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The African Roadmap Series Part II – By Eyob Zerihun

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Ensuring sustainable development

The term sustainable development is often misunderstood and some in the past have criticized it as being too vague.

“I know that this term is obligatory, but I find it also absurd, or rather so vague that says nothing.” Philosopher Luc Ferry

“The term is more charming than meaningful.” Philosopher Luc Ferry

The fact that this is a continuously evolving complex area that touches upon many interdisciplinary subjects makes it difficult to define. The United Nations Brundtland Report released in 1987 defined sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Basically this first attempt to define sustainable development focuses on the interlinkages between economic development, environmental degradation and population pressure. Since then the idea on sustainability has been evolving. The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document defines the concept of sustainable development as “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” of economic development, socio-political development, and environmental development. The concept revolves on the relationship of these three pillars. Accordingly sustainable development should be socially and environmentally bearable, economically and environmentally viable and socially and economically equitable. There are indigenous peoples who are arguing through various international forums on the need to add a fourth pillar to sustainable development; cultural diversity. UNESCO’s “The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity” of 2001 further elaborates this concept by stating that “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”. It states that “culture is one of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence”. Cultural diversity has quickly become another policy area of sustainable development.

Sustainable development is about managing economic, social and natural capitals. The general idea is about attaining continuous growth in a manner that protects resources, society and the environment although this sounds a bit paradoxical. Can development in one of these three areas be achieved without any significant impact on the others? Can progress be made on all three pillars in development projects?

The emphasis within the scope of sustainability itself cannot be the same in developed and developing countries. To be more specific for instance, the urging need of developing countries and their priorities are more leaned towards economic development and the priorities of those developed may be on social and environmental sustainability. So we should not expect all countries to have similar approaches and similar priorities on all three pillars of sustainable development even though these three are highly interrelated. Numerous books are written on the subject of sustainable development and most of them do not address Africa’s special needs.

John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, writes: “In economy as in ecology, the interdependence rule applies, isolated actions are impossible.” In reality, economic growth cannot be achieved without having any impact on society and the environment; the environment cannot be entirely protected without having any kind of impact on the economy and society; and there is no social development without any effect on the economy and the environment. Sustainable development is a concept with breadth and multiple dimensions that can be a maze of both complexity and contradiction.

Measurability is another controversial aspect of sustainable development. There is no one single indicator that measures sustainability. Joy E. Hecht in his paper: Can Indicators and Accounts Really Measure Sustainability? Consideration for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, underlined that measurability in sustainable development remained a challenge. He writes: “While much discussion and effort has gone into sustainability indicators, none of the resulting systems clearly tells us whether our society is sustainable. At best they can tell us that we are heading in the wrong direction, or that our current activities are not sustainable. More often they simply draw our attention to the existence of problems, doing little to tell us the origin of those problems and nothing to tell us how to solve them.” Others assume that the only way to make sustainability tangible is to have a set of well defined and harmonised indicators. And suggest that indicators should be identified and adjusted through empirical observations. Again it is essential to have a clear-cut understanding of the African context and take it into consideration in this practice.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) launched the first Sustainable Development Report on Africa (SDRA) in the 2004 – 2005 biennium. The SDRA is intended to help as a medium for assessing and monitoring sustainable development in Africa and among other things it is meant to promote a balanced integration of the three pillars of sustainable development which are economic, social and environmental. The second issue, SDRA-2 theme’s was Five-Years Review the Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD+5). The objective of this report was to provide the reader with an overview of Africa’s advancement in its implementation of the sustainable development agenda and to prompt action on the part of the various stakeholders, including governments, civil society, private sector and development partners, with the goal of accelerating progress towards meeting the continent’s sustainable development goals. The report touches on different thematic areas and reveals key findings including the challenges and constraints experienced during the implementation. The different aspects of sustainable development are covered in the report, even though all the relevant issues are not discussed in an exhaustive manner. That was not the goal of this report. However it provides pertinent information on the different aspects of sustainable development. The different thematic areas assessed in the report are sustainable development governance which includes peace, security and human rights; poverty eradication and socially sustainable development; sustainable consumption and production; natural resource base of economic and social development; the means of implementation and harnessing the interlinkages. Many key and relevant issues are covered under this report.

This kind of structured report and analytical work will help analyse the gap between the goals set and what’s actually achieved, hence allowing continuous improvement to be made in institutions and to policies and strategies to ensure sustainability. The three strategic pillars mentioned above are highly interrelated. The importance of having a contextually balanced and conscience approach cannot be stressed enough. In depth awareness of the African context of sustainable development is also vital.

According to the SDRA, the challenges faced in some countries on the continent and in some particular areas are constraints in the area of data collection. The report repeatedly underlined the need to strengthen the statistical capacity of countries to collect data that is essential for analysis and monitoring the progresses made.

African leaders committed themselves to NEPADs programme, and the results agenda of the MDGs, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) including other national and sectoral development plans. The NEPAD initiative and results agenda require the use of better statistics to have clear systematic measures and reports on the achievements of outputs, outcomes and impact of development policies. The African Centre for Statistics (ACS) is a division in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Among its mandate, is the responsibility to building statistical capacity and support member States, sub regional and regional organizations in the production of quality statistics. The Reference Regional Strategic Framework (RRSF) was developed to help build the capacity of national statistical offices in Africa after the UNECA repositioned itself in 2006. Since then the UNECA and its ACS division have been providing guidance to African countries on how to improve their statistics and increase their use in the critical areas of policy and decision making. Though many countries took advantage of such supports and made a dramatic improvement over the past five years, very limited progresses were made in some countries. The collection of data unique to sustainability, should also be given due attention. Countries should base their analysis and decisions on quality data.

The concept of sustainability has been vigorously challenged and still raises criticism at different levels. A number of intellectuals fiercely oppose it, arguing that the concept only helps the capitalists and some question the motive and purpose of sustainability. And others commented on the population control agenda that they believe to be at the root of this concept.

“Sustainable development is a policy approach that has gained quite a lot of popularity in recent years, especially in international circles. By attaching a specific interpretation to sustainability, population control policies have become the overriding approach to development, thus becoming the primary tool used to “promote” economic development in developing countries and to protect the environment.” Maria Sophia Aguirre

Some argue that the real purpose of sustainable development is to contain and limit economic development in developing countries, and in so doing control population growth. Joan Veon, a businesswoman and international reporter, posits that:

“Sustainable development has continued to evolve as that of protecting the world’s resources while its true agenda is to control the world’s resources. It should be noted that Agenda 21 sets up the global infrastructure needed to manage, count, and control all of the world’s assets.”

The other dispute comes from single focus groups such as environmental and human right activists. These single focus groups are merely concerned about one or two pillars of sustainable development and fail to recognize that sustainability requires interdisciplinary approach. Many lobbyists groups and NGOs campaign against nearly every development projects in the developing world. This is quickly becoming a trend, in most cases creating unnecessary pressure and tension. Recent economic progresses and international cooperation, especially Africa’s partnership with China, are allowing the constructions of new infrastructure. Gradually countries are building their Social Overhead Capital (SOC). This will in turn help them to attract more foreign investment. Many African countries are currently building hydropower dams and they see them as sources of clean energy.

One of the top ten economic performers in Africa is Ethiopia. It is currently building five hydropower dams and has recently launched a new project on the Blue Nile River that when operating at full capacity will produce 5,250 Megawatt. Western NGOs have been campaigning against some of the dams on environmental or human rights grounds. Over four hundred NGOs led by Survival International this month signed a petition against one of its nearly completed hydropower project, the Gibe III that is expected to generate 1,800 Megawatt. They say that 200,000 Ethiopians who rely on fishing and farming may become dependent on aid to survive if the dam goes ahead. The government argues that all the necessary studies where made and that the impact on both the society and environment is negligible. Here it is important to bring things into perspective. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries and has been growing at a rapid rate of 10 plus percent a year for the past seven years and the demand for power is growing at an even higher rate every year. Chronic power shortages were common for the past few years in the country and have hindered investments. The government had to take decisive measures to put a halt to this energy problem that threatened to slow down the countries growth. And the country is trying to transform its agriculture driven economy to an industry driven economy in the coming five years. The country’s prime minister called those who are campaigning against the hydropower dam projects in Africa as “borderline criminals” who are helping to keep Africans poor.

“These people will not allow the disturbance of butterflies even if this means millions of people have to be subjected to the deadliest killer disease of all; poverty. I am not a believer in conspiracy theories but, if I were I would conclude that these people want Africa to remain as it is with all its misery and poverty so they can come and visit nature in its pristine state in winter every so often.” Meles Zenawi Prime Minister of Ethiopia

The important question will be: How can we proceed in the area of sustainable development?

Again economic development is at the core of sustainable development for developing countries. So the activities in these countries are and will continue to be driven by their hunger for economic growth. But this should not mean that social sustainability and environmental sustainability are going to be ignored. In fact, many African countries are making meaningful social and environmental advancements (development) and have not neglected the work in these areas.

There is a need for better consciousness on social and environmental issues and generally on sustainability. Government should continue fostering greater cooperation between the different stakeholders, including governments, civil society, private sector and development partners. Projects should be given careful thoughts, should be well analysed and the impact on society and environment weighed meticulously. However developing countries should not be crippled on grounds of ensuring sustainable development. What should be rather scrutinized is whether countries are undertaking the most socially and environmentally sustainable alternative possible to economic development. Given the resources, the economic condition of a particular country and its need to address development issues; is this project the best possible option as far as social and environmental sustainability is concerned. And a more cost benefit approach should be used as an alternative to evaluate sustainability. Sonia Bueno a Cuban-born researcher and entrepreneur made a very interesting suggestion in her essay: Transforming the Water and Waste Water Infrastructure into an Efficient, Portable and Sustainable System. In this essay she suggests an alternative approach that is based upon an integral, long-term cost-benefit relationship as a measure and monitoring tool for the sustainability of project, activity and enterprise. Under this concept the aim is to evaluate sustainable development by following the principles of conservation and increment of value rather than simply restricting any kind of impact on environment or society.

It is needless to say that developing countries should remain conscious about the social and environmental impact their economic activities might have. Whatever economic activities they undertake, whether it is building infrastructures and industries or running them, using energy, mining, achieving food security or speeding up urbanization, they should make cautious assessments to ensure better results in social and environmental sustainability. International cooperation and strategic partnerships should be developed further and for this to happen mutual understanding on the African context of sustainability is crucial. Ultimately the world has to learn to depend less on single focus whistle-blowers and make a carefully weighed and balanced judgement based on multidiscipline information.

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