World events during the life of Sergio

By Yves Berthelot, President of the Centre Lebret-Irfed

It would be dangerous to try to explain on the basis of world events all of Sergio's professional involvements, the choices that he made to support this or that cause or to fight against this or that injustice, the request to one person rather than another to assist him on his missions or the way that he implemented the projects in his charge. Nevertheless, these events certainly influenced him as they influence all of us. I will leave it up to each person to draw the linkages between the various testimonies in this book and the various events, debates and principles that are briefly recalled below.

The years preceding the YCW (1943 - 1963)

When Sergio first entered the workforce in 1959, the Cold War had already been under way for twelve years, the war in Vietnam for two years, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights had been adopted eleven years earlier, de-colonisation was in progress and the debate on development was taking place.

The Cold War

Peace between the Soviet bloc and the West rested on a balance of terror based on the nuclear arsenals of each camp and on respect for the Yalta agreement. The USSR did not directly intervene to support the communists during the ferocious civil war in Greece from 1946 to 1949. Western powers allowed the USSR to repress the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and allowed the Prague Spring to be crushed in 1968. The Berlin Wall, a wall of shame for some and an anti-fascist protection wall for others, was erected on the night of 12-13 August 1961 without opposition from the allies.

After the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in 1962, the Cold War took a new turn. People spoke of peaceful co-existence without looking for ways to reconcile market economies with planned economies. Competition between the Western model and the Soviet model remained and it was not clear at the time which would win or which would be more effective in the development of the Third World. The East-West rivalry developed into economic competition in the Third World, from which certain countries such as India or Egypt managed to benefit, and in internal conflicts and civil wars of which people became victims.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is undoubtedly one of the greatest UN documents. However, we had to wait until 1966 for the two pacts on economic and social rights (ESR) and on civil and political rights (CPR) to set out the obligations of governments. These pacts were complemented by a series of specific conventions that furnished humankind with a remarkable body of legal documents. Unfortunately, governments expected that the UN would promote human rights rather than apply them in practice. Human rights rapidly became an instrument of the Cold War, with the East promoting ESR and the West CPR, forgetting the oft-repeated affirmation that the two pacts were indissociable! More seriously, rights were violated on a daily basis: children, slaves, women were all treated as inferior beings, torture became commonplace, families were deprived of their homes or their means of living with no compensation, the media was censored, elections cheated.... And after September 11 2001, the western countries which were traditional defenders of the CPR started to violate them, threatening to endanger the credibility of all rights.

Should we despair? No, because more and more individuals are now conscious of their rights thanks to the action of the UN and the NGOs, and little by little they make succeed in making them effective.


Article 1 of the United Nations Charter affirms the right of peoples to “to self-determination” but Chapter XI de facto gave colonial powers the responsibility of leading their colonies to independence. During the first years of the Cold War the USSR and the United States, with little regard for the independence of countries choosing the enemy camp, exercised little pressure on the colonial powers.

It was the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in April 1955, which would turn decolonisation into an unstoppable force. Twenty nine states and thirty national liberation movements from Africa and Asia met there, and as Jean Lacouture has written, it was most of a celebration of unity, a “will to dissolve colonialism in a bath of peace”. The concept of the “Third World” was born there.

In 1945, a third of the world population lived in non-autonomous territories. In 2009, the UN counted 1.2 million people still living in 16 colonial territories, which does not by any means imply that today there are not other “peoples” or “minorities” who wish for independence.

During the YCW years (1963-1978)

For Sergio, the YCW years were marked above all by the holding of Vatican II, the first oil crisis and failure of the New International Order (NIEO), the debate on development with the UN First Decade for Development as well as the writings of Milton Friedman, the American economist, and the experimentation with neo-liberal doctrines by the Latin American dictatorships.

Vatican II (1962-1965) and Populorum Progressio (1967)

Vatican II had a considerable impact going well beyond the Christian world. The first signal was the refusal of the bishops, with the agreement of John XXIII, to accept the texts prepared under the control of the Curia and their decision to deliberate first of all in national and regional groups, thus recognising that Revelation is not fixed and can be enriched by the experience of humanity. This was followed one after the other by the recognition of human rights, religious freedom and participation, adhesion to the ecumenical movement, dialogue with non-Christian religions, respect for differences and the preferential option for the poor.

In this spirit, Paul VI in 1967 published the encyclical Populorum Progressio which was drafted in part by Louis-Joseph Lebret and of which the essential is found in the objective of “development of the whole person and of every person”. The many recommendations that the encyclical contains to promote this development were naturally influenced by the state of debate taking place in relation to development.

The development debate

The “backward” countries of 1945, which became “under-developed countries” in 1949 following a speech by President Truman, would become “developing countries” during the 1960s. Some of these entered the category of the least developed countries (LDC) while others became newly industrialised countries and emerging countries during the 1980s. Most would remain part of the Third World but several would join the OECD. Vocabulary evolved, the Third World diversified but the rupture with the developed countries persisted.

However, at the beginning of the 1960s, people thought that development would require only a few years of national effort, backed by financial aid and external finance. From the end of the 1960s, disenchantment began to set in. It became clear that development would take time. During the 1950s and 1960s people became fixed on the idea of rapid growth in agricultural and industrial production and on sufficient savings to finance investment. People targeted economic “take off” without paying much attention to income sharing.

The persistence of poverty, hunger and unemployment became clear at the beginning of the 1970s. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) then promoted the satisfaction of basic needs and, in order to promote employment, the use of low capital technologies. These recommendations were swept away by the flow of credit which became available through the recycling of petrodollars created by the oil crisis. Countries borrowed heavily in order to continue to make capital intensive investments.

The foundation of UNCTAD and the NIEO

In 1964, the founding of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) highlighted the fact that development depended not only national policy and aid but also on the international environment and the rules defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the GATT, the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Over the following decades, UNCTAD would take up many initiatives to create an international environment more favourable to developing countries.

After the oil crisis, power relations between the industrialised and developing countries changed somewhat and the latter were able to claim more power within the IMF and World Bank. However, a declaration on the New International Economic Order (NIEO) to this effect went unheeded.

Neo-liberalism and the Latin American dictatorships

Milton Friedman is the emblematic figure of neo-liberalism. He developed his theories during the 1960s at the University of Chicago. In summary, he thought that unlimited markets could not be mistaken. Therefore there was less need for government, which would be restricted to justice administration, policing and defence, and therefore less taxation. He believed that there was a natural rate of unemployment and rejected Keynesianism. Regulation of money supply was in his view an adequate instrument for controlling the economy and avoiding inflation. He was also an activist who wanted to show the superiority of liberalism over all other systems both in theory and practice. However, he was conscious of the many resistances that would oppose a move to pure liberalism unless the people were reduced to a state of shock and incapable of acting. This was the opportunity offered by Pinochet's coup d'etat in Chile and the other Latin American dictatorships. His students, known as the Chicago Boys, directed the economy policy of all these dictatorships to the detriment of the poor and to the benefit of the multinationals1.

The CCFD years (1983-1994)

In the midst of the years from 1983 to 1994 that Sergio spent at CCFD, the fall of the Berlin Wall took on the appearance of a triumph of the market economy, which allowed the philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama to announce The end of history. “Less government” was the fashion and structural adjustment programs went forward. Simultaneously, a multitude of NGOs were created in the East and South.

Structural adjustment

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980. Inflation was then at its peak and they decided to cut credit. Interest rates rose. The third world countries which had become highly indebted at variable interest rates during the 1970s were struck down. Their debt burdens increased considerably and they were unable to borrow more. Latin America, which was the most affected, baptised the 1980s “the lost decade”.

The restructuring and lowering of the debt were granted by public creditors to the Paris Club and by private creditors to the London Club in exchange for drastic policies reducing public expenditure. Government spending on health and education were hard hit instead of arms expenditure. These difficulties were somewhat redressed during the 1990s under pressure from the UN and the NGOs.

The doctrine underlying the structural adjustment policies was formulated in 1989 by John Williamson, an American economist and became known under the name of the Washington consensus.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 marked the end of the Cold War and the failure of centralised planned economies but not the end of authoritarian regimes. This resulted in the market economy becoming the sole economic system which remained. There was a great distance between the social market economy that had dominated Western Europe from 1950 to 1980 and the market economy as understood by Milton Friedman or the Chinese government. Economic debate nevertheless remained open. The attraction of Eastern Europe did not deprive developing countries of development aid or private investment.

East-West cooperation relaunched the peacekeeping activities of the UN but failed to prevent the dramas that affected Somalia, Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia. The great UN conferences on population, environment and women were more consensual and mobilised an impressive number of NGOs from every horizon. Without one of the most promising consequences of the fall of the Wall was the participation of civil society in the international debate and in local decisions in many countries.

The Lebret years (1994-2007)

When Sergio became director of the Centre Lebret in 194, American hegemony seemed solid. Until September 11 2001. The rise in religious fundamentalism moved Sergio to launch a program on interreligious dialogue but he left the Centre Lebret-IRFED before he was able to see the full consequences of the emergence of the multipolar world.

Globalisation and American hegemony

Globalisation became a reality during the 1990s, facilitated by the rise in electronic communication and the liberalisation of trade desired by large companies. Thus the Western consumer model increasingly became the reference. Neo-liberal rhetoric and the Washington Consensus dominated the thinking of leaders from most Third World nations, even when they condemned its effects. The dismantling of the USSR and the economic weakness of Russia left the USA as the sole remaining global power.

Military, intellectual and economic made American hegemony a fact. This remained the case until September 11 2001.

The rise of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism can be a return to the sources. However, some forms can feed violence and terrorism as well as the use of religion to conquer power. If it finds an echo in the population, it is because many consider neo-liberal globalisation to be a form of fundamentalism that excludes and marginalises and hopes to find recognition and dignity in religious fundamentalism. It is a pity that religious authorities do no denounce the use of religion with greater vigour and do not endeavour to situate the debate on the political and economic levels while promoting interreligious dialogue.

American reaction to September 11 led to the catastrophic war of Iraq where a number of Western countries lost their souls by practising or tolerating torture, dealing a serious blow to the human rights they claimed to defend.

The multipolar world

The economic dynamism of China, Brazil, India, South Africa and ASEAN2, alongside the weakening of the US and Europe, with one blocked in Iraq and Afghanistan while others were unable to exit a financial crisis that these caused, others divided and without vision, both living beyond their means, turned the world into a multipolar place that needed to find its own way of governance.

There still remain the challengers of the environment, marginalisation, migration as well as the formidable hope engendered by decentralisation and the desire of civil society to participate.

Sergio would have certainly continued to build on such hopes.


1 See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

2 Association of South East Asian Nations.