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Development Policy Review on Toward Integrated and Sustainable Development?, by Solon Barraclough

3 Dec 2002

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  • Title: Toward Integrated and Sustainable Development?
  • Author(S): D.J. Shaw
  • Date: 1 Nov 2002
  • Publication: Development Policy Review

The concepts of ‘integrated’ and ‘sustainable’ development have been bandied about in the development literature since they were first introduced in the 1980s. These terms have conveyed different, and often contradictory, meanings for the diverse groups promoting them. How have mainstream development agencies interpreted and applied approaches to their implementation? Are they stimulating progress by governments and other social actors toward reaching the goals enunciated in the UN-sponsored international conference of the 1990s? Is it realistic to expect specialised international development agencies to adopt the holistic approaches necessary for their implementation? And what might be done to help ensure that mainstream agencies’ efforts become more effective? These questions are addressed by Solon Barraclough, a long-respected writer on development issues as a senior consultant at UNRISD, an autonomous UN agency engaged in multidisciplinary research on the social dimensions of contemporary problems affecting development, in the first in the series of UNRISD papers on ‘Overarching Concerns’.

In attempting to answer them, Barraclough looks first at some of the ambiguities and contradictions associated with these concepts, and why they became so popular among development agencies during 1990s. He suggests that this may have less to do with their ‘conceptual innovation or analytical sharpness than with the practical politics of the era’. Diverging interpretations have enabled a wide range of actors to endorse and pursue them, with ‘almost universally positive connotations associated with dynamic and more equitable progress’.

Barraclough goes on to discuss recent attempts by the FAO, UNDP and the World Bank to apply the concepts in their operational programmes. For FAO in the 1990s, sustainable development was apparently ‘more a terminological than a conceptual innovation. And the organization’s overall strategy continues to reflect the same contradictions and concerns that were written into its constitution, but they have been given a new name.’ UNDP ‘played a leading role in promoting the concept of sustainable development during the 1990s’, particularly through its annual Human Development Report, but faces ‘serious obstacles’ in attempting to integrate social and environmental concerns into its operational programmes. In 1999, the president of the World Bank proposed the adoption of a ‘Comprehensive Development Framework’ (CDF) for each country in which it has an assistance programme, with the aim of making Bank lending more effective in promoting sustainable growth and poverty alleviation. But whether the proposal will be adopted and, if it is, whether it could become an effective tool for promoting more sustainable development is questioned. Sceptics, ‘aware of the political issues implied in the specific historical context of such a “holistic” but managerial approach, have good reason for their doubts’.

The paper notes that there are some 40 UN development agencies and programmes with autonomous budgets and programmes that profess to be engaged (depending on definitions) in ‘sustainable development’ activities. The general conclusion is that they have seldom been able to be particularly innovative in ‘conceptualising’ and ‘operationalising’ sustainable development. But they seem to have had more scope and motivation for promoting ‘integrated people-oriented programmes’ than the international financial institutions and the regional development banks for a number of reasons. The structure of their governing bodies in which each member state formally has an equal role probably helps. More importantly, they are not major actors in international financial markets or in trade and financial issues, which allows them more freedom to propose unorthodox policies. Bilateral aid agencies’ policies regarding sustainable development ‘reflect to a large extent the dominant domestic social forces and [national] government policies’. And international development NGOs are found to ‘face similar problems to UN organizations and bilateral agencies’.

The paper ends by addressing the questions: How effective have efforts at achieving integrated and sustainable development been in practice? And what might be done to improve them? The answer to the first question is that efforts by the international development agencies over the past decade ‘have apparently had negligible positive impacts on the ground’, and that in spite of ‘impressive international rhetoric promoting sustainable development the situation in many respects is becoming worse’. In answer to the second question, Barraclough suggests that diverse approaches are inevitable, international development agencies should be more self-critical and honest in recognising the contradictions in their programmes, and they have to depend principally on national governments to enable them to become operational in practice. He concludes that, to the extent that present patterns of economic growth follow past trends, social polarisation and environmental degradation will generate increasing political tensions and conflicts, and that ‘Human society would probably extinguish itself in the flames of conflict long before it faced any imminent danger of exhausting its means of sustenance or smothering in its own waste’. He suggests that the question of what social forces could be mobilised to bring about the policy and institutional reforms required to approach socially and ecologically sustainable development remains ‘the key issue for international development agencies’.

This UNRISD paper does a useful service in stimulating a reappraisal of these concepts and their implementation.

by D.J. Shaw

Posted with the permission of Development Policy Review (Volume 20, Number 5, November 2002).