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    Letter No.49
    5 November, 1996


by David Korten

Former USAID advisor David Korten, who has lectured in New Zealand, is the founder of the People-Centred Development Forum, a global alliance on development issues. He challenges us to redefine the problem of creating jobs.

  • An important part of the demand for economic growth comes from the carefully cultivated myth that the only way we keep people employed is to expand aggregate consumption to create jobs at a rate faster than corporations invest in labour-saving technology to eliminate them. We neglect an important alternative -- to redefine the problem and concentrate on creating livelihoods rather than jobs.

  • A job is defined as "a specific piece of work, as in one's trade, or done by agreement for pay; anything one has to do; task; chore; duty." A livelihood is defined as "a means of living or supporting life."

    A job is a source of money. A livelihood is a means of living. Speaking of jobs evokes images of people working in factories and fast-food outlets of the world's largest corporations. Speaking of sustainable livelihoods evokes images of people and communities engaged in meeting individual and collective needs in environmentally responsible ways.

  • We could be using advances in technology to give everyone more options for good, sustainable living, for livelihood. Instead of demanding that those fortunate enough to have jobs sacrifice their family and community lives while others languish in the ranks of the unemployed, we could be organising our societies around a twenty- to thirty-hour workweek to assure secure and adequately compensated employment for almost every adult who wants a job. The time thus freed could be devoted to the social economy in activities that meet unmet needs and rebuild a badly tattered social fabric.

  • Many existing jobs not only are unsatisfying, but also involve producing goods and serves that are either unnecessary or cause major harm to society and to the environment. This includes a great many of the jobs in the automobile , chemical, packaging, and petroleum industries, most advertising and marketing jobs, the brokers and financial portfolio managers engaged in speculative and other extractive forms of investment, ambulance-chasing lawyers, 14m arms industry workers worldwide and 30m people employed by the world's military forces.

  • This leads to a startling fact. Societies would be better off if, instead of paying hundreds of million of people sometimes outrageous amounts to do things that are harmful to the quality of our living, we gave them the same pay to sit home and do nothing. Although far from an optimal solution, it would make more sense than the wholly irrational practice of organising societies to pay people to do things that result in a net reduction in real wealth and well-being.

  • Why not organise them instead to do things that are socially beneficial and environmentally benign ... such as providing loving care and attention to children and the elderly, operating community markets and senior citizen centres, education our young people, counselling drug addicts, providing proper care for the mentally ill, maintaining parks and commons, participating in community crime watch, organising community social and cultural events, cleaning up the environment, replanting forests, doing public-interest political advocacy, caring for community gardens, organising community recycling programmes, and retrofitting homes for energy conservation.

    Similarly, many of us could use more time for recreation, quiet solitude, and family life and to practice the disciplines and hobbies that keep us physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually healthy.

  • Our problem is not too few jobs. It is an economic structure that creates too much dependence on paid employment and then pays people to do harmful things while neglecting so many activities that are essential to a healthy society.

    It is instructive to remember that until the last ten to twenty years, most people served society productively in unpaid work in the social economy. In many instances, these societies had a stronger social fabric and offered their members a greater sense of personal security and fulfilment than does our own.

    Source -- from "When Corporations Rule the World" by David C. Korten (pub. Earthscan)
    People-Centred Development Forum: for further contact on the Internet --

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