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globe logo     Caravan: Newsletter of the Alliance for a Responsible and United World
Number 6 August 2000

bulletFrom Readers
bulletMohawk people
bulletASSEMBLY 2000-2001
bulletAlliance in Motion
bulletViews on the Alliance
 · Alliance as threat
 · Questions
 · Is Alliance plural?
bulletThe Artist
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The Alliance as a threat

Gustavo Esteva* (Mexico)

drawing of person beneath the moonWe met Gustavo Esteva during the preparation of the 5th edition of Caravan in Mexico. After this meeting, Gustavo sent us a very critical article about the Alliance that you will find below. We had put off publication of this article in hopes of sparking a certain amount of debate on the fundamental questions about the future orientation of the Alliance that Gustavo's radical critique brings up. You will therefore find responses to this article from Agusti Nicolau Coll and Siddhartha following the critique.

I have seen the transformations of the Alliance, viewed from the outside looking in, and some recent initiatives, such as the attribution of an intercultural character, seem to me encouraging although unreliable. Nevertheless it is still impossible for me to abandon my feeling of ambivalence in relation to the Alliance, I can admire the commitment of the men and women who work for it; their dignity, courage and good sense, but the project itself still strikes me as futile and frustrating, if not threatening.

The Alliance was born out of a courageous desire to stimulate initiatives capable of keeping in check the insanity of globalisation, and to build a world that would be responsible and solidary. The promoters of the Alliance sustain that "we cannot allow ourselves to conceive the world as we did yesterday". They want to see it and attend to it in a different way, a way that is more sensible, more open.

Yet almost ten years of courageous and multiple efforts by the participants in the Alliance have shown that it is impossible to break away from the original mould. Today, as it was yesterday, this is defined by a western, or westernised, anima that seeks to define all cultures from the perspective of its own, and to group them all according to its own terms.

The old impetus of domination

The Alliance seeks unity in diversity, in this way trying to establish itself within a challenge that is central to current circumstance: the dialogue between cultures, between civilisations. Nevertheless the very premises on which the Alliance is based prevent this from happening, it has failed in its manifest proposition to elude the old impetus of domination.

The Alliance has enlisted itself in the humanist tradition of Illustration, which secularised the heritage of Christianity and reformulated the notion of universality in the name of human dignity. The concept of humanity that came out of Humanism is immersed in a temporal continuity, achieving its reality as it moves along the road to progress, a road that inevitably leads to the universal kingdom of reason and the individual endowed with his individual rights.

To this vision of the world the Alliance has incorporated the contemporary image that we also share a common destiny, we are the inhabitants of a planet. In doing so it provides another twist to those premises, given its concern for its "three (current) imbalances": adding responsible and solidary attitudes to the prior boundary marks along the road to progress and stimulating ecological good sense and interest in others.

These ideological pillars of the Alliance are complemented by others, equally tied up with the European tradition, such as the illusion of equality and the principal of representation, used since the French Revolution to legitimise the governments of the nation-states. The Alliance verifies its limitations in the United Nations, but it applies them without inhibitions and bestows on them a biased and illegitimate use in order to organise its Peoples' Assembly.

Unable to speak for the social majorities of the planet

Those of us who do not share these premises will not be present at this Assembly. It is unable to speak for us. Neither do we form a part of the Alliance, although we sympathise with some of the flags that it hoists. And we are many: perhaps we constitute the social majorities of the planet. Despite everything those who share this vision of the world continue to be the minority.

We have learnt to be on our guard against this. In the course of its innumerable metamorphoses it has periodically trapped our fantasies and our courage, weakening our commitment. Our own experiences have only increased our critical reservations, allowing us this time to identify it in advance, despite its unveiling in new and attractive clothing.

We are also transforming our resistance into liberation. Taking our own initiatives in the face of the prevailing winds, over the last five centuries, has been overwhelming. The terrifying force of destruction that they have acquired has made resistance insufficient. They will destroy us if we cannot stop them and free ourselves from their domination.

The ideal of progress is fit only for the museum

For many of us this ideal of progress is fit only for the museum. We do not feel part of that "humanity" to which those who form or assume this concept refer, and which is no more than one view of the human world, not a universal notion. We continue to resist the individualisation to which they wish to subject us: we are people, clusters of specific relationships, and we do not want to be reduced to the condition of individuals, to homo-economicus, based on the mould forged by the possessive and textual individual born in the West. We can see the current impetus for subjection in the world-wide campaign for vigilance in questions of human rights (inevitably individual), a Trojan horse of global re-colonisation hiding under this new cloak, so seductive as it plays out its role of combating the myriad abuses of power. Let us not fall into the illusion of equality, in the name of which all manner of homogenised abuses have been committed and the most illegitimate of inequalities have been introduced. We have solid reasons and extensive experiences to justify our distrust of the principle of representation as a style of organisation and government.

We come from somewhere else. Every day we form and consolidate extensive coalitions of those who are discontented with the state of things. Our common rejection of "global forces" and the industrial mode of production is sustained by differentiated affirmations that would disintegrate in any project of a supposedly common ideology.

We have fully assumed the hypothesis of diversity as a condition for harmony between people and peoples. The pluralism that we propose converts the real plurality in which we live into a political attitude, it forces us, among other things, to set up pluralistic legal regimes which have no place in the nation-state. We are trying to ensure that our cultures and our environments survive, rather than that they are merely "sustainable". We are trying to care for or regenerate the kingdom of gender, in the face of the sexist regime imposed by modernity. We are asserting ourselves in terms of harmonious relations, reasserting this in the here and now, in our districts and towns, in contrast to a future that has become enraptured with ideologies. It is our future construction.

All of this has been raised in the innumerable conversations that we have had in Mexico over recent years, to try and draw up the agenda for the civil society. In those conversations voices have been heard depicting the Alliance as a vain commitment: it will not preach in the desert, but it will not be heard either. Other voices go even further: stating that it is a threat. They see it as yet another commitment to globalisation. In the attempt to build a force, on a scale similar to that of the gigantic forces of the globalisation of capital, or the media, undermining any sense of proportion, of common sense, such as is possessed by the community. Burying through their inevitably abstract discourse the effective response of the people at the social base: at local level. Far from being an autarchic or village impulse -like those of all globalising forces, either conventional or alternative- this answer is the expression of multiple cosmic visions, culturally rooted, which open hospitably to wide coalitions that attempt, on the basis of intercultural dialogue, to forge new forms of communion.

San Pablo Etla, September 1999

* Gustavo Esteva is a de-profesionalised social activist and intellectual. He lives and works in a small Indian village in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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Fundamental Questions for the Future Orientation of the Alliance

I think it would be a grave error to not seriously take into account Gustavo Esteva's radical critique. Even if one does not agree with all of the article's considerations and affirmations, it is important to consider the dangers that it brings up, to which we could so easily fall prey.

I must admit that I agree with many of the remarks that Gustavo Esteva makes with regards to the presuppositions implicit in the genesis of the Alliance (although they could perhaps be more nuanced and would need to be put into context): the critique of progress as a secularised eschatology, putting into question the universality of the value of the Lights (equality, the principal of representation), the critique of Human Rights as a Trojan horse of globalisation, etc.

The question that comes up upon reading his article is whether or not the Alliance falls into the two critiques that he underlines:

  • that of being determined exclusively by a Euro-occidental vision of the world, of being the child of the century of Lights
  • that of contributing to the cultural homogenisation of the world, thus actually working against cultural diversity.

I am convinced that Gustavo limited himself to an analysis of the platform when writing his article, without taking into account the living reality of the Alliance. I am even certain that the majority of allies would probably agree with his fundamental critiques, without necessarily feeling ill at ease within the Alliance at present. Thus, Gustavo's critiques lose a lot of their pull when one considers the rich and plural dynamics carried out by allies.

For example, it is important to remember that the Naxos meeting in 1997 ("What words do not say - the art of intercultural listening", See Caravan N°3) underlined not only the difficulties encountered when trying to translate a text written in a Latin language into other, non-occidental languages, but also the questioning of principals and analyses found within the platform. In the same vein, the work being undertaken towards the writing of an Intercultural Earth Charter is, in my opinion, proof of the desire to move beyond the modern and occidentally-centered limits of the platform that Gustavo criticises, and justly so. I believe the way in which Gustavo's critique is done falls itself into a sort of dualism, belonging to the very modernity which he criticises.

I feel that it is legitimate to not want to participate in the Alliance dynamics for a variety of reasons. I find it however less acceptable to put the responsibility of contributing to the homogenisation and destruction of the world on the shoulders of allies, especially since most carry out work and actions at the local level which are deeply rooted in the wisdom and experience of their own cultures.

It is also important to realise that all those who work towards global actions at an international level are not "homogenisers", and that their actions do not necessarily lead to homogenisation, in the same way that all who only work at the local level do not always necessarily defend cultural diversity. Gustavo Esteva's article does not seem to take into account the full complexity of these different realities.

However, his critiques do force us to ask ourselves two fundamental questions with regards to the future orientation of the Alliance:

  • Should the Alliance aim to re-orient modern society by avoiding the worst of its pitfalls, or should it, on the contrary, be the pluralistic cradle of different ways of living throughout the world, going beyond the civilisational limits of occidental and rational modernity?
  • Should the Alliance be first and foremost an instrument of action at the global level, even if this means possibly compromising diversity, or should it be a space for reinforcing social innovation and local actions undertaken by its partners, focusing on the fact that the accumulation of these actions put together has an influence that eventually surpasses the limits of the local level?

Gustavo Esteva's article therefore brings up some very important questions. The debate that the article sparks has come at an opportune moment, at a time when the Alliance is ambitiously preparing for the 2000-2001 Assembly for a Responsible, Plural and United World. It is also a particularly welcome element in this edition of Caravan, which has global governance as its main theme.

It is in our actions of the coming months that we will either prove Gustavo Esteva's critiques right or wrong. It is up to us to decide...

Agustí Nicolau Coll
Co-founder of Intercultura, Centre for Intercultural Dialogue of Catalonia; In charge of the Spanish-language version of Caravan; Facilitator of the Intercultural Workshop of the Alliance.

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Is the Alliance Plural?

I was asked by Philippe Guirlet to respond to the article of my friend Gustavo Esteva published in this issue of Caravan. The article has shaken a few people who find that his criticism of the Alliance is too strong and one-sided. I was not upset on reading Gustavo's piece, because I feel that the Alliance is an ongoing journey and we have to continuously deepen ourselves on what we are doing. Otherwise we may merely create a 'feel good' climate without impacting the serious issues we are confronted with. Gustavo has certainly raised some very important issues in his article and, quite apart from whether he is right or wrong about his judgement of the Alliance, I feel that the conceptual notions he has challenged us with merits to be seriously discussed.

The Alliance is an ongoing journey

I am hoping that I can show that some of the issues that Gustavo has raised are well and truly the subject of intense reflection and action in the Asia-Pacific region of the Alliance of which I can talk more authoritatively than other parts, simply because I am more deeply involved in this part of the world.

The Alliance is not the monolithic movement that Gustavo feels it is, but incorporates approaches quite close to his concerns. As regards Gustavo's justified fear about the homogenising tendencies in the world, and the dangers of imposing one model of development on everybody, I am clear for instance that the water famine in India (see article) and other parts of the world is a direct result of the modern development process. I have already written to Larbi Bouguerra, who coordinates the Water sector in the Alliance, requesting him to immediately organise a workshop in India to look at the causes of this water famine and find solutions to prevent a recurrence. The Transforming Word, the journalists programme of the Alliance which I coordinate, is also itself gearing up to get meaningful articles into the press on this issue.

There is little doubt that an uncritical notion of progress has brought us to this pass. We in the Asia-Pacific Alliance have been aware of these issues for some time. The question of pluralism is also strongly emphasised in our work. About half the members of the Asia-Pacific facilitating team are extremely sceptical about the modern understanding of development.

Gustavo Esteva would situate himself in the current of thought broadly known as 'Alternatives to Development' which sees no future for the planet with the present paradigm of development. Gustavo's understanding of pluralism would be to allow a myriad of approaches, that are part of the experience of people, to shape their lives. In India the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi are still alive and kicking and play an important role in the debate on the future. Practically all the documents of the Asia-Pacific Alliance make mention of these ideas. In the Melbourne workshop of the Alliance in December 1999, Cheryl Smith, a Maori intellectual and activist, expressed her resentment that a notion of 'democracy' was being imposed on her people, without respecting the Maori peoples own notions of governance.

To pull ourselves out of the global morass

I must confess that I do not think that the solution lies entirely in an "Alternatives to Development" approach. Nor does it lie entirely in an "Alternate Development" approach. Both approaches are crucially important if we have to pull ourselves out of the global morass that we find ourselves in. The dialogue between these two approaches may lead us to a paradigm that may transcend the limitations of both while carrying forward what is meaningful. I am convinced that the ideas expressed by friends like Gustavo Esteva will play a crucial role in this process of rethinking.

I first met Gustavo Esteva when he spent a week at a workshop I helped to organise in March this year in Bangalore. His contribution was seminal. For those who read his article in Caravan he may come across as intolerant and feisty. This may not be a shortcoming. In these days of over-communication nobody takes anything seriously if it is not put across sharply and convincingly. This is not to even remotely suggest that Gustavo was using a communication ploy. I am merely saying that the person I came to know in Bangalore was a warm and kindly human being with a passionate concern for the future of the planet. There is much we can learn from Gustavo and we in the Alliance must not hesitate to do so. But may I also bring to his attention that some of us in the Alliance are also thinking along similar lines, even if they are not identical. Speaking for myself, I think that interventions like those of Gustavo Esteva can help us to critically re-evaluate the directions we are charting. Thank you, Gustavo.

Siddhartha (India)
Coordinator of Pipal Tree, Animator of the Alliance in Asia-Pacific

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© 2000 Alliance for a Responsible and United World. All rights reserved. Last updated October 21, 2000.