Like a few others, I tend to believe, that the government and legal systems have the opportunity to play a greater role than the corporate sector in the furtherance of sustainable development in this world. Therefore, I was interested in the action that has been taken so far by the concerned authorities in this regard. The UN has organized 2 world summit meetings as of date, the first at Rio De Janerio, and the 2nd at Johannesburg in South Africa, where the top leaders of our countries, representatives of various NGO’s and leading lights of the world met and discussed this very real problem.
Here I present a short summary of all the decisions that were taken. Having done that, I have attempted to understand the impact of their plans, and tried to think through of these actions on developing countries.
At Rio de Janerio, in 1992, the Agenda 21 was developed. This was probably the first official document that recognized SD as an issue that required attention, and it outlined all issues such as land management, waste management, urban planning etc that needed to be improved.
More than 10 years later, in Johannesburg, a new set of ‘priorities’ has been listed (water, energy, health, biodiversity and agriculture). Five ‘Framework for action’ papers have been issued. But no terms of action, or any timelines that force the implementation of these has been thought out. To get a broad idea of what was decided, click here. To give some credit, some timelines have been decided, but the general lack of direction and specificity in the decisions greatly limit their effectiveness.
There is much talk about “stronger partnerships, new technologies, better environmental management and human resource development”. But what ultimately matters is ‘walking the talk’; which, sadly but truly is either absent or at least a long way off. Unfortunately, considering the pace at which countries like India are growing (and depleting natural resources), time is the most precious commodity we have.
Coming back to the question of implementation, the next level of governance at which we can expect definitive action, is at the National level. What got me started in this direction was the continuous reference to Germany as the country leading by far the move towards sustainable development. Researching further on this, I found that in 2002 in Germany “Gross domestic product grew by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000 but energy consumption dropped by 5 percent. Germany thereby achieved an emissions reduction of the greenhouse gases identified in the Kyoto Protocol of over 18 percent– more than 85 percent of its commitment to reduce emissions by 21 percent until 2012.”More details of this can be found here
The document mentions rules and policies brought in by the Govt. (eco-tax etc), and this gives support to my view that the Govt. and legal systems are the best weapon we have. The question that now arises is if the same scenario would apply to a country like India.
Just to summarize the major issues that face developing/underdeveloped nations
1. Lack of resources to fund SD projects
2. Human suffering levels that demand the immediate and complete attention of resources, personnel and planning
One recurring solution that comes up during discussions is to send money from the developed countries to these poor countries, help them learn how to manage their economy like they did. The problems with this approach are many
1. The money does not reach its intended purpose (corruption and redtape). To resolve this problem what we need would be a strong politico-legal system, which is non-existent in developing countries.
2. But more importantly, this ignores the basic differences between cultures and countries. It is not a one-size fits all approach that works, as is obvious from the case of Africa and its agriculture. The World Bank intervened in Africa, with a strong belief that privatisation would increase efficiency of agricultural systems, but the result cannot by any means called positive. Further, though helping developing nations emulate the developed ones just might be the solution, there is always the possibility of viewing this ‘help’ as interventionism. As an attempt to control the economy of the recipient in some manner. And there are countless examples to prove that this is not completely unfounded.
3. Thirdly, it is a clear case of give the man the fishing rod and not the fish! As in the case of the Australian farmers, as long as there is a source to fund inefficiency, inefficiency shall thrive. Lets take one country, India for example. The term sustainable development meant nothing to me 4 days back, a citizen of INdia with more than the country average of general knowledge. But a simple search reveals that India has been an active participant in both the World summits. The Indian minister asks for more aid in the form of new technology and says “2.8 billion people still live on less than $2 a day and the richest 1 % of the world’s people receive as much income each year as the poorest 57%.” (read the rest of the speech here). This once again gets the focus to ‘intra-generational equity’.
To take an example of monetary help from advanced nations, India has also recieved aid in the form of cash from some nations, it is classified as ‘research project’ and has been closed for 2 years now. It is, however, referred to as ‘The Sustainable Development Network of India’. The many projects under it are classified as approved or closed, and most relate to research and documentation; none to definitive action.
From all of the above, we can see that in developing nations, if only for the basic reason that ‘intra-generational equity’ demands more attention than inter-generational, social systems are not the solution. So now we move to the business world. India alone has about 0.5 million companies operating in 2000. The real figure at present would be much higher. And only a small percentage of this would be companies that can be classified as resource (read cash) rich. To convince these companies, to figure out a means to make them more environment conscious, and finally to bring them all together with one common aim to bring about a change in the attitude of the Government would take many lifetimes. Not lifetmes of men, lifetimes of companies. If we take a second to imagine the level of co-operation that is required, we realise the impracticality of it. Especially in a situation where the results of global exploitation are not yet visible, but the fruits of such exploitation are many.
So what can be done in these countries? One posible solution that has come up was with the case of outsourcing; considering the spurt of growth in outsourcing and IT activities in India, that we could focus on driving Indian economy by this industry, where the natural capital lost is relatively lower. However, we must agree that no country would allow one-directional growth, and at some point in time, the focus is going to move to industries that consume great natural capital
What we face here is a real issue, seemingly with no clear solution in sight. In developing countries, is Sustainable development only a matter of personal choice and implementation? Or can it really be institutionalised? This group provides the best opportunity for discussion and thought on this matter.