People have the power

SID Forum, June 1, 2011

In this interview, Jan Pronk points out that the traditional divide between rich and poor nations has transformed into a more complex divide between classes within all countries. We face huge challenges but what is most worrying is the declining institutional capacity and lack of will to address them. However, positive signs can be found in young peoples’ willingness to engage and be open to others from different background.

by Angela Zarro, SID

AZ: The financial crisis in the North and new economic powers in the South.  How is development changing and what does it mean today?

JP: Development still is a world problem, but it is no longer a mere international problem. The world has changed. Despite unprecedented world economic growth since 1990, world poverty has hardly decreased. This has created a different rich-poor divide. The North South divide between nations, which has prevailed until the turn of the century, has shifted to a worldwide divide between classes, within all countries, in India and Africa as well as in Europe and the United States.
Both in rich and poor countries, there are people that are completely excluded from the market, without sufficient purchasing power or resources to invest. They lack access to modernity or to the means necessary in order to live a life in decency. We need to redefine our understanding of development and move away from the old concept. We need a more holistic approach of development, beyond economics, taking into account all new challenges.

AZ: Which major trends and challenges do we need to consider?

JP: Economic growth and modernisation of society are leading to widening inequalities. This will inevitably result in the escalation of conflicts worldwide, much more than 10 years ago. Moreover, the ever faster changes in technology together with the claim of more security  is resulting in the production of very sophisticated weapons with a very high potential of destruction. By simply pressing a button it is possible to destroy places at the opposite side of the planet. Security, instead of being perceived as a common public good, has become a private commodity that can be bought and sold on the market. Striving for security by violating the security of others has become legitimate. Interest groups with economic and political power manipulate people’s perception of security and circulate the idea that innovation and technology are the solutions to all problems for us and for our future generations. Powerful nations set aside UN principles and use violence and pre-emptive force in oder to protect national security, therebu threatening human security of people elsewhere.  Values such as sustainability, human rights, justice, equity and mutual responsibility lose out to private profit, entertainment, market efficiency, winner takes all, and asymmetrical security. We need to step back!

AZ: One may argue that history has always been characterised by different phases of decay, recovery and development. How different is the current situation from the past? What kind of future should we expect?

JP: Half a century ago the challenges and priorities were obviously different from today. The technological and economic means and the general context (such as globalisation today)  were different. People’s perceptions have also changed. What at that time most people considered desirable or necessary, for instance in terms of economic progress and growth, is no longer self evident. Today’s challenges are huge and they may last longer because they are not addressed coherently. We seem to have dismantled the institutional and legal capacity to address global challenges. It seems as if the world goes back to a situation characterised by the survival of the fittest and the strongest, rather than by solidarity with poorer, weaker and vulnerable peoples and nations. The political will to care and to accept international rule of law is waning. This decreasing capacity to address dangers should worry us more than the dangers themselves.

If I look into the future I do not see a fantastic panorama. Progress made during the last twenty years – technological innovation and economic growth – went hand in hand with: violent conflicts within countries, climate change, international terrorism, a world financial crisis, to mention but a few. These were not isolated incidents. They are structural phenomena, inherent to the path and character of present day world development. Will this be different in the years ahead? I am afraid not. I foresee that the structural causes of these threats will not diminish as a consequence of globalization, but will become ever more manifest and determine the future. One could say that the catastrophes of the early twentieth century are behind us. Yes, true, but the new challenges and insecurities are frightening.
Scarcity of non-renewable energies, fertile land,  water and other resources (not only due to physical limits or high costs of exploration, but also to demographic change, increased demand in general, and different consumption preferences) are all structural patterns. They will result in further climate change, global warming and irreversible losses of biodiversity. These scarcities and trends, together with more dense people’s settlements – in megacities and in ecologically vulnerable rural areas – and greater technological vulnerability, will make countries more prone to disasters.

This is an alarming scenario that is further complicated by its consequences. As I have already mentioned,  scarcities and inequalities will result in more conflicts and escalating violence. In many parts of the world people will have to compete for survival.

I don’t see an easy  win-win strategy taking place in the future. We really need to implement a fair redistribution, not even of the future economic achievements, but of what we already have. That is why I called for a step backwards: in terms of our claims on scarce resources and on power.

AZ: In such a negative scenario, which hopes and opportunities do you see for future generations?

JP: I believe in the power of people. There has been and there will always be a vanguard.  Vanguards take a lead. However, without followers, without the participation and empowerment of massive groups of people,  changes will not take place. The Egypt revolution is a clear example. However, there is always a possibility that vanguard groups as well as masses will be manipulated by political and economic groups with an interest in power for their own sake.  Commercial powers try to persuade people, especially the youngest, to consume ever more, whatever the consequences. This is made possible by using and manipulating media and education. The media and the schools and universities are powerful channels of transfer of values in a society. However, they are not only powerful, but also vulnerable. Both political, economic and commercial interest groups will try using the system of media and education to as channels of communication of their values. It is a battle of ideas and values. In that battle values such as equity, sustainability, justice, democracy, equal rights, diversity, community and solidarity can be sidelined by powers advocating values such as materialism, consumption, the survival of the fittest, market efficiency, modernity, discrimination of cultures and the need to adjust and conform.

My hope is that young people will not conform. I see positive signs. I meet young people who are asking questions. They want to know what is going on. They communicate with others across borders. They have an open mind towards ideas expressed by people with a different background. They are using the new social media – not yet dominated by commerce – to express and communicate ideas. They are not only interested in their own purse and their own career. They engage. They start protesting.

AZ: What role do you see for organisations like SID today, within the broader development community?

JP: Organisations with a long and prestigious history like SID need to reinvent themselves and be able to respond  to the new reality shaping up. Otherwise there is no reason for them to continue their work. People of my generation should understand this. We should be willing to facilitate an inter-generational dialogue. For SID innovation is a must! This implies renewal of ideas as well as reassessing our aims, our character and the way we function.


Jan Pronk is President of SID as well as Professor of Theory and Practice of International Development at ISS, the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands. From 2004 to 2006 he was Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan, where he was leading the UN peace-keeping operation (UNMIS). He also served as Minister for Development Cooperation and Minister for the Environment of the Dutch government. Having studied economics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, he has worked as a politician since the 1970s, first as a Member of Parliament for the Social Democratic Party and then as Minister.