What kind of development?

(Sept. 4, 2011)

Javier Sicilia (Proceso, 2011)

In 2011, a Mexican poet, journalist and social activist found himself leading a new social movement that found ready followers across Mexico. Javier Sicilia dared to protest the murder of his son Juan Francisco at the hands of a drug gang, and to link the death to the way the Mexican government carries out the so-called “War on Drugs.”

Although we lived in the same city, Cuernavaca, during the late 90s and to some extent moved in similar circles of people of faith concerned about human rights and social justice, I don’t recall that I ever met him. But I read his weekly columns in Proceso, Mexico’s leading national newsmagazine. Sicilia drew deeply from the best of Catholic social teaching and from the wisdom of the Zapatista Indigenous rebels in Chiapas to condemn globalized capitalism. For Sicilia, the problem today is not just capitalism or even the rule by wealthy elites in most countries. These are problems that have been obvious for centuries.

By the early 1980s, it was possible to discern a new and harsher form of capitalism, one that came to be called “neo-liberal economic globalization” (or more often simply either neo-liberalism or globalization).

Do we err in promoting development?

Sicilia also asserts that we who question neo-liberal capitalism and its free market model of development err in using the same terms as those who have provoked and maintain extreme poverty.

Among those who influenced Sicilia’s ways of thinking and acting was Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest and educator who was profoundly suspicious of church hierarchies and of formal education. Illich (who also lived at least part-time in Cuernavaca until his death in 2002) wrote that the contemporary concept of development was born from U.S. President Harry Truman’s 1949 inauguration speech. Truman announced a program of technical assistance to under-developed countries that was called “Point Four.”

Until then, according to Illich, “we only used the term [development] to refer to animal or plant species, the value of real estate or geometrical surfaces. And, in less than a generation, we were inundated with diverse theories about development.”

Adoption of these models, Illich argued, gradually destroyed local and subsistence economies, replacing them with export-oriented market economies and industrialization. Illich’s essay “Vernacular Values” is in a 1981 book called Shadow Work. The text can be found on many internet sites, including here. (Comments on development are in his “1st part.”)

When we talk about development, let’s be clear that we are talking about something other than approaches that not only damage local communities, but imperil the whole Earth.