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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Governance: Uncommon strategic opportunities

Global Strategies Project


The report of the independent International Commission on Peace and Food was published in 1994 under the title Uncommon Opportunities: an agenda for peace and equitable development. It was the result of work initiated in 1988 and significantly funded by UNDP and UNESCO. It followed the pattern of earlier independent commissions.

1. Optimism

Although the report acknowledges the usual range of problems and challenges, it is characterized by an exceptionally optimistic tone and approach. The cover indicates that it "delivers a message of hope -- but hope rooted in the realities of human resourcefulness and practical measures that citizens' groups, governments, and international organizations could take up."

This optimism is based on a series of ideas seen to be of value in making the most of the opportunities of the present time. One of them is: "There needs to be a two-fold shift of our attention and emphasis from solving problems to tapping opportunities and from seeking to meet minimum needs to achieving our maximum potential. Preoccupation with studying problems often becomes an excuse for not dealing with them, while sapping our enthusiasm for action." (p. 27)

2. Avoidance of constraints

The unfortunate consequence of this optimism is the marked tendency of the report to ignore constraints in pursuing opportunities. The many specific recommendations do therefore offer hope but, by ignoring significant contextual constraints, they also invite profound despair. Conceptually, there is a sense in which this failure to acknowledge constraints bears a resemblance to Marie Antoinette's unfortunate response to an earlier food and security crisis, namely "Let them eat cake".

The two constraints that are most significantly ignored are the unchecked population explosion and the ability of the environment to continue to tolerate the stress of increasing human activity. Incredibly, the rise in population is treated as a given, inviting no condemnation or the need for counter-measures -- it is merely a "collective challenge of monumental proportions" (p.104). The consequence to the environment is not treated as of significance. The profound irresponsibility and unconstrained selfishness of humanity is not acknowledged. They are reframed as a legitimate human right.

3. Putting people first

In this light there is an unfortunately sinister double meaning to the foreword by the Director-General of UNESCO which recognizes the principal strength of the report as having "put people first" (p. ix) by helping "to promote the idea of human-centred development" (p. x). The report itself affirms that the "greatest achievement of the twentieth century has been the growing recognition of the pre-eminent value of the human being" (p. 187). The "most cherished of purposes" is stated to be "preserving human lives" (p. 104).

Put bluntly, the solution to the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing number of people is seen to be simply one of producing more food. The dilemma of how to constrain population increase is not addressed. Putting "people first" also means, in this context, that the environment must necessarily be sacrificed for that "most cherished of purposes".

Presumably the approach would be the same at any time in the future, whatever the population level. It is claimed that whatever the degree of challenge, the human spirit has the opportunity to triumph. As stated in one of the other key ideas: "Human beings are our most creative, productive and precious resource. Human capacity increases the more it is drawn upon. It can never be exhausted. Developing the human resource should be the centrepiece of all development strategy" (p. 27). Is there no level of population at which this, otherwise admirable, view might appear tragically misguided and subject to misinterpretation? Just as sculpturers work with material constraints, rather than againstthem, in giving form to their vision, so should those engaged in grand strategy -- or find that the constraints they ignore impose their own corrective measures for such inattentiveness.

4. Consensus

The report stresses the complex linkages between the challenges of peace, food and development. In a preface from the UN Secretary General, it is stated that "if there is a growing international consensus on the peace operations undertaken by the United Nations, there is no such consensus on its development work. Indeed, this lack of consensus reflects a worldwide crisis in the field of development economics. As development becomes imperative, we are faced with giving new meaning to the word" (p. vii). With the subsequent evolution of the crisis in Bosnia, the consensus on the UN peace operations has now itself degenerated into a crisis of policy-making, confirming the complex nature of such linkages.

5. A single model of development?

Despite this crisis in consensus building, the report blithely assumes that "a comprehensive and integrated theory of development as a social process" can be usefully formulated on the basis of available knowledge" (p. 163). This knowledge then "needs to be imparted through education" (p. 164). Presumably this confidence derives from another of the key ideas: "We can solve today's most pressing problems if we adopt a total approach which takes into account all the interrelated factors -- political, economic, technological, social and environmental -- rather than relying on partial strategies" (p. 27). How is this "total" approach to be understood and adopted, and who is to ensure its implementation? Does not the dramatic rise in functional illiteracy give cause for reflection concerning the capacity of educational delivery systems? In the light of the many recent conceptual advances of the human spirit, is such over-simplification not tragically irresponsible?

6. Challenge of disagreement

This assumption is also made despite acknowledging that "it has not been possible to arrive at consensus on all views discussed in this report" amongst the heterogeneous mix of Commission members (p. 5). Who disagreed about what, and why? Given its focus on inner human resources, why were such disagreements not monitored and integrated into a report on a richer and more variegated totality -- thus providing a methodological guide for future reports as collective learning exercises? The report, like its predecessors, makes no reference to the processes needed to deal with the enduring reality of disagreement in the absence of consensus. Its responsibility is considered discharged once a range of laudable proposals has been made which "citizens' groups, governments and international institutions could take up". Unfortunately it is at that point that the difficulties that the report avoids demonstrate their relevance to any formulation of strategy.

7. Developing human resourcefulness

It is unfortunate that the report can be accused of irresponsibility because of the above failings. Elsewhere there are important recognitions which are not to be found in other such reports. Its objective is stated to be that of showing "that now is a time of unprecedented opportunity, provided that we shed the artificial fetters that limit our ideas, attitudes and actions" (p. 159). But rather than simply shedding them, should they not be recognized, rightly understood, as a most valuable source of powerful learnings?

"The real challenge of development is developing people -- not only in the external sense of providing them with food, clothing..., but also in the inner sense of developing their awareness, attitudes, skills and values to make them more enlightened, productive and contented human beings" (p. 161). Such concerns, as they are explored in the report, merit much reflection in relation to any new strategy.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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