UN First Development Decade

On 25 September 1961 the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, addressed the UN General Assembly and launched a proposal for a Development Decade to “lessen the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries, to speed up the processes of modernization, and to release the majority of mankind from poverty.” (Jolly, 2004:86)

Following, the General Assembly passed Resolution 1710 (XVI) to establish the 1960s as the United Nations Development Decade, which called on “Member States and their peoples [to] intensify their efforts to mobilize and to sustain support for the measures required on the part of both developed and developing countries to accelerate progress towards self-sustaining growth of the economy of the individual nations and their social advancement.”

The UN Secretariat, involving among others Hans Singer and Barbara Ward, published a report entitled ‘The Development Decade: Proposals for Action’ with a call to action in the introduction by then Secretary-General U Thant, who wrote, “Development is not just economic growth, it is growth plus change. Change, in turn, is social and cultural as well as economic, and qualitative as well as quantitative. The key concept must be improved quality of life.” (UN, 1962) However, these various aspects of development were not really yet treated as integrated; social development and economic development were still addressed as quite separate components in the proposals for action.

Despite Secretary-General U Thant’s call for addressing the multifaceted nature of development, not just as economic growth, the General Assembly sought as a specific economic target for the Decade the attainment by the underdeveloped countries of a minimum annual growth rate of 5% in aggregate national income by 1970. The view still held that developing countries would progress through the same stages of growth as the developed countries had already done, through a process of industrialisation. As another target, the General Assembly “expressed hope” that international assistance and capital flows to developing countries would be increased to 1% of the total GNP of developed countries. (Jolly, 2004: 87)

The major tasks identified by the UN Development Decade Proposals for Action report emphasised surveying, mobilizing and maximising developing countries’ domestic natural and human resources; national social and economic development planning; institutional change; relevant application of science and technology for industrialisation; increased public and private capital flows; and increased export earnings through growth in manufacturing industries for increased manufactured and semi-manufactured exports. In particular, the report called for “a redirection of science and technology to attack the problems of developing countries”. (Jolly, 2004: 89), setting the stage for a 1963 conference on science and technology for development.

This period was marked by a sense of technological optimism as evidenced by Kennedy’s analogy of accomplishing space travel and ending world poverty, “If the United States could commit itself to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, he said, it would certainly support the idea of improving the living standards of people in the poorest countries over the same period.” (Jolly, 2004: 85) This attitude corresponded to a belief that major development goals could be accomplished rapidly through a commitment of resources and institutional will.

The technological emphasis was further manifested by an early resolution of the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN Scientific Advisory Committee in 1961 to hold an international technical conference of Governments under the auspices of the United Nations to explore the “application of science and technology for the benefit of the less developed areas”.  The aim of the conference was to demonstrate how advances in science and technology could be harnessed to accelerate the process of economic and social development. This conference proved to be a decisive event for the decade.



Jolly et al (eds) (2004) UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice. Indiana Press, Bloomington. pp 85-7.  Part of the UN Intellectual History Project.  See http://www.unhistory.org/CD/index.html
UN (1962). The United Nations Development Decade: Proposals for Action (New York: UN, 1962).

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