Volume 3 Number 8
Prophet Voice
01 August 1990

This time, the South is addressing its own problems - and its conclusions, launched this month in Caracas, are refreshingly honest.
After Brandt and Brundtland, here comes another report. Once again the great, the good and the unlikeminded have gathered, deliberated long and hard and struggled (I am told, for they included free-marketeers and the Cuban VicePresident) to a consensus. What is new is the perspective. The 26 wise heads gathered by former President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania all come from developing countries. This time, the South is addressing its own problems - and its conclusions, launched this month in Caracas, are refreshingly honest.

The South Commission was born in 1987 in the belief that, in the words of Nyerere, `responsibility for the development of the South lies in the hands of the peoples of the South'. The venture has been largely financed by the countries, institutions and businesses of the developing world, though a Swiss government grant enabled the Commission to set up its modest secretariat in Geneva.

The Commission's analysis is sombre. Things are getting worse. For most developing countries the 1980s was `a lost decade'. Debt has become `a form of bondage' involving transfers of nearly $40 billion a year from poor to rich. Half a million child deaths in 1988, two thirds of them in Africa, can be related to the reversal or slowing of economic growth. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in the 37 poorest nations the 1980s saw spending per head on health cut by nearly half and on education by nearly a quarter.

The fate of the South, notes the Commission, is increasingly dictated by governments in the North, by the multilateral institutions which a few of those governments control and by private institutions. Domination has been reinforced, where partnership was required. The North's `doctrinaire belief in the efficacy of market forces and monetarist policies' has in part created, and certainly aggravated, the South's decline.

The Commissioners object to the `gratuitous advice about policy errors in the South' offered by some rich countries, but they do not sidestep these errors. Third World countries, they say, have tended to equate modernization with imitating the West and have gone for the worst, rather than the best. The close family and community support which is a strength of traditional societies has been undermined.

There is a frank chapter starkly headed `Corruption'. Governments have not regarded its eradication as a priority, says the report. Open discussion of the extent of corruption and its economic, social and political costs `must be the basis for vigorous efforts to curb this growing evil'. The report attacks the development of a military culture in the South which is contemptuous of democracy, popular participation and human rights. A quarter of the world's total military expenditure is incurred in developing countries,
where over ten million people have died in wars and conflicts since World War II.

To avoid these abuses, the Commissioners assert, development must be 'peoplecentred'. It should free people from the fear of want and exploitation and enable them to realize their potential. Democratic institutions and popular participation in decisionmaking are essential; public and state intervention must be marked by efficiency, integrity and a clear choice of priorities. They welcome the increase in `grassroots organizations' in the South. These should be seen not as a threat to the established order but as an `affirmation of the concept of people-centred development'.

The report catalogues the sad history of the North-South dialogue and expresses fears that reforms in East and Central Europe will lead to `a more homogeneous and confident North preoccupied with its own problems and opportunities'. Aid and attention are already being diverted from the South to the East. (While such fears have been contradicted by important voices from the East, there are no signs yet that the North is ready to dig dramatically deeper into its own pockets to help the South.)

The international economic dialogue, the report asserts, is about power. While the North has almost always presented a common front, the South has failed to do so. `The issue for the South is not whether to cut its links with the North,' says the report, `but how to transform them' from `subordination to partnership'. A bank of the South must be created; a debtors' forum and producers' associations - for instance, for cocoa, coffee and tea-could help developing countries to coordinate their action. A permanent, wellstaffed secretariat `should become an intellectual powerhouse for the South's collective advance'.

The Commissioners offer a long list of good ideas and sound theories: agricultural research, organic farming, storage systems, credit facilities for small farmers, price incentives, encouragement for small industries, improved infrastructure. They call for a greater stress on primary health care, with more use of traditional medicine; for universal education by the end of the century, a doubling of research and development funds, a tripling in the number of scientists and engineers. The contribution of women has been `inadequately recognized and greatly undervalued'.

True to its title, The Challenge to the South, the report ends with a call to developing nations to put their own ideological house in order. `In the final analysis the South's plea for justice cannot be dissociated from its pursuit of these goals within its own societies.' A commitment to democracy and the rights of individuals, minorities and the poor would all increase the South's chances of securing a new world order, as would `probity in public affairs' and the use of peaceful means in settling disputes.

What will the report achieve? The world is beginning to suffer from Commission fatigue - so many wise words, so little action. But failure of political will can hardly be blamed on those who produce an accurate diagnosis. The cure depends on all of us. Will future generations look back on the South Commission's work as a prophet voice which was heeded just in time?