Louis-Joseph Lebret was born on the 26th of June, 1897, in Minihic, Brittany, not far from Saint-Malo, in a family of strong maritime traditions. He entered the Brest Naval School (“l’Ecole Navale de Brest”), became a marine officer, and fought in the first World War with the Lebanese squadron. With his religious vocation becoming more affirmed, he left the marines in 1923 to become a Dominican priest.
After completing his theological studies, he was assigned to Saint-Malo in 1929. Sensitive to matters and peoples of the sea, he enterprised a large-scale social and trade-union action affecting fishermen communities in all the French coastal areas. He based this action on his in-depth surveys among these fishermen, expressing their problems, their needs, in view of finding solutions. He thus pioneered the use of “participatory research” (based on the Action-Research method).
In 1941, he founded Economy and Humanism, in the Lyons region, whose objective was to study human and social realities in their complexity and globality, proposing to “put back the economy at the service of man”. With François Perroux, both introduced a new concept and practice of territorial planning, that of the “human economy” which aims at “developing the whole person and every person”.
Since 1947, he was invited to Brazil where he got involved in similar projects. He returned to the country on several occasions and was recognized by the United Nations as number one expert on the question of living-standard disparities in the world.
This opening to an international public led him to set up IRFED in 1958, aimed at promoting methods for global, harmonized, “self-propelled” development, inducing the passage from the human economy to economic democracy, in view of the development of peoples. With the training courses conducted in Paris for students coming from all the continents, IRFED also served as a formative tool for development actors, along the action-research methodological framework.
In 1958, while he and his team members pursued their action in Brazil and in different Latin American countries (Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela…), he was asked to be adviser to Mamadou Dia, the head of the first Senegalese government, in matters of development strategy and practice. He pursued this mission for the years that followed, likewise giving consultations to other African states.
During this same period, he became adviser to the Lebanese presidency and government, where he worked on the definition of development in respect of cultural diversity and religious plurality.
In 1960, at the request of President Chebab, he went to Lebanon with a team from IRFED, where he conducted a country-wide socio-economic study from 1960 to 1964. (Cf. Report in French entitled « Besoins et possibilités de développement du Liban » a 20-volume Development Plan).
Between January 1959 and November 1960, he worked along similar lines in Vietnam.
IRFED’s publication then, “Development and Civilizations”, whose title corresponds to the Lebret team’s concerns, served to contribute to the capitalization of ideas and experiences.
In parallel with these activities, L.-J. Lebret was called upon by Pope Paul VI to participate as an expert in the Vatican Council. Afterwards, he became the main inspiring force behind the encyclical on the development of peoples (“Populorum Progressio” in 1967). He was also asked to represent the Holy See at the first UNCTAD (United Nations Conference for Trade and Development) which took place in Geneva in 1965.
He died in Paris, on the 20th of July, 1966.