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Lebret's legacy

By Denis Goulet

Brief thoughts on Lebret’s development legacy;
its relevance in the age of globalization.

Speech by Denis Goulet on Lebret’s Day in Unesco, Paris, on Novembre 13th, 1998


I.Three roles

Lebret played roles in three development arenas, on each leaving his mark of excellence. He was a theorist of a "human economy", in which every human being should have enough goods in order to be fully human ("chacun doit avoir assez pour être pleinement humain"). The construction of such a human economy, in diverse geographical and cultural settings constituted, for him, the central development task. Likewise a practitioner of development, he worked in numerous countries of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia as researcher, planner, and evaluator. His third role was that of educator, who saw the need to prepare development agents versed in theory and practice who would practice what he called "intelligent love" ("il nous faut des purs et des durs"). Intelligence without love leads to harsh technocratic elitism, he thought, whereas love without intelligence produces chaotic, if not catastrophic, inefficiencies. Intelligent love makes development agents hard-headed and soft-hearted. The tragedy lay in this, that too many inverted the qualities and operated in soft-headed and hard-hearted fashion.

II. Learning from Lebret

It was my good fortune to work, and learn from, Lebret during the years 1959-1963 in all three spheres. In 1959-1960, one year after its creation, I was a student and assistant of studies at IRFED (Institut de Recherche et de Formation en vue du Développement). Here I was introduced to Lebret’s theory, in his numerous writings and in classes taught by him. Lebret’s classes were unfailingly interesting; they were richly multi-disciplinary in tone and they vitally linked his rich practical experience with theory. The style was direct and challenging, laced with pungent humor. For six months in 1960 I worked with Lebret’s IRFED planning team in Lebanon, as a junior member of the group conducting economic studies there. The overall fruit of this work, covering some three years, was a detailed study of needs and development possibilities for Lebanon prepared for the Office of the President (Fouad Chehab) prior to the creation of a Ministry of Planning and the formulation of the country’s First Development Plan.

IRFED, Besoins et Possibilités de Développement du Liban, Beirut, Lebanon: Mission Irfed, 1960-61, 3 vols.

Afterwards, while pursuing doctoral studies on the Ethics of Development in São Paulo, Brazil, Lebret associated me to his Brazilian working group - SAGMACS (a research, planning, and consulting team studying societal wholes with a view to identifying suitable development policies, programs, and projects).

And it was Lebret, ever the consummate "discoverer" or "revealer" of individuals’ lifetime work, by awakening men and women to their "calling," who placed me on the pathway of Development Ethics. He argued that development generated too many value conflicts, and necessitated too many human and cultural costs, to be left in the hands of specialized researchers and decision-makers who viewed it simply as a technical exercise in economic rationality. On this LEBRET/UNESCO DAY (November 13, 1998), one notes with satisfaction, the recent award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Amartya Sen, who has championed, inter alia, the causes of restoring ethics to economic analysis and of examining development from the vantage-point of its impact on the poor, the powerless, and those left out. Lebret would have rejoiced at this award.

Further opportunity to learn from Lebret came to me in 1962-1963 when he summoned me from Brazil to return to IRFED (Paris) as Visiting Professor teaching courses in Human Resource Planning and, more particularly, in the Ethics of Development. As noted above, it was a large dose of good fortune that gave me opportunities of learning from Lebret how he worked as theorist, practitioner, and educator.

III. Lebret’s legacy: development lessons for today

1. The first lesson is that development decision-makers must study needs, most especially the expressed needs, of populations in whose benefit they allegedly work. Otherwise decisions will be elitist, over-abstract, and run the risk of being economically or technically reductionist. As far back as 1962 the late Max Millikan, early practitioner of econometric analysis in the preparation of development plans, had noted the indispensability of consulting the interested population as to what value sacrifices it was prepared to accept were alternative courses of action implanted. Writing in the US position paper he drafted for the UN Conference on the Application of Science and Technology for the Benefit of the Less Developed Areas, Millikan observed that the process of arriving at a national plan should be one in which the planners present to the community for discussion a variety of critical choices showing for each alternative the consequences for the society of pursuing that value choice consistently and efficiently. It is only by this process that the community can clarify its individual and social goals.

Max. F. Millikan, "Planning Process and Planning Objectives in Developing Countries," in Organization, Planning and Programming for Economic Development, US Paper for the UN Conference on the Application of Science and Technology for the Benefit of the Less Developed Areas, Vol. VIII, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962, pp. 33-34.

Lebret’s pre-planning studies provided a systematic way to engage in precisely such consultation.

2. The Lebret approach to the study of needs likewise emphasized the importance of linking micro issues to macro questions. His method of initiating overall surveys in numerous domains (geography, physical infrastructure, use of space, administrative and institutional arrangements, etc.) followed by micro and macro analyses led to decisions (which he called "arbitrages" — arbitration among competing alternatives) protected against viewing development as simple, discrete, unconnected actions. On the contrary, they were, individually and severally, stones brought to the mosaic which was developmental activity. One is reminded here of the insistence with which the philosopher Habermas concluded that definitions of a situation need to be negotiated by all parties affected if we are to reach a social consensus capable of serving as the basis for action.

Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Boston: Beacon Press, 1981, Vol. 1, pp. 85ff.

3. A third lesson garnered from Lebret’s legacy, and pertinent to the discourse on development in the age of globalization, is the priority of needs over wants or preferences (expressed by effective purchasing power). Lebret understood, as did others such as Mannheim, Barbara Ward, and Galbraith, that the needs of the numerous poor cannot be met by the free play of markets. Markets respond to purchasing power. Lebret would have subscribed, I think, to Mannheim’s distinction between an organizing principle and a subordinate mechanism:
Competition or cooperation as mechanisms may exist and serve diverse ends in any society, pre-literate, capitalist, and non-capitalist. But in speaking of the capitalist phase of rugged individualism and competition, we think of an all-pervasive structural principle of social organization. This distinction may help to clarify the question whether capitalist competition - allegedly basic to our social structure - need be maintained as a presumably indispensable motivating force. Now, one may well eliminate competition as the organizing principle of the social structure and replace it by planning without eliminating competitions as a social mechanism to serve desirable ends.

Karl Mannheim, Freedom, Power and Democratic Planning, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951, p. 151.

There is today a growing recognition that markets are embedded, as a sub-system, in a larger societal system. Neither markets, nor economics, constitute the whole system.

4. A fourth lesson one draws from Lebret is that development is multi-dimensional: it embraces economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, and spiritual components of human well-being. Hence Lebret’s insistence on achieving "balanced" development. All registers of "human flourishing" (the term favored by present-day philosophers when speaking of development) must be realized, even if certain tactical or strategic (and temporary) imbalances may be pursued along the way. Lebret never tired of insisting that development was for "every person and the whole person" ("tous les hommes et tout l’homme"). As did the UNDP in its early annual Human Development Reports, Lebret would have said that economic growth is the means, human development - in all its dimensions - is the end. Things go wrong when these are inverted: when economic growth is pursued as though it were the end, not the means. This leads to distorted development, and to excessive costs in human suffering and cultural destruction, erroneously deemed to be unavoidable tributes to be paid to development.

5. The fifth lesson coming to us from Lebret is the need to globalize solidarity. His last book, published posthumously, bore the title Développement = Révolution Solidaire (Development=A Revolution of Solidarity). The present globalization on the basis of financial and economic competition would have reinforced his plea for universal solidarity.

IV. Conclusion

Lebret showed the way to achieving a "wisdom to match our sciences." Wisdom is understood here as the unity of meaning and of understanding of totality, of the whole. It differs from naiveté or simplism in this, that wisdom reaches unity after confronting and struggling with complexity, plurality, and contradiction. In contrast naiveté gains its unity of explanation at the price of fleeing or ignoring complexity, plurality, and contradiction.

Lebret understood that wisdom does not pre-exist in neat packaged formulae. It needs to be generated by multiple dialogues, both theoretical and practical, which engage the numerous ancient wisdoms still vital in today’s communities of culture with modern rationalities based on science and technology.

Only such dialogues can help us find the new global ethic and discover the new institutional creations of global governance capable of leading to that full human development ("le développement humain intégral") to which all now aspire, even those who, paradoxically, reject development in its present dominant form.

Denis Goulet
UNESCO
November 13th, 1998


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