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Back | Programme Area: Overarching Concerns

Toward Integrated and Sustainable Development?



How have mainstream development agencies interpreted and applied approaches to “sustainable development”? Are they stimulating progress by governments and other social actors toward reaching the environmental and social goals enunciated, for example, in the Declarations and Plans of Action adopted by the World Conference on Environment and Development (Rio, 1992) and the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995)? Is it realistic to expect specialized international development agencies to adopt integrated, holistic approaches to complex environmental, social welfare and related socioeconomic issues? What might be done to help ensure that mainstream agencies’ sustainable development efforts become more effective?

In attempting to answer these types of questions, this paper looks first at some of the interpretations, ambiguities and contradictions associated with the term “sustainable development”, and at why it became so popular among development agencies during the 1990s. Barraclough suggests that the recent popularity may have less to do with its conceptual innovation or analytical sharpness than with the practical politics of the era. Moreover, he argues, diverging interpretations of the term have enabled a wide range of actors to endorse and pursue “sustainability” and “development”, which have almost universally positive connotations associated with dynamic and more equitable progress.

The paper goes on to discuss recent attempts by a few mainstream international agencies—the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank—to apply the concept of sustainable development in their operational programmes. The author asks: To what extent do recent agency policies in the name of sustainable development represent conceptual innovations implying a change in thinking, as contrasted with a simple change in terminology? How have sustainable development policies been translated into concrete programmes and operational decisions? Are they mere “add-ons” to the agency’s ongoing programme, or do they suggest a fundamental change in its overall approach? And how well have the agencies succeeded in integrating declared environmental and social goals? He finds that agencies’ adoption of “sustainable development” goals and programmes tended to be more a terminological than a conceptual innovation. Furthermore, the agencies have often not succeeded in integrating socioeconomic and environmental issues into a unified approach to guide their wide-ranging operations. The paper also mentions the efforts of some other development actors—UN agencies and programmes, the international financial institutions, the dozens of bilateral organizations dedicated to providing development aid, and numerous international NGOs. These agencies face similar problems in carrying out integrated programmes on the ground.

Finally, Barraclough speculates on what impacts efforts to promote sustainable development might have had in practice, and what might be done by some of the principal actors to contribute toward more integrated and effective approaches to sustainable development. Evaluating impacts on the ground is extremely complex. Available data and analysis suggest mixed, often contradictory, results. Yet perhaps even more surprising is the author’s finding that there seem to have been few systematic attempts to trace how sustainable development policies and initiatives have been interpreted and applied at various levels, from headquarters through regional and national decision-making centres, to their impacts on livelihoods and the environment on the ground. Apparently, even less is known about the extent to which such initiatives may affect broader processes that contribute to social inequalities and environmental degradation. The author suggests that this relative absence of systematic assessments with critical feedback from the field can lead to fallacious assumptions becoming embedded in the conventional wisdom that is used to formulate recommendations for future policies and programmes.

According to the author, the burden of adjusting toward more sustainable development will have to fall primarily on the rich. Sustainability will be out of reach without a redistribution of wealth and power from rich countries to poor ones, and from the rich to the poor in both. Growing pressures emanating from increasingly organized groups of the hitherto excluded, in alliances with others standing to gain from more sustainable development, could help. Identifying the social forces that could be mobilized to bring about the policy and institutional reforms required for socially and ecologically sustainable development at international, national and local levels remains the key issue for international development agencies.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    From: UNRISD