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Development jargon decoded: sustainable development

Les Roopanarine asks why sustainable development has proved so elusive?

This is the first installment of his series decoding development speakers.

 published in, this August 12, 2013 13:

Age (of the jargon): Debatable. Many of its underlying ideas first came together in 1962, when Rachel Carson published  Silent Spring. This book highlighted the dangers of industrial malpractice and emphasized the inherent fragility of the natural world.

Like George Clooney, it may be a good 10 years younger than it looks: the 1972 Stockholm Declaration focused, among other things, on the need to safeguard human rights and natural resources, protect the environment and support developing countries.

Appearance: Shrouded in mystery. Just about everyone in the development community would love to know what it looks like, but no one’s ever seen it.

mdg : george clooney

Like George Clooney, the term ‘sustainable development’ is younger than how it appears. Photograph: Allstar/Fox Searchlight/Sportsphoto

So why are we talking about it? Because sustainable development is the holy grail of the development world.

So it probably looks like that gold cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!

Is that why we don’t know what it looks like? Do people tumble into a giant abyss whenever they’re about to get their hands on it?

No. Although it would be fair to say it’s something of a poisoned chalice.

Oh? Do tell. What exactly is it then?

That’s just it, nobody knows.

In June last year, world leaders – hopeful of discovering the answer to that very question – converged on Brazil for the Rio+20 conference. The plan was to agree a new set of global development targets based on the principles of sustainable development.

The intent was to strike a balance between the three pillars of economy, society and environment, and they would put the world on the path to a more sustainable future. The outcome was somewhat different.

Why, what happened?

Unable to reach consensus on some of the big issues, said world leaders conceded defeat and instead set up a working group of 30 countries to formulate a plan for developing a new set of global development targets; by striking a balance between the three pillars of economy, society and environment, they would … well, you know the rest.

Too many caipirinhas? Someone should have told them about the Brundtland commission’s 1987 declaration that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

You mean it was codified a quarter of a century ago and still hasn’t been put into practice? What on Earth are we waiting for, doomsday?

Funny you should say that. Then again, you can’t just jump into these things: they have to be properly discussed and planned. That’s why there have been three high-level international conferences on sustainable development in two decades.

Three?!? Yep. They didn’t call it Rio+20 for nothing: the original Rio Earth summit was held in 1992, and that was followed in 2002 by the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg.

So sustainable development is all about having major international conferences in far-flung locations every 10 years to discuss how to achieve sustainable development? Now you’re getting the hang of it.

Do say:What we need is a set of global development targets that cover not only extreme poverty but also climate change, resource efficiency and the preservation of ecosystems.”

Don’t say: “This idea just hasn’t got legs




March 2023

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