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Overarching Concerns Programme Paper 4: In Quest of Sustainable Development

28 Oct 2005



When world leaders met in Johannesburg in August 2002 for the 10-year review of progress in implementing outputs of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, they were also asked by the United Nations General Assembly “to reinvigorate global commitments to sustainable development”.

In order to be endorsed as an overarching global goal, the term “sustainable development” had to be sufficiently ambiguous to accommodate many widely differing interpretations. The author contends that participants had conflicting interests, divergent perceptions, unique historical and environmental contexts as well as often incommensurable values. Yet, he writes, the Johannesburg Summit provided an opportunity to highlight several of the conflictive political economy issues behind recent unsustainable processes. This paper reviews research into the social dynamics of environmental change and thus makes a contribution to ongoing debates about policy options.

According to the author, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development faced a seemingly impossible task. Nonetheless, he identifies several areas where the WSSD could make a difference. It could reaffirm the importance of agreeing on common goals but with differential responsibilities, recognizing that there are no global recipes for action. Furthermore, he writes, emphasis on global problems but local solutions when promoting sustainable development can be counterproductive unless local governments are able to exercise the political power and mobilize the necessary resources that are required to redirect the unsustainable processes negatively affecting them. This implies profound reforms nationally and internationally.

Reform of property rights to support sustainable development is also a core issue, because they largely determine the distribution of wealth, income and power. Land reforms granting real power to those who depend directly on land, water and associated natural resources for their livelihoods are essential in many contexts. So too are reforms of tax structures, social and environmental regulations, subsidies, etc., all of which constitute part of the bundles of rights and obligations associated with property ownership or tenure. WSSD could call attention to the crucial need for the international community to be supportive of reforms in property rights that would contribute to sustainable development.

In the author’s view, the biggest challenge facing WSSD was how to find and mobilize the social forces capable of bringing about needed policy and institutional reforms. Answers would have to vary widely from place to place and time to time, and would have to include the poor and powerless, and especially the propertyless working classes.

Solon L. Barraclough was Director of UNRISD from May 1977 to January 1984, and was subsequently Senior Consultant at the Institute until his death in December 2002. This paper was prepared for the UNRISD conference, The Political Economy of Sustainable Development: Environmental Conflict, Participation and Movements, which took place in 2002 in parallel with the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa).

Order UOC PP 4 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).