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INTRODUCTION to Changing Production Patterns with Social Equity

Gert Rosenthal, Executive Secretary of ECLAC (1997)


"What does ECLAC think?" This is perhaps the question that staff members of the Secretariat are asked most frequently by scholars, journalists, labour leaders and government authorities. When the question refers to a specific issue, more often than not the institution is able to voice a clear, precise opinion. However, when the question refers to the Commission’s overall conceptual approach, then we are on shakier ground and run the risk of lapsing into generalizations as we strive to offer up universally valid frames of reference for a wide array of different situations.

 Nonetheless, it is a question that cannot be sidestepped. First, because it is part of the institutional tradition for ECLAC to offer holistic orientations as well as opinions on particular issues. As is well known, during the 1950s the Economic Commission for Latin America gained renown not only in the region but throughout the world because it articulated a coherent progression of ideas regarding Latin America’s economic progress in the early decades of the postwar period. The proposal put forward by the Commission at that time was based on an interpretation of conditions in the region and, in particular, on an analysis of the way in which the Latin American countries were linked to the rest of the world. These ideas took the form of a series of proposals whose main components are widely known.

Perhaps the most original feature of that conceptual exploration was that it looked at development from the vantage point of the countries of the region rather than automatically adopting the conceptual framework of the developed societies. While it is true that the work of the institution was advancing more along the lines of what might be described as "political economy" rather than "pure" economics, it was marked by a high degree of technical discipline and professionalism, as well as by a certain measure of elegance, along with its conceptual coherence.

 A second reason why we must not skirt this question lies in the sweeping changes that have occurred over the last 15 or 20 years in the world of ideas and, of course, in the objective nature of circumstances both within Latin America and the Caribbean and elsewhere. During the 1980s, attention focused on a paradigm for overcoming the crisis in the region. The basic components of this paradigm involved opening up the region’s economies to international competition, relying on the market for resource allocation, cutting back sharply on government involvement in the economy, and galvanizing the creative forces of private enterprise. The most fervent advocates of this paradigm went so far as to position it at what was virtually the opposite end of the spectrum from the Commission’s structuralist stance of the 1950s by fashioning a rather simplistic dichotomy of economic liberalization models versus import-substitution models, the "invisible hand" versus planning, and private enterprise versus State dirigisme.

It would have been a mistake for ECLAC to sally forth solely in defense of its past theoretical work; nor would it have been appropriate for it to engage in a heated controversy regarding the current paradigm while seeking to champion some sort of "anti-paradigm". What it was called upon to do --and what it did do— was to update the institution’s thinking so that it could address present and foreseeable circumstances. At this point it should be noted that ECLAC never did regard its original ideas as a static construct, much less a doctrine. On the contrary: it expressly recognized the need to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances, including those brought about by the countries’ own development policies. Thus, as conditions changed in the world and within the region itself, the Commission was aware that its analyses and proposals would need to be brought up to date. This ongoing endeavour has been seen as a process, as a never-ending task that has become all the more necessary in recent years in view of the striking changes unfolding in the region and in its international environment during the 1990s.

 This process of aggiornamento in the thinking of the institution is reflected in a series of publications issued since 1990 under the phrase of Changing production patterns with social equity. The first of these publications (1990) offers a general framework, while those that follow delve more deeply into a number of specific subject areas and, in so doing, further the development of this overall frame of reference. A synopsis of this series of position papers or proposals is given in the following pages. As the Commission pursues this ongoing effort to revisit its work, it is not seeking to devise any single, comprehensive formula but is instead striving to offer guidelines as to what kind of approach the region’s Governments and civil societies will need to approach development in the 1990s and beyond. Furthermore, a recognition of the need to take the specific features of each situation into consideration is an intrinsic part of this body of thought, which thus expressly acknowledges the fact that the proposed guidelines will need to be adapted to the particular conditions existing in each country.

 In this series of publications spanning the period from 1990 to 1997, the ECLAC Secretariat offers a conceptual framework and explores its more specific facets. True to its tradition, many areas of long-standing concern to the institution are re-examined in the light of new circumstances.

Thus, for example, ECLAC once more looks into the question of what kinds of linkages the Latin American and Caribbean countries need to form with the international economy. In the 1950s, the approach it proposed for dealing with the asymmetrical relationship between the "centre" and the "periphery" focused on industrialization; in the 1990s, its proposed response to economic globalization is based on the idea of achieving international competitiveness.

By the same token, technical progress continues to play a pivotal role in the concerns of the institution and is now being viewed from a more systemic perspective than before, since the idea is to boost productivity throughout the entire production system rather than merely in the industrial sector.

The Commission’s concern for social equity is another constant, given the inequical nature of the Latin American development process. We have moved away from an approach in which the tendency was to view growth and social justice as two separate issues and towards an integrated focus that seeks to address the need to change the region’s production patterns and the need for social equity simultaneously.

We also continue to promote economic integration within the broader framework of our commitment to intraregional cooperation. Today, our proposals regarding what we have come to call "open regionalism" are designed so as to be compatible with globalization, just as those of the past were geared to import substitution led industrialization.

And perhaps because ECLAC is an institution whose purpose is to serve the Governments of the region, a concern for public policy and the role of the State is another constant on our agenda as we seek out synergies in the interaction between public and private agents.

But we also have incorporated new areas of concern into our thinking, or are devoting greater attention to issues that figured less prominently in our thinking in the past. First, short-term economic policy, including its financial and monetary variables, is considered in our current analyses, but now it is interwoven with a medium- and long-term perspective. Analyses of the long-standing problem of structural inflation have been complemented by detailed studies on the formulation and implementation of stabilization and adjustment programmes. Second, we have incorporated the environmental dimension into our thinking by building upon the pioneering work done by the Organization in the 1950s and 1960s in its exploration of the link between natural resources and development. Third, we have forged a much more direct link than before with governance and policy variables as they relate to the development process, as a logical reflection of the clear trend towards the establishment of more pluralistic, participatory political regimes in the region.

Above all, we continue to examine development issues from the vantage point of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. Our analyses and proposals are not the product of abstract theorization but rather of real-life experiences both within the region and elsewhere. In this respect, ECLAC occupies a position midway between theory and praxis which enables it to offer guidelines for action based on empirical ("best practices") observation. In the final analysis, what we are trying to accomplish is to prompt a wide-ranging debate in Latin America and the Caribbean as to what kind of approach we should take to the development process under present and foreseeable circumstances.

In sum, today, as yesterday, ECLAC --the Secretariat and its member Governments— continues to serve as an institution devoted to the analysis of Latin American and Caribbean development issues and to the economies's adaptation to emerging circumstances both inside and outside the region. By providing the countries with a frame of reference for the development process, we believe we are rendering a useful service in furnishing factual, well-reasoned inputs for the debate concerning regional economic affairs.


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