It is exactly twenty years since Gro Harlem Brundtland's World Commission on Environment and Development produced Our Common Future. The report exhorted humanity to pursue "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". It firmly affixed the word "sustainable" to development and coined what is still the most commonly used phrase for the process of global advancement.
Has its time come at last?
Stephen Browne is deputy executive director and director of operations at the International Trade Centre (ITC), Geneva. He is the author of Aid and Influence: Do Donors Help or Hinder? (Earthscan, 2006)
Brundtland was just one of several notable global-development reports in the 1980s [see box]. In 1980 and 1983, Willy Brandt's Independent Commission on International Development Issues produced two reports (in 1980 and 1983) linking planetary "survival" to closer north-south economic cooperation. Between them came Olof Palme's Common Security: A Blueprint For Survival (1982), which focused on the importance of north-south interests in security rather than on east-west concerns with nuclear deterrence.
All these commissions, headed by left-leaning northern politicians and comprising many southern politicians and experts, contributed to idealistic and well-meaning development agendas. But apart from lending new language to the development debate, they made very little immediate impact on the policies of rich countries in a position to exert the greatest influence on global development processes. Other political expediencies have usually been in the way of the kind of actions which they have advocated.
The first Brandt commission was particularly ill-timed. The 1980s were ushered in by two very conservative administrations in the United States (Ronald Reagan) and Britain (Margaret Thatcher) which championed neo-liberal policies unsympathetic to the massive transfers of aid resources advocated by the commission's report. The decade also saw a ramping up of western defence expenditure in the final throes of cold warfare. This was an era which extolled the short-term benefits of economic growth above longer-term concerns of global idealism. The sustainability of development was not a preoccupation.
Development commissions in the 1980s and 1990s:
1980: Independent Commission on International Development Issues (Brandt commission): North-South: A Programme For Survival
1982: Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues (Palme commission): Common Security a Programme for Disarmament
1983: Independent Commission on International Development Issues (Brandt commission): Common Crisis: North South Cooperation for World Recovery1987: World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland commission): Our Common Future
1990: South Commission (Nyerere commission): The Challenge to the South
1995: Commission on Global Governance (Ingvar Carlsson & Shirdath Ramphal): Our Global Neighbourhood
This espousal of growth recalled the paradigms of the 1950s and 1960s, when economic development was the principal focus, and on which there was a reasonable global consensus - north and south, and east and west. Development was conceived as a do-as-we-did process in which developing countries should follow the patterns of the developed countries. Capital was the principal ingredient to fuel growth.
By the 1970s, however, there were already huge doubts about the wisdom of growth for its own sake. The example of faster-growing countries like Brazil showed that the benefits of growth could not be relied on to "trickle-down" to the poor. Where there were very marked income inequalities, high growth simply did not translate into higher incomes for all. But much more than mathematical tautology was at play. Development was building enclaves of modernisation within developing economies with limited benefits for the majority of the population.
There was also a preoccupation in the north with sustainability, and the possibility that growth targets would exhaust available resources. In 1972, the United Nations sponsored a conference in Stockholm on the "human environment", which examined the quality of human life and the natural resources that support it. There was growing concern - mainly emanating from the rich countries - about the "carrying capacity" of the natural world. Many developing countries were sceptical about participating, since they saw the conference as providing a rationale for dampening the growth aspirations which they had been urged to follow. After Stockholm, and notwithstanding the establishment of the UN Environment Programme, interest in environmental concerns diminished within the international community - north and south. The developing countries did not perceive any moves by the rich countries to respect sustainability and continued to see a trade-off between environment and economics. In any case, environmental dangers were perceived to be mainly local.
In the 1990s, the development debate was dominated by "post-wall" thinking, with democracy and markets declaring victory over statism and central planning. It was now the era of do-as-we-say, with strident calls from the north for good governance and respect for human rights in the south as the price of development assistance. Interest by the north in the south became much more selective, further undermining the possibilities of building a global consensus on development. With the cold war over, and ideological sponsorship withdrawn from many of the poorest countries, some slid into conflict and chaos, leading to new concerns for global stability.
In 1992, twenty years after Stockholm, the UN sponsored a new conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro (the "Earth Summit"). It helped to stimulate a lot of new activity among non-governmental organisations for environmental advocacy, but again it had rather limited impact on global development concerns at the official level. Developed countries were otherwise preoccupied with privatising their own economic governance processes and advocating more liberalisation in developing countries. It was not a charitable period. From that year, development assistance (particularly for Africa) started to fall steadily.
Also on "sustainable development" in openDemocracy:
Felix Dodds, "In the balance: the future of sustainable development"
(26 June 2002)
James Goodman, "Communication: the missing link in sustainable development"
(11 December 2003)
Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism"
(30 November 2005)
Camilla Toulmin, Tom Burke, Tim Worstall, et al., "Capitalism, the environment, and sustainable development: replies to Jonathon Porritt"
(6 December 2005)
Ehsan Masood, "A German vision: greening globalisation"
(28 March 2007)
Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy"
(11 April 2007)
John Elkington, "Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (12 April 2007)
The Montreal example
A very important environmental watershed had been crossed, however, only a few months after the Brundtland commission's report. In September 1987, governments north and south took action to resolve a critical environmental problem which was a direct threat to livelihoods. The protective layer of ozone in the atmosphere was diminishing rapidly mainly as a result of harmful industrial gas emissions. In signing the Montreal protocol, countries committed to phasing out the use of these gases and substituting them for less harmful ones. In subsequent meetings, the timetable for the phase-out of these gases was tightened even further, leading to a complete cessation of their use in the developed countries during the 1990s. The process in the south is due to be completed by 2020. As a result of the Montreal protocol, ozone depletion will be arrested and reversed, and it has justly been described as the most successful of all global treaties.
The success of the protocol is all the greater for the speed with which action was taken. One reason was simply commercial. Substituting for ozone-depleting gases did not entail substantial long-term costs and developed countries have been willing to subsidize the phase out in the south. Also, saving the ozone layer has not entailed any significant adjustments of lifestyle or consumer behaviour.
The importance of saving ozone was acknowledged by the Brundtland report, and action was already underway. The report also raised the alarm about global warming, twenty years before the manifestations forced themselves onto everyone's perception and finally overwhelmed self-interested political and commercial scepticism.
As with other commissions, much of its advice was ignored by politicians, in large, because the truth was inconvenient for the economies and the lifestyles of the richer north, where action has to start.
Perhaps the lesson of the last twenty years is that global commissions have always played an important role, but that their effectiveness has depended, not on the quality and soundness of the advice, but on the readiness of government leaders - particularly in the north - to look beyond their own backyards and entertain a broader vision of global responsibility.
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