The remaining challenge is thus to break with the old development paradigm and to come up with what will need to be done, especially during the transition to a new sustainable development paradigm based on the new emerging development ethics. Promoting and encouraging the growth of budding civil society organizations with a genuine popular mandate and leadership, and encouraging them to network and coalesce into movements with growing social and political power, are at the center of this challenge (and seems to be the only way out).

In this context, the voices of the new development ethics proponents are being heard ever louder:

Ethics is no longer to be seen as ancillary to development, but ‘development owes it to itself to be inherently ethical’. The new ethics calls for working with the poor as protagonists and not merely as recipients of goods and services. It calls for giving a more holistic meaning to development; for safeguarding fundamental human needs; for people planning with autonomy, and in doing so, for politicizing people’s actions towards development. (Carmen, 1994)

This is a good start. But the question that hits us in the face is how to go from the normative or prescriptive in such pronouncements to the operational and pragmatic.

What commitments are needed beyond ethics?: From the normative to the operational in sustainable development

A climate of change is something we help create, not something that is found out there; we have to create the times rather than be in step with time.

Imposing a new, more sustainable development paradigm is a political, not an ethical task. No intention is here made to split hairs. To work on a common set of new ethical values and to actually impose them is indeed a political act.

Politics – being based on knowledge, on attitudes and on values, on justifications, on commitment to principles, on positions and on levels of engagement applied to a given scientific and historical reality- involves the true practice of ethics and ideology. Politics is the translation of all our scientific, ethical and historical knowledge into the management of society. (Schuftan, 1982 and 1988)

In 1994, IRED-Asia published a powerful manifesto on this issue. The manifesto:

Highlighted the alienation(s) found in the ruling development paradigm; called for challenging the current ‘failed development practice’; it talked of equity as a precondition for sustainability, of the need to continuously having to recreate democracy through direct citizens engagement so as to regain local control(s); it called the latter ‘anchoring power in the community’ to achieve equity in power relationships; it called for more systematically reflecting on the deeper causes of injustice (calling this a political awakening) as a precondition to embark in collective informed citizens’ actions; it further noted that people had to commit themselves to the most fundamental changes needed; it spoke of coalescing local initiatives into a coherent force for change including fostering solidarity across national boundaries. Moreover, it brought up the crucial issue of how we, development workers, so often ‘presume to talk for the people’, embracing the rhetoric of empowerment, but how we also too often really serve primarily as intermediaries between donors and dependent client populations. (Asian NGOs Coalition, 1994)

As development workers, we are thus doubly challenged; not only should we oppose the old paradigm, but also help set out a counter-concept. We have to help set the parameters of such a new emerging paradigm: its ethics and its praxis. Being radical in this effort is not being totally opposed to the given order; it is just a commitment to a line of analysis trying to change things that are clearly not working.

We should refrain from only producing lengthy treatises on this transition, though. The challenge rather is to convince, persuade and mobilize potential actors at different levels. Incentives to reflection are fine, but only if including calls to action. In other words, since the call is to influence and accommodate change, we not only have to decide to intervene but, together with beneficiaries, we also have to build the needed capacities to intervene.

This reinforces the need for us to get involved in civil society-rooted development processes, particularly those that take into account the ongoing social and political mechanisms of disempowerment (and covert repression). And this entails primarily getting involved in bottom-centered consciousness-raising, social mobilization, advocacy, networking, coalition building, consolidation of movements and solidarity work (bottom-centered is here used in the sense of actions resulting from a convergence of top-down and bottom-up interventions).

The latter emphasizes the fact that social mobilization of the local civil society per-se is, therefore, necessary, but not sufficient. This mobilization has to come up with a way of breaking the global inertia and building more effective coalitions and networks across sectoral and geographic boundaries. Networking is thus about developing a sense of a common cause against the global embarrassment that the persistence of extreme poverty (in its different expressions) has become across the globe.

Strong scientific, ethical and political imperatives that oppose the prevailing development paradigm in developing countries are gaining new momentum in the late-nineties and require our engagement. They call for a more accelerated sustainable resolution of the world’s most critical chronic economic, social and environmental problems.

There are at least two operational ways of steering the transition process to a more sustainable development paradigm:

The primarily ethics-led process to sustainable development

As is true for slavery, there are ethical limits to tolerating extreme poverty.

The growing new development ethics that calls for working with the poor as protagonists and not merely as recipients has, so far, itself unfortunately remained mostly a top-down approach (See Carmen, 1994). It represents mostly the view of academicians, of intellectuals, of church leaders, of international bureaucrats and of only very few politicians (mostly in the opposition). Beneficiaries have remained mostly passive in this approach, being counted rather as the ‘object’ of the process. This ethics-led process is mostly ethically motivated and assigns a key role to ‘moral advocates’ who are to advance the following cascading Assessment/Analysis/Action (AAA) process: CORRECT DIAGRAM AVAILABLE FROM THE AUTHOR


(Entails assessing needs requiring fullfilment using “objective”(?) field research techniques)


(Entails granting selected identified needs the status of entitlements to be honored by society)

(Entails translating accepted entitlements into actual rights)*


(Entails delegating to members of Parliament the legitimization of selected rights by promulgating them into laws)

(Entails assuring/securing that the laws get enforced by government institutions)**
* : Promoting these rights is not, by itself, a progressive political act.
**: Often very weak or non-existent and without people getting involved directly.
(Adapted from Urban Jonsson, UNICEF).

The inherent weakness of this process is that to have rights ultimately respected, someone other than the poor takes the responsibility at each step to steer the process from entitlement to enforcement.

The primarily politically-led process to sustainable development

This more bottom-up political approach (in which commitments are needed beyond ethics) better accommodates and represents the perceptions and development actions as seen from the civil society’s perspective. In this approach, beneficiaries are clearly the protagonists of the process; the process is mostly politically motivated and assigns a key role to ‘social activists and political advocates’ who are to advance the following cascading process:

[Consciousness raising]

(As freely and spontaneously expressed by organized communities)

[Social learning]

(Felt needs are articulated into concrete demands each tackling perceived causes)

[Social Mobilization/Empowerment]

(Based on concrete demands, people make claims* and exert an effective demand**)
[Acquisition of Social Power]

(Initial mobilization of own and other available resources)
[Gains in self-confidence]

(Within or outside the law; bringing in, using and progressively controlling needed external resources)
[Acquisition of Political Power]
[Leads to new felt needs and the AAA cycle restarts]

(Coalition building) (Again adapted from Urban Jonsson)
* : Claims correspond to entitlements in the previous diagram.
**: When people are willing to invest their own resources to fulfill their felt needs.

Although the ethically and politically led approaches, as simplified in these two diagrams, represent different paths, both can contribute – through their own merits – to sustainable development. They do complement each other and probably would be even more synergistic if the ethically led process gets more proactive civil society inputs.

Some closing remarks on the action-oriented challenges of networking and of leadership are fitting here:


Social mobilization is not a window dressing just to show some degree of civil society’s active involvement. As said, it is to be directed at consciousness raising to legitimize and focus the attention on the plight of the poor which ultimately seeks to control the resources they need for a genuine ‘people-led sustainable development path’. But social mobilization is also to foster networking with others so as to build coalitions that can sustain the attention on the poor people’s demands and claims; and finally, social mobilization is about solidarity with other groups embarked in the same or similar endeavors elsewhere (strategic allies). It is only this concerted solidarity that has a potential to reach the threshold of empowerment needed for imposing the new development paradigm thus overruling the current pro-status-quo power holders.

In order to create and sustain the needed attention and support, health, nutrition, education, the environment and the many other problems of society have to ultimately be made global social and political issues (going beyond ethics, but certainly departing from it). Using their de-facto power base, people have to first call for action by creating the aforementioned ‘global embarrassment’ in their leaders for condoning the persistence of ill-health, hunger and malnutrition, illiteracy and so many other social ills among the poor, and given the pervasive environmental degradation we are witnessing daily. If this does not elicit the needed remedial actions, other mechanisms of social pressure will have to be considered.


As said earlier, the new approaches called for by the new sustainable development paradigm require new types of civil society and new types of development workers actors/activists. (Schuftan, 1990) We are thus faced with the challenge to convince and to persuade others so as to build these growing constituencies; and for that to happen, a new breed of leadership is needed, one that plans new strategies and leads the people to launch some bold new interventions.

In short, in separate or in the same individuals, there is a role for:

– Moral advocates who will influence perceptions and values 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.

Such new leaders will have to be found and nurtured -most probably in the thousands- before we see sustainable development prevail some time in the next century.

The transition to the new sustainable development paradigm will have to start by painting a new reality for people in the civil society, because the reality they have been ‘given’ is not their own; it has been socially and politically constructed outside their own reality and, so far, it has been mostly controlled and manipulated to the poor of the world’s detriment and disadvantage.


Asian NGOs Coalition, (1994), IRED-Asia and the People Centered Development Forum, “Economy, Ecology and Spirituality: Toward a Theory and Practice of Sustainability (Part II)”, Development, Vol. 4, pp. 67-72.

Carmen, R.E., (1994), “Development Ethics or the Rediscovery and Reclamation of Meaning”, Development, Vol. 4, pp. 17-21.

Jonsson, U., personal communication (1994).

Roper Renshaw, (1994), L., “Strengthening Civil Society: The Role of NGOs”, Development, Vol. 4, pp. 46-49.

Schuftan, C., (1982), “Ethics, Ideology and Nutrition”, Food Policy, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 159-164.

Schuftan, C., (1988), “Multidisciplinarity, Paradigms and Ideology in National Development Work”, Scand. J. of Devpt. Alternatives, Vol. VII, Nos, 2 + 3, pp. 241-290.

Schuftan, C., (1990), “Activism to face world hunger: Exploring new needed commitments”, Social Change, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 45-50.

Schuftan, C. (1996), ” The Community Development Dilemma: When are Service Delivery, Capacity Building, Advocacy and Social Mobilization Really Empowering?”, Community Development Journal, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 260-264.

UNICEF, (1990), Nutrition Strategy, Nutrition Section, HQ, N. Y.

[Claudio Schuftan, an adjunct associate professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, is currently a freelance consultant in Saigon, Vietnam].

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