23.08.2011 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

UNESCO invites reconsideration of development

“Development” requires fundamental rethinking – not because it is not important to meet human needs in a sustainable and equitable manner, but precisely because the world is failing to do so.

At the invitation of UNESCO, and with the support of the Government of Mexico, 40 participants, including 15 international experts, met on 17-18 August 2011, at the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Mexico City, to “rethink development”.

The conference, entitled “Rethinking Development: Ethics and Social Inclusion”, was designed to explore critical perspectives on development understood as the natural unfolding through history of the underlying potential of humanity, manifested primarily in technical and economic terms. It is this version of development that is failing to promote more democratic, environmentally sustainable, socially just, and culturally pluralistic societies. The failure, we have heard, is not one of political will or of financial resources. It is about the idea of development itself. An ethical approach to development offers a clear set of criteria for assessing the relevance of possible development alternatives.

While the overall diagnosis was widely agreed, there was lively debate among participants as to the implications and the possible solutions. In a context of global social exclusion on a massive scale, no one can deny the importance of social inclusion. But is it enough? Many among the participants argued that inclusion is only a precondition for social justice, which cannot be attained unless global inequalities are seriously addressed.

Doing so, with due regard for sustainability, means rethinking how human beings connect not just to each other but also to their environment. The participants in the conference agreed on the importance of a more holistic understanding of human needs, which are not simply economic or even material. This also implies some modesty on the part of experts, who do not know always know best. Development must be open-ended and participatory or it will be neither ethical nor effective.

A major disagreement in the conference concerned the implications of an ethical approach to development for the global economic and political system. For some experts, only a radically different economic and political system might permit the achievement of global justice. For others, significant progress can be made, pragmatically, within a state-centred and market-driven international system. However, there was agreement that a more ethical, more just and more sustainable society requires profound changes in values and behaviour. A “green” society would be, in many respects, a different kind of society.

Conference participants called on UNESCO to support the process of rethinking development and to disseminate its results not just to its Member States but also to global civil society and to the private sector. It was argued that UNESCO’s intellectual and ethical mandate gives it a special responsibility to respond to a crisis of development that is not just about possible futures, but involves immediate and urgent challenges. The decisive period for the international community that will run from the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development to the expiry in 2015 of the commitment period for the Millennium Development Goals is a window for action that cannot be missed.

Noting these concerns, UNESCO proposes to follow up on the outcomes of the conference at several levels. The ideas will be published and refined through further expert consultation and future events. The ethics of development will thus provide a framework for reflection in academic, activist and policy communities that will, gradually, establish a new agenda for development thinking. At the same time, UNESCO will develop practical activities to support social and environmental policies in its Member States, using ethics to elaborate guidelines, indicators and tools that can inform decision-making.

The challenge of development is unmet human needs. Ethics reminds us how unacceptable it would be to leave them forever unmet.


Conference Documents


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