International development economics and the ethics of the preferential option for the poor.

Author:Litonjua, M.D.


International development economics arose to address the problems of misery and suffering of the "underdeveloped areas" of the world as part of the "Fair Deal" that President Harry Truman in his inaugural address in 1949 announced for the entire world. But it really came to its own in the 1960s with the decolonization of the countries of Africa that then became members of the United Nations. The newly-independent countries of Africa with the countries of Asia, independent since World War II, and the nations of Latin America, independent since the 19th century, would be grouped together and known as the Third World. The United Nations designated the 1960s as the Development Decade, and the United States under President John F. Kennedy for its part launched the Alliance for Progress. In the sixty-year history of international development economics, various goals and objectives have been proposed and posited as ends to be pursued by development policies, programs, and efforts.

International development ethics addresses and assesses value assumptions and ethical questions that underlie development goals, ends, and means, especially in the Third World/Global South. It explains, justifies, applies, and extends ethical reflection on development policies, projects, and institutions from the local and national to the regional and global levels. It links the ethics of and for development to the science, policy, and practice of development. As David A. Crocker explains:

National policymakers, project managers, grassroots communities, and international aid donors involved in development in poor countries often confront moral questions in their work. Development scholars recognize that social-scientific theories of "development" and under development" have ethical as well as empirical and policy components. Development philosophers and other ethicists formulate ethical principles relevant to social change in poor countries, and they analyze and assess the moral dimensions of development theories and seek to resolve the moral quandaries lurking in development policies and practice. (1) One guiding principle of Christian social ethics that has assumed increasing importance is the preferential option for the poor. It first emerged in Latin American liberation theology as Christians reflected on the meaning of human life and the implications of the Christian faith in a continent of massive poverty and oppression. It has been incorporated as a central perspective in Catholic social thought and action by Pope John Paul II. It was the organizing framework of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All.

This paper limits itself to the normative conceptions of development, the normative ideals in development theory, and examines them in the light of the preferential option for the poor. "The moral dialogue," Crocker (2) states, "ought to include theological ethics, so as not to neglect the resources of the religious communities, as well as secular ethics, in order to forge an improved global and public moral consensus." The paper is divided into three uneven parts. First, the aspects of the preferential option for the poor will be explained. Second, a picture of world poverty and inequality will be given. Third, the longest section, development goals and objectives, proposed at different periods in the history of international development efforts, will be discussed and evaluated in the light of the ethical demands of the preferential option for the poor. Among the normative goals discussed are economic growth which includes economic development and sustainable development, structural adjustment, neoliberal globalization, human development and basic needs, debt relief and the millennium development goals, and the human capabilities approaches of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen.


According to Joseph Gremillion, (3) Latin American liberation theology is "the first school of theological thought to arise outside Western Europe since that of the Cappadocians and Eastern Church colleagues of 400-600 A.D." It is also the first theological movement to emerge from the modern Third World of massive poverty and misery. It is, therefore, a theological reflection from the perspective and experience of the poor, the victims of society and history. It interprets the Christian faith through the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor, and the person of Jesus Christ as liberator of the oppressed. Much theology, traditional and contemporary is addressed to the non-believer. It was, and is, therefore, apologetic, aimed at demonstrating the rationality and credibility of Christian belief, if not at the eventual conversion of the nonbeliever into a believing member of the Church. Today, Western theology especially has to start from the challenges posed by modern unbelief: the achievements of science and technology, the evolution of the species, the secularization of cultures, a world come of age that proclaims human autonomy and freedom.

Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, points out:

But in Latin America the challenge does not come first and foremost from non-believers but from "nonpersons"--that is, those whom the prevailing social order does not acknowledge as persons: the poor, the exploited, those systematically and lawfully stripped of their human status, those who hardly know what a human being is. Nonpersons represent a challenge, not primarily to our religious world but to our economic, social, political, and cultural world. Their existence is a call to a revolutionary transformation of the very foundations of our dehumanizing society. (4) The Latin American bishops in their Second General Conference at Medellin, convened to apply the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65) and Pope Paul VI's (1967) Populorum Progressio, in their document on Poverty of the Church, distinguished three kinds of poverty:

  1. Poverty, as lack of the goods of this world necessary to live worthily as men, is in itself evil. The prophets denounce it as contrary to the will of the Lord and most of the time as the fruit of the injustice and sin of men.

  2. Spiritual poverty is the theme of the poor of Yahweh. Spiritual poverty is the attitude of opening up to God, the ready disposition of one who hopes for everything from the Lord. Although he values the goods of this world, he does not become attached to them and he recognizes the higher value of the riches of the Kingdom.

  3. Poverty as a commitment, through which one assumes voluntarily and willingly the conditions of the needy of this world in order to bear witness to the evil which it represents and to spiritual liberty in the face of material goods, follows the example of Christ who took to Himself all the consequences of men's sinful condition and Who "being rich became poor" in order to redeem us. (5)

In the face of the tremendous social injustices of Latin America, which keep the majority of the people in dismal poverty, in inhuman wretchedness, the bishops gathered at Medellin committed the Latin American Church to be a poor Church which denounces material poverty and the sin that begets it, which preaches and lives in spiritual poverty, an attitude of spiritual childhood and openness to God, and which is bound in commitment to and solidarity with the poor in their problems and struggles.

This was a fundamental shift in perspective, attitude, and behavior of the Latin American Church. The Church was a handmaiden in the conquest of the Americas, which therefore lent its voice in justifying the destruction of the religions and cultures of the indigenous populations, their oppression and the exploitation of their native lands. Ever since, the Latin American Church was the ideological mainstay of wealth and power. (6) For the Church therefore to side with the poor was to reverse centuries of alliance with the rich and the powerful. The Church did not change its mind, it was then said, it changed sides. But the Church paid a price in the persecution by dictatorships and in the blood of martyrs. (7)

Latin American liberation theology makes three important contributions to our understanding of material poverty. First, material poverty is a dehumanizing condition and a scandalous situation. (8) Material poverty means that you do not have food to ease the pangs of hunger, that you do not get medicine when you are in pain, get sick, and are dying, that you cannot properly clothe yourself and your children against the cold, that you do not have a roof over your head to protect you from nature's elements, and, most of all, that you do not have the power and freedom of choice, that you are completely defenseless and helpless, that you have no control over anything. The grinding material poverty that most people in the Third World/Global South are living in reduces them to the level of animals, dehumanizes them, and degrades them. That is why the biblical passages that describe poverty and its causes are fraught with indignation and denunciation, are prophetic cries against injustice and corruption and for divine vengeance and retribution. For those of us who live in the First World/Global South, who have never experienced the depths of poverty, the beatitudes that bless the poor and the poor in spirit are often understood as simple exhortations to develop interior attitudes of detachment from material goods. That is why Gustavo Gutierrez (9) admonishes that "the first form of poverty is to renounce the idea we have of poverty"

Secondly, material poverty is not only an individual affliction. It affects groups of people in the Third World; whole races, ethnicities, genders, and ages are mired in poverty all over the world. It is embedded in the economic, social, and political institutions of societies; it is built into the structured societal arrangements based on wealth...

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