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The Cost-Benefit Analysis Dilemma:

Strategies and Alternatives


Cost-benefit analysis has on the one hand been enlisted by decision-makers around the
world as a way of justifying or scrutinising choices about whether to build dams,
road, airports; what actions to take on global warming or biodiversity; to determine
damages from oil spills; or redesign automobiles for safety. At the same time, grass roots
opponents have contested the ways in which the technique values lands and natural
resources, its neglect of equity issues and its incompatibility with many forms of
reasoned negotiation. Engaged intellectuals have argued that the technique does not
clarify but obscures rational deliberative processes involving plural values and is based on
deeply controversial political theory. A conference held at Yale University in October 1999
brought together diverse professionals in an effort to better understand the nature
of conflicts that CBA creates and how to cope with the political challenges
posed by it. Presented here is a review of the proceedings followed by a selection of
papers read and discussed at the conference.
I
Introduction

ost-benefit analysis (CBA) is often


advertised as a device for clarifying, rationalising, and simplifying
societal choices and avoiding social conflict. The experience of several decades
demonstates, however, that the more widely
it is used, the less credibility it tends to
enjoy and the more conflict tends to be
created.
On the one hand, the technique has been
enlisted by decision-makers around the
world as a way of justifying or scrutinising
choices about whether to build dams, roads,
and airports; what actions to take over
global warming, biodiversity loss, or soil
erosion; what health care and occupational
safety policies to adopt; how to determine
damages for oil spills or toxic leaks; whether
to undertake family planning programmes;
how to regulate pesticide use or dispose
of radioactive waste; whether to modify
automobile design to save lives; how to
use military lands; and so forth. Entrenched
in bureaucratic common sense and used
by international lending institutions and
aid agencies, CBA is likely to be applied
even more widely in the 21st century.
At the same time, however, cost-benefit
analysis faces growing resistance at a
variety of levels. Grass roots opponents of
roads and hydroelectric dams around the
world have persistently contested the ways
the technique values land, forests, streams,
fisheries and livelihoods, as well as its

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reliance on unaccountable experts, its


neglect of equity issues, and its incompatibility with many forms of reasoned negotiation. Ordinary people surveyed by
cost-benefit analysts have commonly refused to answer questions about how much
money they would pay to save a wilderness
or how much they would accept to allow
it to be destroyed. Engaged intellectuals
have argued that the technique does not
clarify but rather obscures rational deliberative processes involving plural values,
faces intractable difficulties regarding
predictability, discount rates, and opportunity costs, and is based on a deeply
controversial political theory.
The conference The Cost-Benefit Analysis Dilemma: Strategies and Alternatives
(October 8-10, 1999) brought together
diverse progressive groups to think and
strategise about how to deal with costbenefit analysis as a social and political
problem. Sponsored by the Institution for
Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, with additional financial support from
The Netherlands foundations NOVIB and
HIVOS, the meeting was co-organised by
the British non-governmental organisation
The Corner House. Its purpose was to give
activists and intellectuals critical of CBA
an opportunity to begin building an information-sharing community with others
from whom they may have hitherto been
isolated a community which can gain a
better understanding of the nature of the
conflicts which CBA creates, reflect on
campaign lessons, cope better with the

political challenges posed by CBA, and


promote less conflict-ridden decisionmaking practices. This summary of what
happened at the conference is one contribution toward that goal.

II
Putting CBA in Perspective
Cost-benefit analysis, Larry Lohmann
reiterated in introducing the conference,
has become a subject not only for bureaucrats, economists and environmentalists,
but also for displaced peoples, historians,
labour and health activists, biologists,
anthropologists, sociologists and political
scientists. Over the two and a half days of
the conference, conference participants
agreed that no one analysing or taking
other actions with respect to cost-benefit
analysis could afford to ignore its larger
contexts, including economic development and local, national and international
politics. Ralitza Panayotova spoke for
many participants when she said that
CBA was only one part of a bigger set
of structures in which corporate power
and special economic interests are paramount, which is, at the end of the day,
what we are fighting. Throughout the
conference, participants discussed CBA
not in theoretical isolation, but rather in
relation to a varied set of concrete issues
ranging from monoculture to hydroelectric dams and from the Social Science
Citation Index to globalisation. CBAs
exact role and importance in these con-

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

texts, however, was a matter for much


discussion.

Market Norms and Commons


John ONeill saw CBA as one part of
the extension of commercial norms into
new spheres described by Karl Polanyi
(1957). In ONeills view, it is this expansion the attempt to bring environmental
goods into the market by constructing
prices for them, but also, more importantly, the expansion of private property
rights which is the origin of environmental problems. Vijay Paranjpye and
Stephen Gudeman lent this idea concreteness by noting that CBA, because it assumes individual private property rights,
was biased against the idea of commons,
which have no identified private ownership and which are not reachable through
the notion of efficiency. With common
property, CBA cannot be used, said
Paranjpye. I have no knowledge of projects
in India in which CBA led to the protection
of natural resources or rights of the commons of displaced people. Talking about
commons, noted Gudeman, was a very
good door to a critique of CBA. Joji
Carino, citing a phrase of Ivan Illichs,
connected the conference topic to the war
against subsistence [Illich 1981].
Theodore Porter put CBA in the context
of its historical development in the US in
the earlier 20th century, seeing it largely
as a way of dealing with interagency
conflicts over water projects. Cost-benefit analysis is the paradoxical outcome of
a political drive to escape politics, Porter
said. Peter Dorman extended Porters
analysis into the future, speculating that
CBA was likely to find a small but useful
role in the schemes of political and economic elites bent on finding a way to
govern without politics in a globalised
neo-liberal regime. This regime, he explained, is characterised by growing market competition among countries and within
corporations and other organisations.
Through this competition, one part of the
world is permanently in debt and running
trade surpluses while the northern countries are trying to gouge each other so that
through north-north trade they can offset
these trade deficits with the south.
William Fisher pointed out that the attempt to turn politics into technique was
an adaptation long adopted by development agencies, as had been explored by
James Ferguson (1990). Alex Wilks noted
that the World Banks promotion of gover-

Economic and Political Weekly

nance without politics through CBA was


strikingly evident in the World Development Report of 1997. The Report contained a proposal for a typology of expected costs and benefits for various interest groups of reforms such as pension
privatisation. The point was to come up
with a tactical sequencing of reform which
bypassed the need for public discussion.
Theodore Porter suggested that in the
earlier 20th century in the US, CBA was
developed as a body of expertise whose
object it was to cancel out expertise in the
name of transparent, rational rules. While
this move was a natural result of conflict
in a society in which bureaucratic fiat
could be democratically challenged, the
effort was fraught with contradictions from
the start. As Wendy Espeland explained,
quantification is often imposed on those
who must be accountable to broader publics and resisted by elites whose decisions have up to now been protected from
public scrutiny. Yet, at the same time,
quantification hides as well as constrains
discretion:
It is a strategy of inclusion that privileges some forms of expertise at the expense of others. Those who perform the
commensurating, those who fix the terms
of what is being disaggregated and integrated, and those who evaluate the technical adequacy of it, do so at the expense
of local, practical knowledge...Commensuration alters relations of authority in
profound ways [both by creating new things
and] by excluding other things.
James Scott underlined one of the contradictions when he remarked that a technique such as CBA which is opaque to
99.9 per cent of the population has limited claims to transparency. This point was
supported by Alex Wilks, who related the
tribulations of non-government organisations (NGOs) in Chad who recently had
to come to terms with 19 volumes of
impact assessment in English, with no
effort at translation or discussion. Mishka
Zaman noted the extreme difficulty of
helping ordinary people in Pakistan who
dont speak English to understand such
assessments and the institutions which
produce them, to lobby for their rights, and
to get access to information. Other participants warned that the claim that CBA is
transparent could be used to lure activists
down the risky path of asking that their
concerns be included in CBA processes.
Scott went on to stress how reliance on
a supposedly objective, impartial, politicsfree way of making decisions can also

May 26, 2001

lead to corrupt forms of politics. One


example was the use, in academic tenure
decisions in the US, of the numbers of
citations a faculty members articles had
received in other Anglo-American journal
articles as a measure of academic excellence. All citations count equally, including self-citations, as long as they appear
in journals within ones own academic
discipline, no matter how sparsely read.
One result is cabals of academics conspiring to cite each other as often as possible.
Interest in writing something that might be
cited outside the field, or in books, is
meanwhile stifled. John Adams and others
pointed out other examples of the paradoxical results of auditable systems
winning out over unauditable ones. For
example, the use of British surgeons
success rates as indicators of probable
future outcomes means that the best surgeons are likely to be given the most difficult
cases, thereby reducing their success rate.
Conversely, incentives emerge for senior
surgeons to fob difficult cases off onto
juniors less able to object.

The Effect on Economics


Martin OConnor contended that the
political drive to escape politics mentioned by Porter and Dorman had pushed
the academic discipline of economics itself, including the practice of CBA, toward incoherence. He noted that valuation
of (say) a forest depends on who is allocated property rights: Imagine an island
where there are two groups at war with
each other. There are two resources, one
called forests and one called minerals.
The forests can be kept and used to sling
hammocks under, which some groups like,
or chopped down and turned into BMW
cars by processes of genetic engineering.
The cars can then be driven around in the
spaces where the forests used to be, which
is what other groups like to do. What is
the highest value use of the forests? Its
obvious to anybody without any economics training that the answer depends on
who has the property rights. If you give
the property rights to the hammock-lovers,
then it is provable by second-year economics techniques that the highest-value use
of the forest is to preserve them to put
hammocks under. If you give the property
rights to BMW lovers, then the highestvalue use of the forests is to chop them
down and transform them into BMWs.
Similarly, as John Adams observed, the
result of a contingent valuation survey will

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depend on who is regarded as the interested


survey population. Similarly, the attitude
toward a request to pay for a non-smoking
space on a train will depend on who is
understood to have rights to use the air.
Yet if different factions disagree about
property rights, OConnor continued, ways
of solving the distributional problem have
to be found. Nobel economist Kenneth
Arrow (1963) had found that, given certain
basic criteria for general principles of social
choice, not all reasonable principles for
deciding how much is owned by whom
could be simultaneously satisfied. In response, however, economists had generally failed to draw the moral that economics should try to help resolve conflicts
without trying to come up with a definite
algorithm for rule-based arbitrage between
these principles (or an axiomatisation of
the social choice problem). That is, they
had failed to acknowledge the necessity of
discussion, deliberation, reciprocal translation and dialectic in the presence of a
legitimate and (generally) irreducible coexistence of a plurality of evaluation or
justification principles. Instead, they had
retreated into saying that because distribution is political (or not best addressed
through project investments, to use the
words of British economist and CBA expert
David Pearce), they would confine themselves to issues of efficiency.
This was, OConnor stated, an incoherent position since it drew the conclusion
from the fact of non-existence of a rule
for solving a distribution problem that
economics could be done on the assumption that the problem doesnt exist. In
taking this tack, economists were arguably
avoiding their responsibilities as intellectuals and good citizens.
Peter Soderbaum agreed that CBA was
not compatible with dominant ideas of
democracy in that it denied, falsely, its
own value-laden nature. In particular, CBA
denied that its view of humans as consumers, social organisations as producers, and
ecosystems as commodifiable, fungible
and tradable, was only one ideology
among many. This can be seen in, for
example, the way that the cost-benefit
analysts engagement with interested
parties in a complex conflict is limited to
questionnaires without open questions.
Unlike good science, Soderbaum said,
CBA was thus ideologically closed.
Several academic economists present at
the conference, however, strove to set up
an opposition between CBA, properly
conducted, and political behaviour.

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Robert Mandelsohn insisted that the problem is not CBA, but that theres not enough
of it: The political process has created
what you see today not CBA. CBA was
created as a technique to show that the
emperor has no clothes. But the problem
is that the method has been captured by
the emperors friends.
I dont conclude that the fundamental
principles of benefit-cost analysis are
screwing things up, agreed Robert
Evenson. I do conclude that it could be
extended, elaborated tremendously. If you
dont do it, then you go back to good old
political bargaining without it, and it isnt
clear that thats better. CBA was not
necessarily the ultimate or the only
workable method for handling very difficult problems such as those involving
ancestral land rights, Evenson conceded,
but in these cases law could be relied to
step in to resolve conflicts. Mishka Zaman
retorted that it was no good pretending that
the legal system would resolve difficult
issues for CBA in a country in which the
legal system does not protect minorities.
Edward Chu concurred with Evenson,
contending that CBA was a tool separate
from the political and legal process. The
US Environmental Protection Agency, Chu
said, was required by law to consider the
costs and benefits of all major regulations.
Decision-makers, who are political appointees, then go on to make choices
based not only on CBA but on the public
interest, political, legal and environmental
justice considerations, enforceability, and
technical and institutional feasibility.

CBA: Distillation of Rationality,


Smokescreen for Politics,
or Neither?
Several activists at the meeting shared
Evensons, Mendelsohns and Chus view
that CBA could be divided off sharply
from politics and law and was a less than
dominant influence on current political
decision-making. They differed with the
three economists, however, in seeing CBA
not as a potential competitor with undemocratic, irrational or corrupt politics, but as
a rhetorical device for concealing it. The
moral they drew was not that CBAs role
should be increased, but that it was critical
to come to grips with the politics that lay
behind various CBAs.
Thus Dave Hubbel claimed that it is not
CBA, but the overall economic development model, which is being rejected by
local communities in the Mekong region

in their struggles over development


projects and overcompensation for past
disasters. Singling out CBA for criticism,
Hubbel suggested, is a little like fretting
about the destruction wrought by a single
virus particle during a flu epidemic. CBA
is not by itself a dragon, or its a very small
dragon if it is, agreed David Barnhizer.
The reality is that most decision-makers
and policy-makers do not use it unless it
fits into their pre-ordained agenda. The
danger in the US, for instance, is not datafilled, almost-useless CB studies,
Barnhizer went on, but that very conservative Republicans who want to prevent
change are using the rhetoric of CBA and
science (which has, ironically, gained
prominence partly because of environmental pressures) to get their aim.
Many participants, however, differed
with what Theodore Porter called two
extreme positions: first, that CBA was
either practically synonymous with rationality, a generalisable basis for decisions
of all kinds or, second, that it was merely
a smokescreen, behind which goes on, as
before, the unscrupulous politics of power
and wealth. As a question of theory and
practice, Porter insisted, it is much more
interesting and complex.
The point was not that CBA could not
be molded in different ways to advance
vested interests; it usually was. Porter
himself related, for example, how earlier
in this century, economic analysis was
not really what drove planning in US
dam-building agencies. Rather, engineers
sought out promising dam sites, based first
on geographical and political considerations, and then worried about the economic justification. So long as the politics
was decisively on their side, nobody was
likely to scrutinise their cost-benefit numbers. In several unmistakable cases from
the 1940s and 1950s, very low benefitcost ratios were somehow raised to 1.02
or 1.10 so as to contain potential floods
of political criticism from project supporters. A contemporary parallel, cited by
Ralitza Paanayotova, was the use of CBA
by the European Bank for Reconstruction
and Development in a project to upgrade
two nuclear power plants in the Ukraine.
When one CBA, performed by an
independent team, returned a negative result, the Bank simply commissioned another one from a new team. Hemantha
Withanage also described how two analyses of the same project using different
methods may come to contradictory recommendations.

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

Nor was the point that CBA was more


important politically than general patterns
of development and allocation of property
rights. As William Fisher pointed out, the
fundamental battle on Martin OConnors
imaginary island was likely to be over
property rights before it was over CBA.
Suppose, for example, the government
owned all the property rights to the forest
and legally declared the forest dwellers to
be encroachers or squatters on government land. Suppose further that there were
more potential BMW drivers (and voters)
in the one town on the island than there
were hammock loungers in the forest. We
would then not expect the rights of forest
dwellers to be long observed. Hammock
loungers are, after all, a notorious drag on
a measurable economy. Fisher summed
up the sentiments of most participants when
he observed that CBA alone is not the
problem, nor fixing CBA the solution.
The point, however, was that CBA was
not merely a thin camouflage for real
politics. Rather, it was itself (in the words
of Wendy Espeland) a political and moral
phenomenon, an apt instance of the
political thrust of neoclassical economics
generally, and a deep influence in its own
right on law, administration, policy, and
scientific practice. The idea that CBA could
take politics out of decision-making,
Anthony Oliver-Smith insisted, was a
scam. CBA, many participants added,
was implicated widely in the informal
linguistic and other practices through which
power was constituted and exercised.
Helping to shape common sense and
normality in western societies and among
professional classes elsewhere, it also
provoked its own characteristic forms of
resistance.
Thus, in vivid contrast to Hubbel, Wendy
Espeland described how CBA had been
directly resisted at the grass roots. In a
wide-ranging presentation, she pointed out
that CBAs attempt to make sound
decision-making as straightforward as
selecting the biggest number could lead
to popular opposition because it creates
new objects, categories and relationships
and makes others disappear. In one such
case, CBA had provoked resistance
among the Yavapai ethnic group in the
south-western US. A new generation of
technocrats in a government water development agency conducting a CBA on a
proposed dam had attempted to commensurate (or compare quantitatively on the
same yardstick) Yavapai land with other
land, and with money. This, Espeland

Economic and Political Weekly

explained, ran counter to the Yavapais


sense that their land was sacred and not
like other land being offered them, and
thus challenged their core identity. They
resisted translation of their concerns into
the language of neoclassical economics:
Our way of life will be destroyed. Why
dont you just say that? Making Yavapai
organisationally relevant through CBA, in
other words, proved antithetical to Yavapai
self-understanding. The Yavapai example
revolved around what Joseph Raz calls
constitutive incommensurability: the
existence of certain relations and commitments which are constituted and expressed
by the refusal to put a price on them.
Yavapai strategy in this instance was not
to do a new and improved CBA, since that
would not solve the problem, but rather
to put back the history and the moral
implications into the discussion through
protest. Here, Espeland noted, the Yavapai
took advantage of, among other things,
two requirements mandated by the USs
National Environmental Protection Act:
that all alternatives to a project be considered, and that public participation be a
part of decision-making. In order to gain
support for their point that CBA-style
thinking was itself a problem, Yavapai
activists often employed analogies, asking
their interlocutors, for example, how
much money would you accept for your
children?
Anthony Oliver-Smith added that while
communities rejection of dams may not
necessarily address CBA as a recognised
category, such communities also fully
understand the distortions that it produces
in the way development is oriented. John
Adams noted other instances in western
societies of opposition to the universallycommensurating aspect of CBA. For example, a jury had expressed its disgust at
the Ford Motor Companys decision that
the costs of fixing the dangerous gas tank
placement on its Pinto model numerically
outweighed the benefits in saved
human lives.
John ONeill cited further examples
illustrating popular resistance to commensuration. One was from Herodotuss Histories: When Darius was king of the
Persian Empire he summoned the Greeks
and asked them how much money they
would take to eat the corpses of their
fathers. They responded that they would
not do it for any price. When Darius
summoned some Indians called Kallatai,
who do eat their parents, and asked them
for what price they would agree to cremate

May 26, 2001

their dead fathers, they cried out loudly and


told him to keep still.
Darius was pursuing a rhetorical strategy of uncovering, not denying the existence of, constitutive incommensurabilities, ONeill noted. Accordingly, he took
seriously the answers he received. On the
other hand, for todays cost-benefit analysts conducting a survey of how much
people are willing to accept for the loss
of something precious to them, the responses of the Greeks and the Kallatai
would be evidence of irrationality and
would have to be discarded. As Patrick
McCully observed, for many development
project economists, a sensible answer to
a contingent valuation survey question
is one which allows a project to go forward. If people say that theyd be willing
to accept for their land 53 fish and five
gods, thats not rational because it does
not fit into the equation. Only perceived
monetary land values are rational. Similarly, John Adams pointed out, disgruntled
survey subjects assignment of infinite
value to an environmental good tend to
be discarded by economists rather than
allowed to blow up the analysis just
as the original satellite data indicating the
existence of the Antarctic ozone hole were
discarded by scientists as errors because
the readings were off the scale of what was
expected.
CBAs claim that price is a neutral
measuring device, ONeill concluded, is
often resisted. Thus many rural dwellers
on the Pevensey Levels in Britain interviewed by Jacquie Burgess (1995) were
angry when cost-benefit analysts told them
they had to have an answer for the question: How much would you pay for a
wildlife enhancement scheme?. Its a
totally disgusting idea, putting a price on
nature, one said. You cant put a price
on the environment, what youve got to
leave for your childrens children. Its a
heritage, not a form of capital, was the
view of another. Similarly, Indian villagers near the Sardar Sarovar project asked
rhetorically of state officials planning to
move them to make way for a large dam:
Are you going to compensate us for our
great river for her fish, her water, for
vegetables that grow along her banks, for
the joy of living beside her? What is the
price of this? Our gods, the support of
those who are our kin what price do you
have for these? [Mahalia 1994].
ONeill went on to note that CBAs
liberal assumption that property rights are
necessarily alienable and exchangeable was

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also contested by the same villagers, who


asked pointedly, How are you compensating us for fields? We didnt buy this
land; our forefathers cleared it and settled
here. CBA also runs into opposition where
property rights are contested. For example,
people who feel they have rights to land
often dispute the idea that they should pay
someone to stop polluting it. In addition,
CBAs claim that the value of land reduces
to the price people are willing to pay or
accept for it discriminates against the poor,
stirring further resentment.
A final source of resistance to CBA,
ONeill said, centres on its hostility to
rational assessment of preferences. CBA
treats scientific, aesthetic, moral, or political judgments as on a par with preferences
for flavours of ice cream and is intolerant
of discussion of how they might be backed
up. It attempts to quantify strength of
preferences without concerning itself with
the strength of the reasons for those preferences. Peter Dorman noted in this connection that CBAs presuppositions fly in
the face of the way people reason in ordinary life. Normally, Dorman said, the
prospect of gain does not make a wrong
act any better, and may even make it worse:
a contract murder can be more serious
than a murder of passion. Yet in economic calculation gain is always a reason
for doing something: if you profit from
pollution, for instance, that automatically
becomes a reason for not regulating a
reason that one is then forced to supersede
through tabulating environmental benefits. Converting the benefits of a project
pointed to by developers into cash, and
averaging them together with costs
specified by environmentalists, added
John Adams, completely obscures the
underlying dispute about the nature of
development and environment.
Stephen Gudeman shed further light on
the problem of incommensurables and on
resistance to CBA and other efficiency
measures in economics. He related that he
had often found it difficult to try to answer
western economists questions about the
returns or profit margins from Latin
American farmers fields. This was because the systems of devices for measuring
land, labour and harvests which the farmers had evolved to organise their material
life tins, baskets, parts of the human body
as yardsticks, and so on were plural and
not meant to be integrated. For example,
the subsidy provided by domestic crops
was counted using a plurality of homegrown measures, but not accounted using

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a cash measure. Rational decisions were


constantly made which did not involve,
even implicitly, comparing costs and benefits along a single, universally-applicable
scale. To use CBA would not be merely
to redescribe but also to assault this
social reality.
Anthropologists, Gudeman continued,
had learned to distinguish different
spheres of exchange. At any given time,
trading might be sanctioned within each
such sphere, but not between spheres. Not
all things which belong to a single sphere
in one society (e g, women, fishhooks and
canoes) would do so in another. Different
such spheres existed in every society and
were not waiting around to be integrated
into the single sphere presupposed by CBA.
All measuring rods including those
used for rates of exchange within any given
sphere of exchange are the result of
social innovation and are built up and
applied through negotiation in particular
practical contexts. For example, the point
of learning to compare leafy trees, fans,
air-conditioning, houses, and working at
night along the single scale of money is
that these things all have market uses shared
by the community of those who participate
in that market. The resulting prices are not
metaphysically given but are contingent
social agreements reached by a particular
community in the context of gain. By cutting
short or obviating this social production of
knowledge and values, CBA often amounts
to a social and political effort to impose,
without context, a model of a single community with ranked values. It is as if, as
Steve Rayner noted, Consumer Reports
magazine, instead of ranking CD players
against other CD players and different
brands of jam against each other, were to
publish an issue ranking different kinds of
CD player against different kinds of jam.
Peter Dorman refined this picture further by observing that the degree of social
agreement embodied even in existing
market prices is open to question. Modern
industrial society is built on centuries
of questionable pricing based on the
suppression of environmental costs, he
said; labour, meanwhile, is priced arbitrarily, depending on social customs and
bargaining power. On the evidence of
this meeting, he concluded, there are
serious structural problems, and prices are
part of, and derive from, these problems.
Market prices are no less suspect than the
invented or virtual prices that CBA often
invokes. Putting even market prices into
CBA is a mistake. Dorman was seconded

by Peter Soderbaum, who noted that in the


view of institutional economists such as
John R Commons and Yngve Ramstad
(1987) prices are not objective facts and
the result of mechanistic forces determining resource allocation, as assumed by
CBA, but rather administered, a matter
of ethical/ideological judgment, with
many correct market prices being possible. Prices are thus open to question
from, for example, a fair trade viewpoint,
according to which the priority is not
necessarily one of getting the lowest
possible price of a good for the European
consumer, but a price reasonable for all
parties involved, including smallholders,
local traders and other intermediaries.
Joan Martinez-Alier denounced as pure
propaganda another ad hoc effort to force
commensuration across categories: namely,
the attempt to derive genuine savings
indicators by subtracting depreciation of
manufactured capital and depreciation of
natural capital (a totally magic number)
from savings. This leads, he said, to the
absurd result that Japan is the most sustainable country in the world. It also leads,
he noted satirically, to the view that one
can (for example) compensate for dams
destruction of fish migration routes with
fish ladders, for the failures of fish ladders
with fish training programmes and investment in fish social capital, and so on.
Martinez-Alier added that conventional
economists are losing the battle to make
the environment measurable in money
terms. This battle, started by Pigou and
Von Mises as early as the 1920s, is today
visible in efforts to express the increasing
number of ecological distribution conflicts
in terms of compensation, resource
substitution, internalising externalities
and the proper economic values for CBAs.
(For example, why was the money valuation of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska
so much higher than that of the Union
Carbide disaster in Bhopal?.) The battle
is being lost both because of the technical
difficulties of the enterprise, and because
poor people have no interest in an allocation of environmental impacts in actual
or fictitious markets where their own health
and livelihood will be cheaply valued:
The economy is not dematerialising
either in proportion to GNP or absolute
terms. On the contrary, there is an increasing conflict between economic growth and
ecological sustainability. Hence social
conflicts over access to natural resources
or over the sharing of the burdens of
pollution are increasing. The languages in

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

which these ecological distribution conflicts are fought are often quite outside the
economic sphere: the respect for sacredness, the urgency of livelihood, the dignity
of human life, the demand for environmental security, the need for food security,
the defence of cultural identity and indigenous territorial rights, the aesthetic value
of landscapes, the injustice of exceeding
ones own environmental space, the
struggle against racism.
Chris Herman and Martin OConnor
added to this general line of criticism.
Herman cited the case of a hydroelectric
dam which had resulted in increased incidence of schistosomiasis among local
people. The most efficient way of solving the problem, Herman recounted, turned
out to be to move the people away from
their homes. OConnor observed that
neoclassical economics had difficulty in
distinguishing between two approaches to
obesity: after-the-fact surgery to remove
fat or prevention through a reasonable diet.
Aubrey Meyer criticised the belief of Yale
economist William Nordhaus that objections to wholesale commensuration could
be dispelled if it were realised that it is
possible to use yardsticks other than money
for example, spotted-owl equivalents
in the commensuration of alternatives.
Meyer noted that during debates over
action on global warming, many economists had claimed that the value of a
statistical life of a Chinese citizen was
worth only 1/15th of that of a North
American. If a spotted owl equals a spotted
owl, Meyer asked, why doesnt a human
equal a human?
In response to this discussion, several
economists at the conference took up
positions which implicitly denied both that
commensuration was a social practice and
that it could result in what Stephen
Gudeman had called the conversion or loss
of values. Robert Evenson asserted that the
value heterogeneity problem could be
gotten around through, for example,
estimating the costs of subsistence or
domestic crop production, or through
costing time or health services. Robert
Mandelsohn stated flatly that observing
market behaviour was a solution to the
problem of uncommensurated goods. The
problem with willingness-to-accept surveys, Mendelsohn added, was that there
was a tendency for people not to give
honest answers to them, unlike willingness-to-pay surveys. CBA, Mendelsohn
insisted, reveals all the assumptions being
made about technical points and values.

Economic and Political Weekly

No evidence or argument was offered in


support of these claims, stymieing efforts
to carry the discussion forward. Peter
Dorman and John Adams noted that such
standoffs were a noteworthy and longstanding feature of debates over CBA.
Nothing of significance in the intellectual
disagreement between the proponents and
opponents of CBA has changed in decades, Adams remarked. Everything that
the proponents and critics of CBA now
have to say...could have been written 30
years ago.
According to Majid Ezzati, another root
of the difficulties CBA encounters is that
it can account for neither the social context
of technology and household preferences
nor the fundamental transformations that
new technology introduces in household
life. For example, improved ceramic
stoves designed to reduce wood consumption and household smoke while still
providing maximum heat for cooking did
beautifully in a CBA, yet were a flop in
Kenya compared to a locally-designed stove
which sold 8,00,000 units. The problem
was that the improved stoves took no
account of (for example) the size of the
pots people used locally or the fact that
efficiently retaining heat for cooking
became an obstacle when the stove also
had to heat the house. Yet modifying the
stoves to fit local needs defeated their
design purpose. For example, when large
pieces of wood of the kind used with threestone fires were used with the improved
stoves, their emissions rose to levels comparable to that of open fires. A similar
dilemma afflicted the green revolution,
whose goal of maximising yields failed to
account for taste or other locally important
crop characteristics.

CBA and Law


Theodore Porter and Wendy Espeland
stressed that CBA is not wholly separate
from law but, rather, has become interwoven with the legal system, which often
propels commensuration and the invention of fictitous numbers at the same time
that it also occasionally creates incommensurable categories like threatened
and endangered species. John Wargo
amplified this contention by noting that all
US laws regulating pesticides, and those
around the world that have copied them,
are fundamentally grounded in CBA,
and that this, given the level of knowledge
of risk required, was a clear prescription
for failure.

May 26, 2001

Averaging risks across very broad populations, spaces and times, Wargo explained,
leads to a perception that they are containable. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, using data which
are in themselves lousy and do not test
for effects on cognition or memory, sets
an acceptable daily intake for certain
organophosphate pesticides. Yet many twoyear olds have intakes far above this level,
and no law based on risk-benefit balancing
would be able to push each such spike
down to an acceptable level. If you have
a lousy, opaque image of risk at the same
time you have a terrific, clear definition
of benefits presented skilfully by the
chemical industry, you can guarantee that
the EPA or World Health Organisation
will say that the benefits are more obvious and that the technology should therefore be released, Wargo said. I am
pessimistic about the capacity of this kind
of law and its implementers even to understand the ways in which pollution and risk
are distributed, let alone contain them down
to a level we think is acceptable. We do
not know what were doing. Out of the
80,000-1,00,000 possibly toxic chemicals
that have been released to the environment, only a couple of dozen have been
prohibited in the last century.

Language and the Politics of


Institutions
Michael Goldman led off a series of
presentations which reinforced the message that where CBA begins and ends is
seldom clear-cut. Goldman stressed how
CBA operated through the social practices
of professional classes involved in international development. As soon as the World
Bank entered Laos, Goldman reported, it
set up, together with northern environmental NGOs, a discourse suggesting crises
unfolding in the forests, on the rivers, and
among the people (poverty). The formula
was well-worn: This is one of the poorest
countries in the world; GDP is x, debt is
y, and ecological degradation is z due to
slash and burn cultivation, hunting, illegal
timber extraction, da-dum da-dum da-dum
da-dum.
This crisis, the Bank continued, necessitated rapid deployment of both science
and capital. Yet the data on the ground
needed to set up the needed instruments
of calculation for deploying investment
strategies did not exist. Nor, was there
time to collect it, given that (for example)
for a biologist to understand fish migration

1829

in the region, 10 years of baseline data


would be required. Thus crash programmes
were undertaken to assemble information
which could be plugged into existing slots
on poverty, environmental degradation
and so forth as quickly as possible. To
borrow the words John Wargo used to
describe CBA-based US pesticide regulation, incentives were now in place to create
knowledge that wasnt there. For example,
on one project, anthropologists were
dropped onto specially-cleared landing
pads at remote sites by military helicopter,
at a cost of US $ 1,000 per day, to undertake their studies. After three weeks of
rapid deployment, economists, biologists,
engineers and anthropologists came together in a hotel to put the pieces together.
Not surprisingly, their report carefully
excluded any information that might delay
the project, for example, that new indigenous groups had been found.
Cost-benefit thinking, Goldman explained, shapes such professional activities in several ways. For example, dams
must be analysed with an eye to determining which are the six best out of 30
possible dams. Possible futures for Laos
are immediately reduced to either hydropower or timber, since these are the only
two natural capitals to build on. Despite
the paucity of data about the effects of
dams on fisheries, or the role of fisheries
in local life, experts are empowered to
declare that it comes down to one fish
species vs the development of all these
poor people. As this discourse unfolds,
property rights laws are rewritten to ensure
that, for instance, one land mass will be
used for timber export, another for rice,
still another for biodiversity. The people
who live on this land are moved around
accordingly. Linked to this web of power
are not only debt but also the willingness
of foreign investors to set up conservation
or hydropower agencies.
Srisuwan Kuankachorn underlined the
importance of the professional institutional
networks Goldman had discussed in the
circulation of knowledge and power. He
noted that it was the British who established Thailands Forestry Department in
the 19th century. Following a CIA-aided
coup, moreover, professional study trips
by Thai officials to the US Tennessee
Valley Authority and Yellowstone National
Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s had
been key influences on Thai resource policy.
In fact, Srisuwan claimed, Thai development as a whole was decisively influenced
by US scientific-economic knowledge, with

1830

both CBA and environmental assessment


brought to Thailand by the World Bank.
Grass roots movements demanding compensation for past development destruction or land or forest rights have yet to
succeed in precipitating policy reform, he
added. Alex Wilks noted that the networks
Srisuwan described were today being elaborated ever more extensively. The World
Bank is now even training journalists and
trade negotiating officials, opening
websites, etc. The Knowledge Bank and
the Cash Bank are coming together, using
debt leverage and knowledge leverage
both. L C Jain complimented Srisuwan
for calling attention to CBAs place in the
political landscape, joking that he can be
assured that if CBA fails, CIA will not be
far behind.
Mishka Zaman and Patrick McCully
reiterated what they saw as the importance
of never abstracting assessment techniques
such as CBA from their real-life institutional contexts. Ive seen our bureaucrats
pay lip service to guidelines, safeguards
and reforms promulgated by World Bank
staff, Zaman said, but at the end of the
day they need that money: Once this
process is completed all those reports are
put to one side and they are not concerned
about guidelines or conditionalities. Ive
seen that Bank staff and bureaucrats plan
it in that way. They dont want their loans
stuck. There is a certain feeling of collusion there.
It doesnt really matter too much how
good policies are, McCully agreed. What
is the accountability of the agencies involved? For example, do any incentives
exist for agencies involved in resettlement
actually to negotiate with affected people?
Or to stop the project if they dont give
their consent? And if negotiation takes
place, do the concerned agencies have the
power to carry out the agreement?
Shalmali Guttal, picking up a theme
earlier explored by Wendy Espeland,
described how the language used by development experts, including cost-benefit
analysts and those influenced by them,
puts into shadow rural communities
knowledge and ways of life and functions
to disempower them and exclude their
thinking and experiences. It is, she said,
like questionnaires which give a choice of
a, b, c and other, where other encompasses nearly everything important to the
respondent.
Stakeholder analysis, for instance,
assumes that there are benefits and costs
and that these can be divided up among

discrete groups or individuals. The phrase


affected people constructs people as
passive losers, making them easier to
victimise and target for professional assistance. Defining a recipient countrys
lack of capacity in a certain way ensures
that there will always be large roles for
outside experts and training. Knowledge becomes something gathered through
helicopter surveys or displayed in exhibitions in seminar rooms, rather than something ordinary people use in their daily life.
A country such as Laos becomes a country
of rice-eaters, newly-discovered [sic]
large-ruminant species and scholardelineated spirit boundaries the property of experts rather than of its own people.
Through all this, CBAs odd questions
and ways of valuing livelihoods and activities remain foreign to local villagers in
Laos, ensuring their bewilderment and alienation, which is again read as ignorance.
Alex Wilks, similarly, described how the
powerful metaphor that everything is capital natural, social, human, financial and
to be added together to form social
wealth...can mess up a lot of research.
Hemanta Withanage pointed to further
ironies in the use of CBA in the field.
For example, certain Japanese waterfalls
are to be preserved at all costs at the same
time a similar Sri Lankan waterfall is
threatened by a Japanese-funded project.
A study theoretically open for comment
may well receive only one comment.
Thirty million rupees of foreign aid may
be routinely spent on a superficial twoweek feasibility study while a nongovernment organisations loyalty is questioned for accepting 1.2 million rupees
from abroad. Kumrap Phanthong urged a
review of the costs and benefits of
Thailands rubber-replanting programme,
as well as of other schemes promoting
monocultures. This, he suggested, should be
part of a larger cluster of actions needed to
promote ecological agriculture in southern
Thailand, including a challenge to the
countrys National Social and Economic
Development Plans and the the setting up
of direct farmer-consumer links.

CBA and Resettlement


Analysing further the role of CBA in
professional networks was a group of
presentations focusing on the issue of
displacement. Here, as William Fisher
pointed out, we are not only comparing
apples and oranges, as is often the case in
CBAs, but also dealing with situations

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

where apples are taken away from one


group of people to provide oranges to
another group. For example, my land is
taken away to provide your electricity. In
such situations, Vijay Paranjpye contended,
the beneficiaries tend to be an easily-identifiable small group of 2-5 per cent of the
district, state or nation, while the losers
are both more numerous and more anonymous. You are putting the costs on people
who will least afford it, added L C Jain.
And those who benefit from it dont pay
the charges: Displacement is not only of
people and land, but of a whole system of
land use and means of livelihood. But
when I look at the entire Narmada report,
the Narmada papers, none of that has been
taken into account. Everything has been
reduced to numbers, misstated or not,
hectares of land submerged, an ocean of
unemployment...and the engineers are
worried about their employment after the
dam is finished.
It is largely because of its inability to ask
who pays costs and who derives benefits,
Michael Cernea said, that CBA is so strikingly inadequate to deal with issues of
involuntary resettlement. This indifference
to equity, he said, runs counter to the core
of development discourse, which speaks
of reducing poverty.
Ten million people a year, Cernea reported, are affected by programmes which
cause forced displacement, including
hydroelectric dams, urban transportation
and reorganisation, highway construction,
and so forth. Yet no government in the
world publishes data on displacement,
contributing to the common misconception that forced displacement is a haphazard occurrence rather than a continuous
process and constant companion of
development. Resettlement must be
recognised as being as integral to a project
as pouring concrete into the holes that you
dig, agreed L C Jain. You are digging
the graves of people. There cannot be a
project which does not at its core provide
for these people a better life. If the
people to be resettled dont give their
consent, then there should be no project,
was the view of Patrick McCully.
Yet until the late 1970s, Cernea said, the
World Bank had fobbed off on recipient
governments any responsibility for the
displacement occasioned by its projects.
At that point, he continued, some noneconomist social scientists spearheaded a
move to institute rules governing projects
involving resettlement which if transgressed, would prevent Bank involvement.

Economic and Political Weekly

This mandatory policy, however, has not


been followed by the 10,000-strong Bank
staff. One key problem, Cernea insisted,
has been lack of economic analysis of
forced resettlement. This lack has led to
underfinancing and to impoverishment of
the displaced. Yet CBA is not the answer
to this lack of economic analysis. CBA
is incapable of correcting problems of
compensation for resettlement, no matter
how much it is applied, since it focuses
on the aggregate, ignoring the distribution
of costs and benefits, thereby rendering
itself incapable of answering either the
economic or the ethical questions of
resettlement.
Yet whatever the intrinsic incapacities
of CBA, Cernea continued, the ways in
which it is applied are even worse. Costs
are ignored, miscalculated, and intentionally minimised. As evidence, he cited the
staggering discrepancies between projected and actual numbers of displaced
people. As in the US pesticides case, clearlypresented benefits are thus enabled to
trump dishonestly or unclearly-defined
costs. In Colombia, for example, the
government said there were 1,000 people
in an inundated area. There turned out in
the end to be 5,000. The cost discrepancy
was similar. The projected figure for people
to be displaced by a project in Madhya
Pradesh was 63,000; the reality was
1,50,000. Dave Hubbel cited the example
of Pak Mun dam in Thailand, where the
parastatal electricity authoritys initial
estimate that 242 families would be affected turned out to conceal a reality in which
many thousands of families have had to
demand compensation for lost land and
livelihoods. Hemantha Withanage reported
that one Sri Lankan dam built on a river
basin influencing two-thirds of the country
was originally advertised as affecting 600
families, whereas in actuality 1,10,000
farms and 7,00,000 people faced major
deprivations and impoverishment as a result
of its construction. James Scott suggested
that, like builders who consistently underestimate the costs of houses that they
contract to build because it is in their interest
to do so, development intellectuals have
structural incentives routinely to underestimate numbers of displaced.

Packages, Tools and Contexts


Michael Dove proposed viewing CBA
as what Joan Fujimura calls a standardised
package [Fujimura 1987] a set of
concepts specially packaged for ease of

May 26, 2001

use across boundaries between disciplines,


or between theoreticians and practitioners,
or between members of disparate social
realities. Such standardised packages,
Dove maintained, tend to be fashioned
originally within disciplines enjoying ascendant symbolic capital (such as, in this
case, neoclassical economics). Yet the
relations between dominant packagedonors and subservient package-receivers, although they are dependent on the
shifting relations of power between disciplines, are far from one-way.
For example, critics and popular movements are often outraged when the CBA
package is transmitted across the sacred
boundary dividing two of what Stephen
Gudeman had referred to as spheres of
exchange. One instance, in addition to
those already cited by Wendy Espeland,
John ONeill and others, was Lawrence
Summers infamous and much-satirised
use of CBA in proposing in 1991 that the
World Bank encourage more migration
of the dirty industries to the less-developed
countries. Summers had urged that a
given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with
the lowest cost, going on to observe that
the economic logic behind dumping a
load of toxic waste in the lowest wage
country is impeccable.
Yet the CBA package, instead of being
rejected, is often instead reformulated and
used by the recipient in ways never intended by the donor. For example, Dove
himself, in what he would now tend to look
at as rather brutish exercises in economic
reductionism, had in the early 1980s used
CBA thinking to argue that tribal swiddens
yielded greater returns per unit of labour
than pond-field rice agriculture in central
Java. Dove had also claimed that the benefitcost ratio of local cultivation of grasslands
and forests was superior to that of a
government afforestation scheme. His
strategy in that earlier context had been to
rationalise the benefits of local systems in
terms comprehensible to national and
international policy and academic audiences who tended simply to assume that
the cost-benefit ratios of local systems
must be bad and those of introduced extralocal systems must be good. He also hoped
to refocus some critical attention on that
external system. (Vijay Paranjpyes exercises in CBA constituted a parallel example. These, Paranjpye emphasised, were
not undertaken during normal negotiations involving rural villagers, but only
with Yale economists and others who want

1831

to be satisfied that something is sophisticated and well-constructed and rational and efficient. Another parallel was
the efforts of non-economist dam-builders
in the US in the earlier years of the century
who had, as Theodore Porter pointed out,
adopted CBA for strikingly different
political reasons.) The underlying premise, Dove said, was that one solution to
the over-privileging of economics, and
what Pierre Bourdieu has called the
ethnocentric naiveties of economism,
is, to use Bourdieus words, to carry
out in full what economism does only
partially, and to extend economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present
themselves as rare and worthy of being
sought after.
In some cases, Dove added, the CBA
package, reworked by non-economists,
may even be re-injected back into mainstream economics. One example is US
environmentalists attempt to ensure that
the environment is included in national
economic accounts rather than being isolated in satellite accounts. In this case,
ironically, it is economists more than
environmentalists who are uncomfortable
about the transport of the CBA package
across boundaries, since it is they who
have more reservations about the difficulties of incorporating intractable environmental knowledge into a neoclassical
framework. Such complexities suggest
that the politics of CBA is worth studying
in itself, and not merely as a stand-in
for the politics of neoclassical economics
generally.
Joan Martinez-Alier noted a parallel in
which certain social groups challenge and
try to improve the procedures for calculating GNP, while others try to substitute
other indicators or indexes for GNP so as
to make visible their own contributions
and concerns, e g, unpaid labour within
the family. Stakeholders sometimes appeal simultaneously to different standards
of valuation, he noted. Moreover, the
refusal of economic valuation may allow
alliances to be established between the
interests of poor people and the wilderness values of deep ecologists.
In a similar vein, William Fisher critically examined the metaphor of CBA as
tool. Noting that Robert Evenson and
Robert Mandelsohn had repeatedly declared that we have these CBA tools
or we have a legal system, Fisher asked
(echoing Peter Soderbaum): Who is this
we?

1832

Certainly they didnt mean anything as


narrow as we economists, we scholars
or we Americans. Nor did they mean
anything as broad as we humans. They
refer in some generic sense to we, a society
with a clear way of life, one based on
individualism and consumerism with a clear
set of values. But what happens when
CBA is applied in circumstances where
there is no shared set of values, worldview, or way of life, when, in Mishka
Zamans words, the assumption that
everyone speaks the same language and
has the same assumptions is false?
Not all tools are alike, Fisher went on.
Bottle openers and guns, for instance, were
developed for rather different purposes
and were not equally benign. In addition,
both have been used in varying unintended
ways. The claim sometimes heard among
economists that CBA doesnt misrepresent, politicians do reminded him of the
slogan of the USs National Rifle Association, according to which guns dont
kill people, people kill people. Even some
activists, Fisher said, had asked whether
CBA, as gun, could be turned on its users
by affected communities to their own
advantage. This strategy comes with its
own risks, as Shalmali Guttal had argued,
and entails buying into a questionable set
of assumptions about values and assessment. It works, Fisher asserted, only when
it brings politics back into the process.
Vijay Paranjpye also cautioned fellow
activists against the metaphor that says that
using CBA is a way of turning the guns
on their opponents. This kind of talk, he
warned, turns us into gangsters.
Mary OBrien summed up the roots of
resistance to CBA by saying that it abstracts what matters most to us, into a
category called resources; measures it
by a common standard; chooses money as
that standard; handles poorly or not at all
the question of equity or of who bears what
types of costs; denies the existence of
incommensurables or multiple objectives;
cannot cope with long time frames on the
order of 150-500 years; and cannot deal
with emotional issues such as cultural
dread or well-being or stories of intimacy
of place. John Adams added that it is
incapable of accommodating conflicts
among value systems such as that which
occurred in the 1970s between himself and
Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett. After
Adams had pointed out satirically that if
CBA were to be used to decide the siting
of a third London airport, it would wind
up being built in Hyde Park, Bennett en-

thusiastically supported the idea. Peter


Dorman, citing Mark Sagoff, added that
CBA privileges the role of being a consumer while wiping out the role of deliberative citizen, enforcing an I-perspective rather than a we-perspective. In
addition, he said, the way it assumes that
as a whole, the world is OK, and examines
a proposed change in one little piece of
it, makes it inappropriate for use with
larger issues. The internal coherence of
CBA, he observed, depends on restricting
the scope of discussion to a micro-scale
which leaves out global connections. Steve
Rayner meanwhile suggested that if
sustainability could be defined as involving the capacity to switch strategies, then
CBA, with its presupposition that things
could be valued (in Martin OConnors
words) in terms of the opportunity cost
of their disappearance, was not an instrument for sustainability.

III
Future Strategies
Practical strategies for tackling the problems and dilemmas connected with CBA
were explored throughout the meeting,
from the first presentation to the last.
However, not one but several different
strategy questions were at issue, asked by
overlapping yet distinguishable groups
motivated in different ways. The answers
given by one group to the strategy questions of most concern to itself often seemed
irrelevant, uninteresting or even invisible
to other groups preoccupied by different
questions. When discussions slipped between the different questions, miscommunication was often the result.

Two Strategy Discussions


For one group, the question (to oversimplify drastically) was not to discover socalled alternatives to or bypasses of
CBA, which already existed in abundance,
and whose substance long predated CBA.
Instead, it was to explore how better to
pursue alliances and strategies which might
help these alternatives flourish amid a
more democratic and environmentallyresponsible politics generally. For many in
this group, a critique of CBA was in itself
a constructive, fruitful step toward social
responsibility. I would not want to subscribe to the view that unless we can do
something, we have to stand on CBA,
said L C Jain: We are an underdeveloped
country. If there is a dilapidated building,

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

then the community interest is in pulling


it down. The onus is not on us to bring
new plans for a new building. Demolishing that structure, which is a threat to the
community, is a very socially purposive,
positive action.
CBAs alternatives, Peter Soderbaum
added, generally attempt to meet a
different set of objectives from CBA
itself. Other participants pointed out that
given the way CBA permeates much of
society, merely attempting to lever into
place a few fast new techniques was unlikely to resolve what were deeper-lying
political problems.
The question for this group, in other
words, was less what are the alternatives? but (for example) why and how
have the alternatives been suppressed
and how can this suppression be countered? or How did CBA itself come to
be seen as an alternative to conversation
and negotiation?. For many in this group,
or for the groups they worked with at the
grass roots, CBA was not a norm or starting point but rather an outlandish intrusion
presupposing alien values and a bizarre
theory of politics and rationality, something the prominence of which itself required explanation. The history, sociology,
and anthropology of commensuration,
quantification, CBA and their associated
power networks thus became a useful part
of strategy discussions.
For another group represented at the
meeting, however, many of the alternatives discussed by the first group did not
fit the profile they were looking for in
alternatives sharply-bounded, discrete
techniques that could be slotted into existing agency practice. To this group, the
discussion of the history and politics of
CBA seemed largely beside the point.
Consisting partly of frequent users of CBA
in official agencies and economics departments, but also including lobbying groups,
this group was receptive to criticisms of
CBA, but tended to see these criticisms in
a context in which CBA and its institutions
were regarded as a baseline, norm, or
necessity, its underlying theory of politics
and rationality as uncontroversial or unavoidable in many circumstances, and the
central question to be, as Edward Chu
expressed it, how do we make this tool
better?. Chu, for instance, had hoped the
conference would help point a way toward
an objective method or instrument to
deal with diststributional or equity issues.
how to incorporate distributional issues
into CBA. Some economists, John Adams

Economic and Political Weekly

observed, took the reluctance to discuss


alternatives outside CBA to extremes. To
take one example, David Pearce has always resisted requests to substantiate his
assertion that CBA is the best game in
town by detailed comparisons with other
games or to acknowledge the existence
of ongoing experiments in consensusbuilding which acknowledge the existence and importance of multiple objectives and plural rationalities. Resistance
to CBA was often seen by such figures
as insignificant, as based on misunderstandings or bad examples of CBA, or
as a necessary price to pay for good
administration.
What the first group saw as advantages
of so-called alternatives involving local
conversations, political negotiation, and
multiple goals, the second saw as opening
the way for delay, messiness and bigotry.
If CBA were tossed out, what would you
have our public officials use? asked
Edward Chu, going on to observe that it
was local values which, in the US south
in the 1940s and 1950s, resulted in injustices to African-Americans. Peter Stein
worried that enshrining prior informed
consent and veto powers in decisionmaking procedures would block development. Do you really allow one individual
to decide, to impose a requirement of
unanimity? he asked. In reply, Vijay
Paranjpye conceded that old-boy politics
was a danger where resistance is weak
and the local community is dominated too
much or brutalised. But, he added: we
are talking about empowered resistance,
new strategies, mass communication,
support from international fields, local
empowerment, and all this can lead to
situations which need not fall, and in
many cases in India has not fallen, back
into old-boy politics.
Worries about the crippling effect of
vetos on social action, Paranjpye said, are
based on the assumption that societies all
consist of discrete, isolated individuals.
However, when you have mass negotiation and everybody is watching you, you
cant veto something which everybody
recognises as something good. The open
process enables things not to become too
irrational or unreasonable. But its not
foolproof, of course.
It is not a dark past of political intrigue
or a stubborn neo-Luddite anti-development position which are the only alternatives to CBA, William Fisher added.
Another alternative is simply a more
transparent tussle over tough political

May 26, 2001

choices and a process where costs and


benefits are more equitably distributed and
where choices are negotiated among groups
and individuals who all have something
to gain and something to lose.
The difficulties in unifying the concerns
of the two groups were exemplified in an
early discussion involving Shalmali Guttal
and Edward Chu. Guttal stressed forcefully how unreal or foreign the practice of
CBA would seem to the common sense
of the villagers she had worked with in
rural Laos, and felt accountable to, and
how much of their values and needs it
would necessarily exclude. Her sentiments
were not unfamiliar to Peter Soderbaum.
Speaking from a Swedish perspective,
Soderbaum noted that those who have
some experience of complex decision
situations in the real world such as proposals for dam construction will find the
whole CBA idea strange, if not mystical
in its pretence that impacts can be pressed
together in a single number meaningful
for all members of society. Chu, by contrast, speaking from the point of view of
a professional northern government-agency
economist accountable to policy-makers,
expressed a common sense opposed to
Guttals, according to which use of CBA
was simply a given. The social reality
familiar to Guttal was not particularly
relevant to the professional life of an
economist working for the US EPA, and
by the same token what seemed to the latter
to be realistic approach was unrealistic
to Guttal. So different were the social
contexts in which such participants
worked that it was no wonder that their
ideas about strategy seemed of dubious
relevance to each other.
The difficulties of linking such disparately-rooted concerns but also the
dangers of drawing too sharp distinctions
between the groups that held them were
reflected in the life histories of some of
the conference participants. Mary Obrien,
for example, recounted how she had
at first worked to make risk assessment
better, then worked to critique risk assessment, and happily soon left that to work
with strategies to bypass and replace risk
assessment.
Part of the difficulty in imagining that
the two groups could have a joint strategy
discussion lay in a fact highlighted by
Peter Dorman. What critics see as disadvantages of CBA, Dorman observed, are
often seen by others as advantages or
reasons for expanding its use. In contexts
in which the powerful seek to mask the

1833

political nature of their actions, for example, CBAs elevation of economic discourse over other discourses becomes not
a drawback or piece of self-deception, it
is seen as by many activists, but a virtue.
CBAs use of a single value-scale is not a
difficulty if the goal is to avoid the appearance of political discussion and political
process. Similarly, the fact that the numbers which have been bandied about for
the value of human life are virtual fictions
without substance is immaterial to bureaucracies in which the demand for numbers
is strong enough. Bureaucracies also have
little incentive to worry about the implausibility of the discount rates they use.
This theme was developed at length by
Dave Hubbel, Michael Goldman, Shalmali
Guttal, and Hemanta Withanage. These
participants cited a wealth of evidence
from the Mekong basin, Sri Lanka, and
elsewhere from the last two decades showing that cost-benefit analysts on development projects have good reason to be, and
generally are, insouciant about the inaccuracy, inadequacy or inconsistency of the
scientific data on which their studies are
based as long as short-term construction
and investment deadlines can be met. Costbenefit analysis, said Anthony Oliver-Smith
in summing up Withanages findings, is
often a form of deceit in which multiple
forms of calculation are carried out to
achieve the pre-ordained goal of
disempowering local people and enacting
the project. Similarly, the goal of poor
research done under impossible time
frames, such as that Hubbel had documented, is not to derive reasonable decisions, a purpose it could not serve, but to
provide justification for decisions already
made on other grounds. Finally, as Guttal
had suggested, CBAs privileging of objective forms of constructing problems
and solutions, and its disempowerment of
local, historical and relational forms of
knowledge, is a political advantage for
those seeking to exclude popular voices
from the dialogue. By the same token,
analyses that take seriously unique local
conditions are unlikely to be of interest to
developers concerned with replicating
projects as quickly and widely as possible.
John Wargo and John Adams invoked
evidence suggesting that the distortions
that come with interpreting risk and uncertainty in numerical, probabilistic terms,
because they go hand in hand with administrative convenience, are of little concern
to many modern bureaucracies. By the
same token, cost-benefit analysts often

1834

prefer willingness-to-pay values to willingness-to-accept values not because they


are accurate or class-neutral as Joan
Martinez-Alier noted, the poor sell cheap
but because they are less likely to include
infinite values which would blow up
the analysis and block projects. MartinezAlier added that supplementing CBA with
environmental impact assessment is generally cosmetic and follows rather than
precedes decisions.

Goals: Predetermined
or Evolving?
One key obstacle to a single strategy
discussion was encapsulated in a telling
exchange between Michael Cernea and
Vijay Paranjpye on the second day of the
meeting. Paranjpye had contrasted projectoriented development schemes involving
CBA with an inclusive process of democratic negotiation in which he had been
involved in India (see below). Cernea
questioned how this could be an alternative path to social progress. What are you
aiming at to be the result of that negotiation? he asked. What kind of intervention or development programme is the
goal? Paranjpyes response was immediate: Goals are not predetermined. Thats
the essence of a process. I dont sit here
and decide that my goal is so many hectares
of irrigation, x number of cubic metres of
flow, and so on. The goals have to evolve.
But they become obvious to the people
who negotiate. They know what their
struggle is.
Many of the exchanges over strategy
during the meeting were characterised by
this fissure between seeing goals as fixed
and agreed in advance of a decision-making
process and viewing them as emerging
from negotiation. There were also strategy
divisions between participants who assumed a single pre-existing metric and
those more prepared to handle incommensurability and culture change; and between
those engaged in a quest for optimality
(to borrow the terms of Peter Soderbaum),
which assumes that there already exists
agreement on what is to be optimised, and
those engaged in a quest for illumination.
From the first group of participants at
the conference came a wealth of concrete
examples of approaches to rational and
democratic decision-making which
avoided or circumvented CBA. Many
involved what Stephen Gudeman and
Martin OConnor had called conversation in multiple languages and what

Soderbaum had called illumination. They


also involved an awareness that commensuration was a contingent social practice
negotiated by a community and deep receptivity to issues of equity, long time
frames, and intimacy of place.
Vijay Paranjpye, for example, described
a wonderful substitute for CBA based
on several years of concrete experience in
India, giving it, tongue in cheek, the mocksophisticated name of Mass Negotiated
Reiterative Conflict Resolution and Development Process (MNRCRDP). This process
was developed out of efforts to find the
best alternative development plan to a dam
after it was stopped by the courts following
protests. Representatives of a local peoples
movement and of the government, after
negotiating for a year and a half, announced
that the people in one river valley (comprising 2,00,000 hectares, 1,60,000 people,
116 villages and one large town) would
be free to decide what to do with a sum
of money which would have been spent
had the dam been commissioned. Realising
that there was now nothing else for its
engineers to do, the government of Madya
Pradesh made senior engineers available
as research assistants to translate technical
information on meteorology, lands, percolation, demography, and geomorphology
into Hindi. Peoples knowledge about
traditional investment channels and the
old temple tanks and sacred groves built
up over the last four and a half thousand
years would meanwhile be treated as initial
basic investment.
Discussions and identification of conflicts among the people in the 116 villages
then got under way. The idea was to move
from microcatchment area to river basin.
Night after night, for hundreds of nights,
people are discussing the issue, moving
toward conflict resolution. Further information is now being gathered and certain
principles and activities formulated and
reformulated. No quantification is necessary, nor real or simulated buying or selling. Instead, people negotiate, exchange
information, accept or reject proposals,
and so on, until a range of development
activities is arrived at which are within the
commons paradigm. These activities will
not be projects but links water channels,
land and water conservation, and so on.
These activities will be further reformulated for perhaps two or three years, by
which time everybody will know how to
assess the costs and benefits for the
valley: With such a long process, everybody gets a chance to say their little bit,

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

participate, accept, and reject, ensuring fairness, openness and transparency. If there are
problems, they get resolved along the line.
As a result of the negotiations, everybody
in all 116 villages will have lost something
and everybody will have gained something;
there will not be one group of beneficiaries
and one group of losers.
It is not to be expected, naturally, that
this process will lead to perfect harmony.
But nor, of course, as Martin OConnor
had stated, can CBA, which only appears
tidy and objective and efficient and which
in fact equally involves political processes,
albeit ones which eliminate most languages (social, spiritual, ecological, and so
on) that are central to peoples lives. In
many societies in rural India and elsewhere, Paranjpye continued, the sort of
process he described has been tried and has
worked. Helping make it do so are NGOs,
computers, mass information exchange
technology, and values which are cultural
and even religious (and economists should
be religious to be moral in accordance with
the new religion of sustainable development). Roughly US$10 million is all that
is required for this 116-village area with
1,60,000 population. This process may
take up the next two years. But then,
Paranjpye pointed out, most dams require
more than 15 years to take off anyway.
Paranjpye rejected the ploy by the World
Bank and other agencies who claim that
the burden of proof is on popular movements to find alternatives to CBA: This
is NOT an alternative this is the base
project. And Im inviting the World Bank
people and the economists of Yale and
Oxford to central India and giving them
ten volumes written in Hindi actually,
some of that will be in the Marathi dialect
and I would like them to look at all those
reports, and try to make holes in them, and
if they cant do it in six months, then I will
presume that this is a sustainable and
efficient model. The onus is on them to
disprove its value not on me to prove
it. He noted laconically that the area he
described is large enough to be replicated
for Bank economists and others who might
be interested.
Peter Soderbaum sketched an alternative positional analysis aimed not at
solving a decision problem in a way
which pretends to be correct for all actors,
but rather at illuminating a decision situation in a way which is as many-sided as
possible. This method aims at seeking and
sharing relevant information about the
impacts of each choice in cooperation with

Economic and Political Weekly

interested parties; at facilitating public


dialogue, mutual learning, and participation in the decision process; and at liberating creative thinking. It does not assume
any consensus about the principles of
valuation, about what counts as efficiency,
nor about the way a problem should be
formulated. Aggregation of different values is not a priority; the relative importance of various monetary and non-monetary impacts depends on the knowledge
position and ideological orientation of the
observer. Separate non-monetary analyses deal with inertia and irreversibility.
This form of analysis identifies rationality
not only with efficient resource allocation
in monetary terms, but sees it in terms of
the compatibility of an individuals ideological orientation with the expected
impacts of specific alternatives. It relies
on institutional or political economy rather
than neoclassical picture of markets and
economics. Above all, positional analysis
does not hide conflicting interests behind
one-dimensional present values, but
takes seriously the need in a democracy to
illuminate such conflicts, specify the
effects of different options on different
groups, and ensure dialogue among the
concerned groups.
Joan Martinez-Alier mentioned several
workable alternatives, including oppositional analysis, multi-criteria analysis, or
public assessment, as well as grass roots
approaches, while warning that some
participatory methods run the risk of
becoming as technocratic as CBA. Ecological economics must be able to cope
with value pluralism, combining the subjective utilitarian valuation of environmental services or losses with the physical
assessment of ecological sustainability, and
with the cultural valuation of the environment. It must take Nature into account
not so much in terms of money-values as
in terms of physical indicators, brought
together in a multi-criteria evaluation
framework without trade-offs. Ecological
distribution conflicts must be allowed to
be expressed as clashes of incommensurable standards of value. Even more
important, Martinez-Alier emphasised, is
the question of WHAT is assessed. New
eucalyptus plantations, a new dam on
the Indus, new rubber plantations in
South Thailand, a new airport in London:
why are such projects and investments proposed? What is their scale and their relation
to the larger economy and the goals of
society? It is necessary to discuss sustainable
livelihoods in terms of access to common

May 26, 2001

property resources and caring about people,


which as we know is not measured by
Gross National Product.
Mary OBrien stressed that alternatives
to CBA like the ones Paranjpye, Soderbaum
and Espeland had outlined would consider
all relevant options and intimately involve
all interested publics. They would provide
site-specific knowledge and information,
review information provided by others,
and compare the favourable and unfavourable aspects of alternatives. Nevertheless, the exact way these two processes
are achieved must necessarily vary in
different places and settings. When alternatives have to be compared and prioritised,
and one or more chosen, OBrien proposed, it should be on the basis of a
comparison not only of monetary valuations, but also of health and ecological
risks; of the likely consequences on local
community economics, community spirit,
or the seventh generation hence; of the
probable effects on centralisation of political power, democracy, powers of community oversight, or feelings of fairness;
of the impacts on peoples connection to
the land or on restoration of damaged
habitat; and so on.
Majid Ezzati espoused alternatives which
would recognise that technology is not
a neutral phenomenon but rather a way
of life whose attributes and impacts are
intimately tied to the societies where it
originated or is applied. The question, he
said, is not how to evaluate but how to
choose between different evaluations. In
a framework for technology assessment
used by certain farmers and scientists in
the Philippines, for instance, the underlying social objectives and technical
attributes of technological development
are negotiated and constructed in the
context of the society in which the adoption takes place. In a somewhat similar
vein, Steve Rayner counterposed to CBA
what Clifford Geertz calls thick description [Geertz 1973].
Michael Cernea pleaded for complementary instruments which should become
obligatory for the analysis of development
interventions financed publically. One
such instrument could demonstrate what
the consequences of a project are on the
displaced, including landlessless, joblessness, homelessnessness, marginalisation, mortality, loss of access to resources,
and social disarticulation. Such risks could
then be prevented or mitigated, using
funds justified by an expanded economic
analysis of forced resettlement. Distribu-

1835

tional analysis, Cernea said, must also be


performed.
For John Wargo, a key future strategy
revolved around knowledge production,
knowledge dissemination and strategic
management of risk. CBA-based law need
not be thrown away entirely, Wargo said,
but there should be strategies for identifying high risks and for using law to protect
against high pockets of pesticide exposure
in water supplies, schools, and so on. One
lesson of the evolution of restrictive policies on genetically-modified organisms in
Europe and Japan, he was quick to point
out, was that you dont need to know the
risks to act. Even with an ambiguous
understanding of risk, there is a distrust
of technology and the regulatory community which is creating a grass roots,
bottom-up approach. And the internet has
helped people understand the state of
knowledge about risk.
Analytical methods need to be corrected by non-analytical means, that is,
social action, said Michael Cernea. Only
through the organisation and activism of
the displaced will any improvements in
methodology take hold. Anthony OliverSmith highlighted networks of resistance
which had grown up along river systems,
focusing on the importance of NGOs and
international allies. The importance of
networking and communication for effective resistance is fundamental, he said,
since small groups stand little chance of
questioning decisions or resisting projects
in isolation.
Srisuwan Kuankachorn, Michael
Goldman, L C Jain and Alex Wilks all
stressed the need for activists and scholars
collectively to challenge, unmask and
delegitimise some of the economic techniques which have taken root in the professional classes and are being pushed
through the knowledge production networks of the World Bank and similar
agencies. Certain tasks, they pointed out,
were the special responsibility of northern
activists and scholars. We need to create
a battlefield in the US, Srisuwan said: I
think it is the responsibility of progressive
academics here to humiliate, to attack the
knowledge which originated here and has
played such a role in shaping the perspectives and concepts which have prevailed
in our countries.
Academics in the north, Jain pointed
out, can call the World Bank without
having to pay a special charge, unlike
when we try to call from Delhi, . . . and
all documents must be placed at a univer-

1836

sity library where scholars can scrutinise


them. Funding should be found in the
north to support independent research into
development agencies and corporations
which could be of use to social movements
in the south. Such research often cannot
be done by those directly involved in the
struggles themselves, Jain said: Medha
Patkar [a Narmada River activist] and the
women in the villages threatened by submergence standing in neck-deep water are
not going to do an analysis of CBAs. But
you can. This is your responsibility moral,
professional, and social.
Jain further proposed that CBAs performed for projects or policies undertaken
in the last 50 years be revisited in a continuing programme to determine which, if
any, of their assumptions and calculations
had actually turned out to be accurate. Of
the CBAs performed for dams, for instance, which one has actually mapped
what happened, upstream and downstream,
what were the livelihoods, how did people
live with each other in communities, and
now that this is destroyed, where are they?
If such a review or recalculation shows
that CBA is not serving its intended purposes, Jain said, then there is no point in
travelling that road.
Patrick McCully and others appealed for
expert help from other participants in
critiquing specific CBAs undertaken to
justify water development projects such as
the Maheshwar project in India, and for
support from institutions which might
sponsor such critiques. He noted that
Wayne White had helped the International
Rivers Network with such evaluations in
the past. It would be good to set up a
formal team to do work for different
organisations, McCully said.
Should CBA have any role at all in
decision-making on issues of public importance? Joan Martinez-Alier declared
flatly that CBA can now be dismissed
in view of the wealth of alternatives available. John Adams agreed. If CBA is inappropriate for use in all cases in which
there are incommensurables or fundamental value conflicts, in which long time
frames are important, in which equity is
an issue, and so on, he asked rhetorically,
when exactly IS it appropriate? Michael
Cernea found little hope for correcting
CBA as a method given the unconvincingness of efforts to incorporate
distributional analysis into it. Martin
OConnor, meanwhile, thought that CBA
was useful at most as a backhanded way
of generating anomalies, resistance and

contradictions which could get a conversation going. The technique, he thought,


would quickly be left behind in any serious
decision-making process involving efforts
toward mutual understanding in a situation
involving multiple languages.
Wendy Espeland and Stephen Gudeman
suggested that a restricted form of CBA
had a place in certain decision contexts.
Sure, if you propose a dam, have an
economic analysis of how much its going
to cost to build this thing, Espeland said:
But in your social analysis, dont force
me to give a number to it. Put me in a room
with all of the people who are going to
be affected, and let them say, and let me
say, if Im supposed to be an expert, whats
going to happen to these folks, without
having to translate this into a completely
artificial and pointless language. . . .Who
gets to speak and what language they talk
in matters a lot for how you arrive at a
consensus, if you ever do.
Mary OBrien and Anthony Oliver-Smith
agreed. OBrien stressed that CBAs could
be carried out, but should not be allowed
to supplant, as they often do now, democracy analysis, community spirit impact
analysis, stories of place, religion analysis,
ecological risk analysis, and so on. OliverSmith highlighted the necessity of finding
a way to valorise other forms of
knowledge and other decision-making
models or means: Economic analysis has
to be undertaken along with other forms
of knowledge such as social analysis,
cultural analysis, environmental analysis,
all expressed in their own idioms. Economic values are not at the top of a hierarchy
of values, nor is economic analysis at the
top of a hierarchy of knowledges, nor is
it first among equals. Different forms of
information must make up the knowledge
base on which decisions are made, because
different kinds of value are at stake.
Colin Price, however, continued to insist that CBA could take account of the
full range of alternatives in any context and
involve all interested publics. He also
pointed out that there were ways of doing
it without discounting the future. Peter
Soderbaum, by contrast, cited CBA pioneer Ezra Mishans view that CBA should
be used for resource allocation only in the
exceptional case where all citizens consider its rules of valuation as appropriate
or at least acceptable [Mishan 1982]. For
Mishan, the moral was that the CBA manual
should be put on a shelf pending some
hypothetical future at which consensus
about these rules might appear. In parti-

Economic and Political Weekly

May 26, 2001

cular, CBA should be ruled out as a means


of assessing the environmental aspects
of dam and road construction. Michael
Dove, Vijay Paranjpye and others, meanwhile, were less interested in the invalidity
of CBA in the abstract than in its occasional use as a tactical means of communication across cultural or disciplinary
boundaries.
As a way of responding to proposals and
challenges thrown out during the conference, participants plan to produce several
publications as well as undertake other
actions to build a more useful network.
Two books are contemplated. The first
is a citizen activists manual or handbook,
to be compiled and edited by Mary OBrien,
Joanne Pawlowski and David Barnhizer,
and to be reviewed by Martin OConnor.
The handbook would contain case studies
from different regions of how CBA has
been used in practice, would address Most
Frequently Asked Questions concerning
CBAs, and would offer Guidelines and
Lessons Learned for groups confronted
with imminent CBAs. It would also document alternatives or by-passes and point
readers toward sources of further information. The handbook can be translated and
modified for use in different parts of the
world. Tony Tweedale and others volunteered to help with distribution to interested groups.
A second book contemplated is a reader
aimed more narrowly at scholars, and would
contain theoretical critiques of CBA, including some of the papers prepared for
the conference on CBAs structure and
institutional contexts of use. This volume,
designed in part to meet Srisuwan
Kuankachorns and L C Jains challenges,
would also contain ex post facto evaluations of old CBAs. It is to be edited by
Vijay Paranjpye, Joanne Pawlowski, Peter
Dorman and Caroline Little. James Scott is
willing to help sound out Yale University
Press as one possible publisher.
It was agreed that the presenters of papers
at the meeting should also feel free to
publish them in whatever other forums
they desired. Martin OConnor was keen
to obtain many of the papers for the specialist journals he edits in Europe, and
there is also a possibility of papers appearing in the Economic and Political Weekly
of India and other publications. Papers
presented at the meeting are also to be
collated and placed together with the
present summary in a book of proceedings
to be distributed in diskette form to
participants as desired.

Economic and Political Weekly

An attempt will also be made to compile


a list of respected consultants who might
help activists and NGOs examine particular CBAs. It was suggested that such a
list have a solid institutional backing to
ensure it is recognised as legitimate. John
Adams and Martin OConnor were
willing to advise on this effort, which is
backed strongly by Patrick McCully, and
an attempt will be made to recruit Joan
Martinez-Alier as well.
A proposal for an email conference had
to be set aside for the time being for lack
of an animateur, although Martin OConnor
is willing to help operate such a conference if one emerges. Hemanta Withanage
will meanwhile explore possibilities for
arranging a regional follow-up meeting in
south Asia. EPW

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May 26, 2001

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