Message-Id: <v01530502b246ae0c0bba@[]>
From: (Bera MacClement)
To: David MacClement <>
Date: Mon, 12 Oct 1998 07:49:03 +1300

Human Development: Consumption Related to System of Production
by the International South Group Network

The Human Development Report 1998 is very disappointing. One would have expected the issue of overconsumption in the North and underconsumption in the South to put responsibility squarely where it belongs, namely in the system of production and the regime of international trade dominated by the North. By avoiding the central issue of production and the systemic causes of poverty in the South, the HDR98 has abdicated its responsibility to the cause of development, which should be its mandate.

The Human Development Reports provide plenty of empirical evidence to give the appearance that the poverty of the people of the third world is of central concern to the authors of the Report. The problem is that if you go deeper into their analysis it is clear that they tend to shield the very forces that create impoverishment in the South. One is disarmed from criticism because they talk about poverty, and to boot they give well-known names of scholars and activists from the South as if these go along with the analysis offered by the Report. But this raises the question of the very processes by which the Report is conceptualized and written.

The subject of the 1998 Report is the issue of consumption. Its essential message is that the rising consumption worldwide puts stress on the environment and that the environmental damage hurts the poor most, especially the poor of the South. Thus it is a stressed environment that becomes the agency through which the poor get deprived of their legitimate need for consumption. The remedy logically is to take measures to alleviate environmental stress, to use technologies that save resources, to remove subsidies that induce environmentally damaging forms of consumption, etc. This is not necessarily the major problem of poor people in the South.

When it comes to analysis, the Report falls woefully short of providing the reasons for the impoverishment of the South. The people in the South are impoverished not because the environment is stressed, but because both the environment and the people in the south are victims of the same system of global production. The Report avoids carefully the issue of production and how it is linked with consumption and the inexorable need for corporate profits. Is this a strategic avoidance of the real issue by the authors of the Report? The pharmaceutical mega-corporations of the world want to appropriate the biological resources of the third world in order to maximize their profits; in the process they deprive the people of the south of the means of their own survival. If they then become underconsumers, it is a direct result of the processes by which the people of the South lose control over their resources. The Report treats consumption as if it comes from high heaven and has nothing to do with the manner in which people are treated by the economic system.

The South's poor are underconsuming because on a daily basis their economies are undermined at the level of production. Even those economies in East Asia that had done well during the 1970s and 1980s are now under threat of being taken over by banks and corporations from the North. Massive unemployment and compounded social crises are rocking these economies. Instead of talking about these forces that lead to loss of income and employment in the South, the Report throws the issue of consumption in the air as if it had no relationship to these forces of globalization and liberalization, and the attack on the monetary stability of these countries by speculative capital. Fighting poverty and underconsumption is more than an environmental issue. It is a systemic issue and has to do with the asymmetry of power in the global system of production.

The Report is innocent of knowledge of the global system. It has a seven-point Action Agenda made up of mere platitudes. Agenda item No. 3, for example, talks about "removing perverse subsidies and restructuring taxes to shift incentives from consumption that damages the environment to consumption that promotes human development." How, one may ask, is one European Union country to remove the subsidies on agriculture? It is not simply a question of telling Brussels what to do. It is a matter of hard bargaining between Europe and the rest of the world. Eight years of negotiations between Europe and the USA during the Uruguay negotiations could not achieve this. So how does one expect this to happen just because the Report says so? The Report is thus extremely naive in recommending an action agenda that cannot be implemented while shielding from scrutiny the very forces that create unemployment, loss of income, loss of biodiversity, and impoverishment in the South.

The NGO activists in the South can use some of the evidence from the Report to state the obvious, namely that the south is poor. But its analysis of the causes of underconsumption and of poverty in the South is innocent of the power dynamics of the system. In not exposing these dynamics, the Report is a major letdown for the people of the South. UNDP is not fulfilling its mandate of serving the developmental needs of the South if all it can offer is a repetition of the Northern environmental perspective of the underconsumption in the South and of a growth paradigm to which environmental stress-reducing measures have been added.

International South Group Network

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