29 Dec 2014

The Age of Sustainable Development

Judayannet Muchiri and I recently completed a free on-line 17 week long course through the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) called ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ with all lectures given by one of the world renowned leaders in the subject,  Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs. The course gave students an understanding of the key challenges and routes to sustainable development, ie economic development that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It described the complex interactions between the world economy and the earth’s physical environment, how rapid economic growth is impacting on our planetary boundaries, and asked if the era of man, or the anthropogenic age, could be the cause of a major extinction of species and what steps can be taken to prevent this.

Man is impacting on earth’s planetary boundaries in many ways including through; climate change, causing sea level rise, ocean acidification and glacier retreat; through deforestation to satisfy our demand for meat and palm oil; through excess use of herbicides and pesticides on agricultural land, polluting ground water systems and creating dead zones in the seas; through over fishing aided by the latest fish seeking technologies. Our eco-systems are being devastated as a result, creating enormous bio-diversity loss.  

The course traced the start of economic growth through the invention of the steam engine in England in the 18th century and highlighted subsequent waves of growth supported by railways and steel, later by cars, then electricity and now through information and communication technologies. Economic growth has encouraged migration from rural to urban areas and now more people live in urban than rural areas.  Cities tended to grow on the trade routes - initially on coastal areas of Europe and North America but then to other coastal areas throughout the world. The share of wealth became increasingly imbalanced within and between countries, especially so in cities...but cities have been beneficial in many ways, encouraging the industrial and service sectors to develop, in turn producing more efficient agricultural technologies to feed this growing urban population.

Unfortunately Africa did not benefit from this early growth, for though much of the continent was colonized, the occupiers did little to encourage national development. They also left Africa with artificial national boundaries that landlocked many countries with no natural access to the coast and that took no account of its multi-ethnic nature. The causes of poverty are multi dimensional though and Sub Saharan Africa in particular suffered and continues to suffer from other issues that prevent growth like a preponderance of tropical diseases, especially communicable ones like malaria, lack of access to safe water and poor health and education systems. It is also now increasingly affected by weather unpredictability through global warming.

One of the issues with the poverty trap many African countries find themselves in is how to escape this trap in the first place and step up onto the ladder of economic development. It only takes a small increase in income, or investment in health, to make a big increase in life expectancy. Economic development depends on investment though, especially important in children for their education, health care and nutrition. The first 3 years are particularly key to cognitive and physical development, and malnourished children also suffer from a weakened immuno-suppressive system.

So how does a country step up the economic ladder? Does Official Development Assistance (ODA) work or should all development be based on free market capitalism? Mobile phones are a great example of how development has been aided through the competitive environment, making cheap global communication available to all.  But what about a primary health care system? The cost of medical care in the US is completely out of control, being privately controlled and with political influences affecting any natural balancing of competitive market forces. Professor Sachs argued that a primary health care system has to be treated as a ‘merit’ good in that it has too much public benefit to be exposed to free market forces. The average cost of setting up a primary health care system is $60/person/year, so how can a country like Malawi develop one when $15 is the most it can reasonably extract for health from its taxable income?

The idea of sustainability, where the conflict of continued economic growth and earth’s finite resources was first raised, was in 1972 in a book called ‘Limits to Growth’. The UN subsequently published several papers on the subject leading to the first Earth summit in Rio De Janeiro, 1992. The conference asked if we were willing to transform our behaviours to secure a planet all could live in sustainably and socially inclusive, and whilst most countries signed up to the proposals the influence of supporters of unrestricted free market capitalism on politicians, especially in the United States, prevented binding global agreements being signed.  

Although Rio proved a disappointment, the world did agree on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, based on a framework of values and ethics supporting the concept of human rights, to meet the needs of the world’s poorest. Nearly 15 years later, as the MDGs come to an end, it can be shown these goals did work, especially those with targets that could be monitored, measured and evaluated. Setting such measureable targets created peer pressure and mobilised knowledge communities and stakeholder networks. These communities and networks provided help for the fight against malaria, for instance, and also through the supply of Anti-Retroviral Drugs which extended the lives of AIDS victims. Africa did and continues to benefit from these goals.  

The MDGs are coming to an end in 2015 but the world continues to suffer from extremes of poverty and our planetary boundaries are being damaged by rapid economic growth. New agreed goals are required to ensure a sustainable future.  So how can we ensure a sustainable food supply for instance? We can improve our ability to grow food by making it more resilient and nutritious through natural breeding and Genetic Modification. We can farm with more precision by better soil testing, monitoring, water management, harvesting, storage, transport and access to market and with better business models like the use of farmer co-operatives. At the other end of the scale we need a behavioural change to end over consumption - people have to take more responsibility for what they eat. 

Such ideas and processes will be incorporated into an all encompassing set of SDGs post 2015.  The purpose of these SDGs is to make politicians commit to long term goals, where prosperity will be widely shared, where everyone’s basic needs will be met and social mobility encouraged to allow pathways to greater equality in society, but also where planetary boundaries are respected. The principles of accountability, transparency, participation of stakeholders, the polluter pays principle, and commitment to the SDGs will be required to ensure their success. Human Rights is at their core – the right to social security, work, rest and leisure, education, health as well as gender equality.

Professor Sachs concluded by saying that sustainable development is feasible, achievable and in all our interests to safeguard the future of the planet. I would conclude by urging all African youth to get involved in the post 2015 agenda. We have to work together to lobby our governments to commit to these SDGs, and continue to apply pressure on them to make sure they keep to their promises.  

Paul Shaw
NAYD steering group and webmaster