By: Nabila Jamshed
When the BRICS countries signed an agreement establishing a New Development Bank, political analysis should have taken into account more than its strategic importance to international development and finance. Four days later, the UN’s Open Working Group revealed its draft of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 commitments which set the global development agenda for the post-2015 world. There was a looming crisis at the heart of both initiatives, that our future is not a sustainable one. Perhaps more importantly, that our present isn’t either.
In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals, which have been the focus of development interventions for the past decade and a half, will be replaced by a new set of objectives. For the next 15 years, the world will put its efforts behind the SDGs on poverty, health, food security, industrialisation, education, water, consumption, peace and climate change, among other issues. The remarkable thing about these goals is that they represent a departure from what development has meant so far. That “development” as a paradigm is no longer adequate either for political or economic policy or for business is articulated in the new terminology. Sustainability is not expected to complement growth by numbers. The new development paradigm is sustainable development. At Fortaleza, the BRICS were not only asserting a more Southern orientation for the future of development financing, they were also acknowledging the need to mainstream sustainability within it.
Most discourse on sustainability has tended to see it as the solution to long-term challenges, in a distinctly Malthusian tenor. Malthus had infamously theorised that the world’s population grows exponentially, while its capacity and resources grow arithmetically, predicting that the planet will not accommodate the growth of people beyond a point. More recently, the science on climate change put out disaster warnings, which tended to be viewed not in terms of their current implications, but future ones. In policy, the question of sustainable development was afforded its due rhetoric and then relegated to a limited “environment” sector.
But sustainability, in its most complete sense, will be crucial to the challenges confronting our countries today. The most well-known definition of sustainable development comes from the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which described it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The UN University’s Inclusive Wealth Report in 2012 said that, despite significant progress in the last 25 years, humanity has failed to “ensure its own long-term viability”. One might argue that the future we were supposed to build through sustainability policies is already here. Tragedies like the one wrought by the recent landslide in Pune, urban pollution and the traffic crisis in urban spaces like those of China, and the resource-conflict driven massacre of Darfur, demonstrate how ecologically conscious development is a necessary response to problems today. The zeitgeist since has taken sustainable development beyond the ecological. It is isn’t merely about managing our natural wealth with the future in mind, but about sustaining opportunity for all.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century isn’t the first work of economics to point to the long-term challenges of unequal growth. The momentum towards the need for a new economics was catalysed by the 2008 financial crises. The rational model, and the utilitarian logic which underpinned it, could neither fully explain the collapse nor justify the narrowing of economic opportunity for the majority at the bottom of the Stiglitz pyramid.
The draft SDGs are calling for “inclusive and sustainable economic growth” and “sustainable consumption and production patterns”. More interestingly, they are calling for the reduction of “inequalities within and among countries”. A high-level panel, co-chaired by David Cameron and convened by the UN secretary general, on the post-2015 global development agenda determined that a better future required fundamental and “transformative shifts” instead of the same compartments of sectoral interventions. There is a growing recognition that peace, sustainable development, equity, social justice and security are too closely interlinked to be considered separate bodies of effort.
The logical policy trajectory for states attempting to build wealthier, more peaceful and resilient societies is inclusive and sustainable development. In a future of limited resources, growth can no longer be the measure of a country’s success. The SDGs are calling for ways to measure progress that complement the GDP. Perhaps it is also time to consider development beyond development.
The writer works as programme analyst with the UN. Views are personal