Courtney Nelson

June 20, 2002

          Not long ago, certainly in the 1930s and possibly into the 1960s, belief in the notion of progress was quite widespread.  Progress implies improvement towards a goal or a more desirable state.  Many even thought progress in society to be inevitable.

          The Second World War dampened the optimism, and doubts about progress were increased by books like Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows et al, which pointed out that if we continued in the directions we were headed we would face resource depletion and environmental catastrophe.  Food shortages would cause mass starvation, pollution would foul land, air and water, and vital minerals would disappear.  Most of the "limits" cited by the authors have been expanded by technological advance or policy change, but the Malthusian threat to our existence, or at least to our quality of life, remains.

          At the present time, probably more people believe that a biological model of birth, development, maturity, and decline better represents the course of civilizations than believe in a progress model.  Only an extreme optimist could believe in linear and inevitable progress for the human condition.  And yet, there is cause for hope.  The cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations can be broken for a simple reason:  Never before in human history has the mean level of development of an entire population approached the levels of human development common today in Western countries. 

          The key to this unique advancement is technology.  Modern technology has its down sides, including the possibility of planetary destruction.  But without it, we would have not chance to avoid the decline that befell other civilizations.   Technology has made possible the advance of civilization, but has not guaranteed it will continue to happen.  Technology creates opportunities for widespread human development in three ways:    

            It increases productivity to the point where 3% of our population can produce enough food for ourselves and for many abroad.  The productivity makes it possible for us, as well as necessary, to school our children for many years through and beyond adolescence;

            It permits communications on a national and global basis which promotes the rapid adoption of new technologies and the modernization of the attitudes, beliefs and practices of developing country populations; and

            Most importantly, it creates the environment in which we work and play which provides opportunities and incentives for continued human development well beyond formal schooling.  As we shape our technology, it in turn shapes us.

Surprisingly, the human dimension of our achievement has received relatively little attention.  We measure and take pride in our material gains.  Economic well-being is assumed to be the primary human goal.  When we undertake to assist other countries, European during the Marshall Plan and less developed countries since then, we focus our efforts on economic development.  Yet it is what has happened to our people and institutions in the course of economic development that makes our civilization unique and gives hope of breaking the cycle of birth to decline that has affected all previous civilizations.

          We do take pride in our institutions.  Our foreign policy aims to encourage the spread of democracy around the globe, just as the British established parliaments in their colonies before setting them free.  We assume that one man one vote is an appropriate system of governance no matter what the mean level of human development is in a particular population.

          After a long career in the business of international development, I am concerned that my colleagues and I have been concentrating on secondary issues.  We have promoted technological and organizational development and assumed that human development would follow, as it did in Western countries.  One problem with that strategy is that habitat earth cannot sustain globally the stages of economic development which we went through in our history.  I think we need to focus our efforts more directly on human development goals, adapting technological and organizational inputs appropriate to the level of the participants.  Work and study environments can be consciously designed to challenge and stimulate participants to the next level or stage.

          As a discipline, adult development psychology may not be ready to offer guidance to those seeking to promote development abroad.  Recent significant theoretical advances in the field have revealed a new perspective on many of the individual and social problems of the day, but these advances have yet to be thoroughly tested and applied by psychologists and others, such as teachers, management experts, educators and therapists, whose work could be enhanced by the knowledge.

          The professionalization of the field is overdue.  Professionalization describes an attitude shift from an academic focus, where the object is the increase of knowledge, to a service orientation, where the practical application of specialized knowledge and training for the benefit of individuals or communities is the goal. Human development psychology, as a discipline of applied knowledge, belongs with the professions of medicine, education, political science, management and sociology.  Joint research projects are needed to forge links between development psychology and practitioners in these fields.

          The general dissemination of information gleaned from the study of human development has lagged behind the growth of that knowledge.  Because funding sources, academic institutes, and professional journals have emphasized the importance of basic research rather than the application or dissemination of theory, those involved in the development of this knowledge have had little incentive to move beyond the sphere of the university.

          I suggest that a major foundation be requested to provide substantial funding over a considerable period of time to support the professionalization of this important discipline, the application of knowledge to other fields, and the training of professionals from developing countries as well as industrial ones.  An initial exploratory grant could enable the potential organizers of such a program time to come up with a program strategy, assess controversial issues relating to the field, and identify priority activities in need of funding.  An SRAD member grounded in a university could be principle investigator for the exploratory study, guided by a committee of SRAD members.

          Foundations are uniquely equipped for major undertakings such as the professionalization of a discipline.  Their time horizon is long enough to enable them to forgo immediate results.  An example of successful foundation support to an emerging profession is described in the attached pages.  In that case, the Carnegie Corporation helped to professionalize museum curators in the inter-war period.

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