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Lebret, a pioneer - Part 2

By Denis Goulet

By the 1950s, however, Lebret’s own attention had begun to focus almost exclusively on the problems of the Third World. This interest led him to new activities and new creations.

Lebret first experienced what he called “the shock of underdevelopment”—traumatic, existential contact with mass misery—in 1947, during his first trip to Brazil (where he had been invited to give a course on the “human economy.”) He asserted that, compared to the poverty one found in Brazil or India, even the poorest of the poor in France were privileged beings. And if he had judged the economic structures of Brittany in 1929 oppressive and dehumanizing, how was he to assess these structures in their most brutally destructive manifestations in Asia, Latin America, or Africa? They were manifestly incompatible with that “common good” and that “human economy” which were the central themes of his research.

Lebret had never doubted that a system based on the quest for profits was incapable of satisfying human needs. And he had an instinctive ability to grasp the ramifications of local problems. He could see unemployment in a fishing district or low productivity on a backward farm and learn anew the workings of international monetary structures or patterns of world managerial recruitment. Conversely, he never rested content with macroeconomic analysis or sectoral studies; these, he insisted, must be translated into terms which could be related to family budgets and the living conditions of concrete men and women, into the effects policies and programs have on emotional, cultural, and spiritual values. One Argentine sociologist accurately portrays Lebret as one who “preferred to produce facts over believing in postures, who understood the world through a permanent praxis and who taught that the most Christian and the most genuine form of humanism is to struggle to satisfy the needs of humankind.”(1)

From that first trip to Brazil until his death in 1966, Lebret undertook countless missions as a development advisor to Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Senegal, the Malagasy Republic, Lebanon, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay. Wherever he went, he trained local teams to carry on the task of critical research allied to transforming action. But in his view something more systematic and permanent was needed.

Accordingly, in 1958, he founded IRFED, the Institute for Research and Training in Development. Working closely with Economy and Humanism, IRFED was intended to prepare future leaders of the Third World for the difficult tasks of development. They would study, serve field apprenticeships, and return home to undertake or resume their developmental responsibilities. Their central concern was always to be the causes of and the cures for underdevelopment. Today’s IRFED has evolved considerably, especially since Lebret’s death. It has bifurcated into two separate organizations(2). One, still called IRFED, centers its efforts on development education, regional development studies, and experiments in linking grassroots efforts with national or sectoral development plans. The other offshoot is called Faith and Development; it examines the role of religion and religious institutions in the processes of social change throughout the world.

During its early years, IRFED bore the personal stamp of its founder. It approached development education on the following premises:
All individuals preparing themselves for committed development work need to be acquainted with the assumptions and methodology of all the major disciplines—economics, planning, human geography, cross-cultural sociology, politics, nutrition, demography, and so on. Even analytical and theoretical studies should be oriented toward the transformation of social reality. The value implications of competing development models, strategies, and programs need to be criticized explicitly in the light of prevailing ideologies and political doctrines. No true interdiscipline can be achieved by a mere juxtaposition of partial viewpoints. Accordingly, IRFED sought an organic unity of diverse disciplines, joining reflection to action and microanalysis to macroanalysis. Students engaged in practical field work around a specific problem—irrigation, industrial planning, new curricula, medical treatment, or the like. The underlying aim was to produce a form of scholarship which was responsive to urgent human needs. Only thus, Lebret thought, could developers be prepared to undertake humanizing forms of change. Developers were to be tough-minded yet tenderhearted, professionally competent yet compassionate, and experienced in grassroots reality. Identical premises underlie Lebret’s major writings on development, Concrete Dynamics of Development, Suicide or Survival of the West, Development-Revolution in Solidarity and his voluminous reports on development in Colombia, Lebanon, Vietnam, Senegal, and Brazil.

Some of his best-known books, however, have another character: they are works addressed specifically to Christians committed to the task of building social justice in history. Their very titles evoke their special tone and content: Action, Movement Toward God; The Human Ascent; Dimensions of Charity; Rejuvenating the Examination of Conscience; Civilization; The Summons of the Lord; Guidebook for Militants. In these books Lebret reveals himself to be a powerful mover of men or, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the “town-crier of prophetic vocations.” Indeed, he was never embarrassed to speak of prophecy, of commitment, even of love. But it had to be “intelligent love,” for, he said, intelligence without love can only breed a brutalizing technocracy which crushes men, whereas love without disciplined intelligence is inefficient, leading to amateurism, well-intentioned bungling, and, ultimately, catastrophe. The reason is that chronic structural evils cannot be corrected by subjective good will, but only by a concerted transformation of structures, a task which presupposes a rigorous and detailed understanding of how structures work. Lebret refused to accept the simplistic choice: either efficiency or humanization. He understood that efficiency was indispensable; but he also knew that it had to be redefined so as to serve human values.

After Lebret’s death, on July 20, 1966, one French writer compared him with Teilhard de Chardin(3). The differences between the two men are patent: Teilhard was a loner, whereas Lebret was a gregarious leader of team efforts; Teilhard had disciples, Lebret had partners who continued his work. But both were pioneers in essentially secular areas of study, to which, however, each brought a cosmic vision anchored to his religious view of human destiny. Each had to do battle against the conservative mainstream of the religious institution to which he belonged. Each set for himself rigorous scholarly standards which challenged the conventional wisdom of peers insensitive to history’s larger movements. And, to a considerable degree, each was a prophet unhonored in his native land. (Lebret’s influence in Latin America, Africa, and Asia far outstrips the relatively mild interest in him shown in France.)

Among the international development establishment, Lebret was usually treated as an interesting marginal figure, although he was, at times, invited to address important United Nations conferences and other world development assemblies. Notwithstanding such minor tributes as the posthumous publication of an article in International Development Review(4), he was never granted the full professional recognition which was his due as the creator of dynamic new theoretical and practical approaches to development. One reason was, of course, his refusal to observe the prevailing canons of scientific “objectivity.” More important, he was too prescient. It took the development community decades to rally to his basic insights, to the considerations that Lebret had placed at the heart of his diagnosis and prescriptions more than forty years ago:
Development is, above all, a task of forging new values and new civilizations in settings where most existing institutions contradict human aspirations. The only valid path is to seek optimum growth in terms of a population’s values and in terms of resource limitations. Planning is futile unless it is a permanent association between decision makers at the summit and communities at the grassroots. Equity in the distribution of wealth and the achievement of dignity for all are priority targets of development efforts. Conflicts of interest can be solved only by eliminating privilege and launching a general pedagogy of austerity.

The Salient Themes

In the pages which follow, I will elaborate on these major themes of Lebret’s and evaluate, however summarily, his contributions to the study and practice of development. Underdevelopment, in Lebret’s view, is not mainly an economic problem; neither is it simply the inability of social structures to meet the new demands of formerly passive populations. Above all else, underdevelopment is a symptom of a worldwide crisis in human values. Development’s task, therefore, is to create new civilizations in a world of apparently chronic inequality and disequilibrium. Lebret calls such creation the “human ascent,” meaning ascent in all spheres of life—economic, political, cultural, personal, and spiritual. It requires new patterns of solidarity which respect differences and do not posit any easy shortcuts to the elimination of privilege arid domination. Monumental human intervention must occur, aimed at optimizing the use of all resources—natural, financial, technical, and human—if a human economy is to be implanted in small localities as well as in more extensive regions, in national societies as well as in the world at large.

The Crisis in Values and a Scale of Human Needs

“The problem of the distribution of goods,” Lebret wrote in 1959, “is secondary compared to the problems of preparing men to receive them.”(5) Underdevelopment bears witness to the bankruptcy of the world’s economic, social, political, and educational systems. Not only have these systems created mass misery coexisting with alienating abundance; they have also reified human beings and subordinated them to the myths of growth and social control. Therefore, although rational planning, judicious investment, new institutions, and the mobilization of the populace are necessary to achieve development, such measures can never be sufficient. More necessary is overall cultural revolution in the values human beings hold. To Lebret it was evident that underdevelopment is a byproduct of the distorted achievements of those societies which incorrectly label themselves developed. He argued that satisfying an abundance of false needs at the expense of keeping multitudes in misery can never be authentic development. Rather, a sound hierarchy of needs must be established for every community. These needs must harmonize with the community’s spiritual and cultural values, with the exigencies of solidarity with others, with the demands of wise resource use, with the aspiration of all individuals and groups to be treated by others as beings of worth independent of their utility to those others.’(6)

Lebret distinguished three categories of needs:
Essential subsistence needs (food, clothing, housing, health care, and the like).Needs related to comfort and the facilities which render life easier (transportation, leisure, labor-saving devices, pleasant surroundings, and so on).Needs related to human fulfillment or transcendence, whose satisfaction confers heightened value on human lives (cultural improvement, deeper spiritual life, enriching friendships, loving relationships, rewarding social intercourse, and so on.) These may also be called “enhancement goods”; they enhance human societies qualitatively and find their expression in cultural or spiritual achievement. The policy implications which flow from this vision are obvious:
Basic development efforts must place priority on assuring all persons sufficient goods of the first category. This priority ought to dictate investment decisions, the kinds of social systems adopted, the mechanisms of world resource exchange, and the allotment of scarce resources to competing groups. Sufficiency at the first level must not be pursued to the detriment of goods related to human fulfilment. Lebret insists, however, that the satisfaction of basic subsistence needs is the prerequisite or infrastructure upon which human creativity and expression normally depend if they are to flourish. The second category of goods, ranging from goods which are relatively useful to those which are luxuriously wasteful, is not totally useless but should be clearly subordinated to the others. This attention to priority needs is precisely absent in the major competing economic systems. Capitalism, even refined or corrected is responsive through markets to two forces: the effective purchasing power of those who have more than enough, and the ability of producers to manipulate the desires of potential consumers. There is no mechanism for collective decisions or for critical analysis of desires to determine if they meet genuine needs or a1ienate human satisfactions.

Centralized socialism also fails, but for reasons. By and large, it has subscribed to the mass-consumer myth in its efforts to catch up with the United States. Moreover, it has downgraded the importance of non-economic values and those values which do not collectivize existence to the detriment of spiritual, artistic, and personal growth. This deficiency is nowadays acknowledged by Marxist heretics, such as Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Leszek Kolakowsi Bloch, Roger Garaudy, Adam Schaff, and others.

The few efforts at decentralized socialism of which we have knowledge have not advanced very far, although the Chinese have attempted, in their Cultural Revolution, to educate people to free themselves from the allurements of technological efficiency and the enticements of material affluence. More specifically, Mao Tse-tung has tried to persuade his people that austerity is a permanent component of any authentic socialist humanism.(7) But the pressures in the opposite direction remain strong: most people are incapable of tolerating austerity except as a necessary evil in the early stages of capital accumulation. And once affluence is desired—even for the distant future—it may well become impossible to mobilize development efforts on the basis of moral incentives and solidarity with one’s needier fellows.

There is grandeur, no doubt, in Mao’s vision, but it may be too optimistic because it is based on such a heroic form of asceticism. Even the Christian religious orders vowed to poverty in the hope of eternal gain have not resisted the lure of goods.(8)

Lebret understood that levels of human need are not static but dynamic and progressive. Yet men and women must first grow in order to have the absorptive capacity to “have more” without “becoming less” human. This value perspective on development necessarily led Lebret to contest the validity of the development achieved in mass-consumer societies. Not only does such development beget underdevelopment, but even “what appears to be, in terms of human values, anti-development.”(9) Consequently, any development strategy or policy must radically revolutionize the goals and processes by which needs are defined and satisfied. Otherwise, it can at best produce only palliatives; at worst it will create new patterns of mass alienation and dehumanization. Here, in my opinion, is the central axiom in Lebret’s ethics of development: all human beings in every society are entitled to enjoy the structural and institutional conditions which foster universal human ascent(10). He never tired of quoting with approval the phrase coined by Francois Perroux —“development is for all men and for the whole man.”


[1] - Floreal H. Forni, “La Transcendencia de la Obra de L.J. Lebret,” Comunidad 4, no. 32-34 (June-August 1966): 100.

[2] - For more information on this split, see Déve1oppement et Civilisations, no. 47-48 (March—June 1972), pp. 179-183.

[3] - See René Laurentin, “Non moins important que Teilhard”, Le Figaro (Paris), November 15, 1966.

[4] - L.J. Lebret, “Développement et Civilisations,” International Development Review, December 1966, pp. 22-24.

[5] - L.J. Lebret, Manifeste pour une Civilisation Solidaire (Calurie: Editions Economie et Hurnanisme, 1959), p. 49.

[6] - Lebret expounded his theory of scaled needs in many works, notably in “Pour une Economie de Besoins,”Economie et Humanisme, no. 84 (March—April 1954); and Dynamique Concrete du Dêveloppement (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrieres, 1961), pp. 121 ff.

[7] - See Roger Garaudy, Le Problème Chinois (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1967), pp. 224-27.

[8] - See Denis A. Goulet, “Voluntary Austerity: The Necessary Art,” Christian Century 83, no. 23 (June 9, 1966): 748-52.

[9] - L.J. Lebret, “Editorial,” Développement et Civilisations, no. 1 (March 1960), p. 3.

[10] - This is the burden of Lebret’s La Montée Humaine (Paris: Les Editions Ouvrières, 1959).

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