Number 5: Sustainable Development Part 1
FOR A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ENVIRONMENT/DEVELOPMENT DYNAMICS
Ibrahima Cheikh Diong and Daniel Allard
A New Challenge: Sustainable Development
Ask any woman from a rural Sahelian milieu what 'environment' signifies and she will certainly reply:
Thus, perceptions of the word environment differ from one society to another. For the vast majority of Africans, especially for the very poorest, it is above all a question of reality and of survival. In fact, it is a development tool.
In the poorest countries, this reality immediately conjures up that shocking idea, often cited in development cooperation circles: "Poverty is the number one enemy of the environment."
Does this mean that if we stamped out poverty all over the world, our planet would at last be protected from all the damage that is being done to its environment? Of course not! The proof is that there are also extremely serious environmental problems in the rich countries of the North.
But this reality nevertheless forces us to link the concepts of 'environment' and 'development.'
In recent years, the world has been living to the rhythm of an impressive number of meetings, seminars, conferences, congresses, commissions, all seeking to debate the environment/development equation.
It was Our Common Future, the famous 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission, which finally alerted public opinion throughout the world to the links between the development crisis and the critical state of our planet's environment. This hard-hitting analysis got everybody talking about the imperatives of a new challenge: sustainable development.
No sooner was this new concept defined than it became the object of numerous debates and diverse interpretations. None of these were in vain, because they led the international political community to meet in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Here, all spoke more or less the same language and recognized the importance of attaining a form of economic development which, while meeting the needs of present generations, does not jeopardize the survival and capacity of the planet's ecosystems to meet those of future generations.
Today, the international community recognizes that important changes must be brought about. A marriage of reason between environment and development has thus been officially consumed. But the difficulty arises from the fact that the mechanics of this progress have not delivered all the recipes for its success. The international community must thus strive to define the mechanisms, and get the wheels turning, while seeking to better understand and organize its corrective action both at the level of social policy and at that of economic development while at the same time protecting the environment.
In such a context, the objective of this article is to present, from an African perspective, our understanding of the functioning of the mechanisms linking the concepts of environment and development. Based on the African reality, different interpretations of the development cycle and its inherent environmental component will thus be sketched, in an effort to contribute to a better understanding of the challenges of development.
A new understanding of 'development' and 'environment'
Until recently, the concepts of development and environment were generally considered to be antagonistic, even irreconcilably opposed or contradictory, because the success of one generally entailed the impoverishment of the other. In sum, economic development implied "quantitative growth in the productivity of goods and services," with the search for profit as the sole incentive. And this operation naturally necessitated increased pressure on;or tapping of;the planet's ecosystems, considered an unlimited reservoir of exploitable resources. Clearly, it was impossible to implement such development while 'respecting' the environment (that is to say, the capacity of the planet's natural ecosystems to maintain themselves).
Here, exploitation ultimately signifies abuse and destruction. Maximizing production implies a maximum use of resources and of the environment. In this system of development, only abstract criteria of profit, returns on investments and savings are taken into account. The environment is taken for granted; everything else remains to be conquered. Although interdependent;even here the link is evident;environment and development are viewed as two opposing sides of the same medal: progress.
But the system of development based on intensive and unlimited exploitation of natural resources, which has been the norm over the last few centuries, has nevertheless finally shown its limits. It has even proved that an increase in the quantity of production;and therefore an enrichment;at community level can, for certain individuals such as non-mobile workers, small tradespeople, constitute (and generally lead to) a drop in the quality of their lives, that is to say, a result which is contrary to that which should logically have been expected. This situation is illustrated in Scenario 1 below.
In such a development cycle, the classic means of enabling economic development at a given site are present: these are spirit of enterprise and leadership, individual initiative, financial investment, availability of labour, favourable laws, accessible natural resources. Theoretically, the process leads to the creation of wealth and the enrichment of the actors involved.
But in fact since this type of development does not incorporate criteria to ensure the redistribution of the newfound wealth for the benefit of the entire collectivity responsible for its creation, it seldom leads to the application of policies safeguarding the environment and natural resources, nor to the improvement of the local productive capital. The only criteria heeded here are those of profitability and the personal enrichment of the individuals in charge of the means of production. And the outcome of this creation of wealth, once the site has been exploited to the maximum, usually consists of the removal to new, more performing sites.
Globally, the mechanism enables the pursuit of a cycle of creation of economic development, but locally it leaves only worn out equipment, unqualified labour and a dilapidated environment. Locally, the process of wealth creation can;an apparent contradiction;lead at the same time to environmental and economic crisis, of which the most glaring examples are the mono-industrial cities totally dependent on a factory which, when it is closed down, precipitates a crisis.
Scenario 1: Environmental Crisis Caused by the Classic Development Cycle
Economic development --> creation of wealth --> individual search for personal enrichment --> overexploitation and threat to the environment --> decline of productive capital --> removal of investments and production factors --> local absence of development and economic development (in a new, exploitable environment)
If we now try to understand the environmental consequences of the absence of a development cycle, it is revealing to note that both the presence or the lack of economic development can lead to the same result, environmental crisis. We have already remarked that poverty threatens the environment, but wealth is by no means a guarantee against this menace.
For varying reasons, the absence of economic development does not necessarily mean the absence of one of its usual consequences, namely the overexploitation of the site's environment. On the contrary, the environmental consequences of the absence of development can be just as or even more dramatic, since in such situations nothing less than survival is at stake. This situation is illustrated in Scenario 2.
Scenario 2: Environmental Crisis Induced by the Absence of Development
Absence of development --> increase in poverty --> search for day-to-day survival -->overexploitation and threat to the environment --> decline in productive capital --> absence of development (even more severe)
Here, the absence of development, often caused by illiteracy and a generalized lack of training among the population, imposes chronic poverty and inevitably pushes people to destroy their environmental capital in order to live. In such a universe of the absurd, it finally becomes better to chop down a tree in order to be able to eat today and survive tomorrow than to risk dying of hunger right away in order to save one's environment. Thus, one destroys one's future in favour of short-term survival!
Manifestly, such a situation holds no future. Solutions will have to be found at another level in order to initiate a development cycle capable of creating wealth. If, in the case of the development cycle, the answer resides in a more harmonious management of wealth coupled with respect for the environment (illustrated by Scenario 3), the solution to poverty is something quite different. Once wealth has been created, it is possible to watch over its redistribution so that it can permit not only improvements in the individual standards of living of the people but also the safeguarding of collective interests, their environment.
Scenario 3: Sustainable Development Cycle
Economic development --> creation of wealth --> elaboration and application of policies to safeguard the environment and natural resources --> improvement of productive capital --> increased potential for economic development --> sustainable economic development
But where wealth is absent, where there is only chronic poverty, there is nothing better to distribute. And it is immoral to prevent people from cutting down that tree in order to avoid dying tomorrow. It is therefore necessary to act rapidly at the level of the very creation of that wealth.
In our view, this means giving priority to the improvement of human capital: literacy programmes, training of a qualified workforce, and so on. If help is to be given, it should be to enable each individual to take charge of his or her own development.
Paths for the future
In this perspective, development must be a global process whereby a population reacquires and uses its resources, in conformity with its cultural values, to solve individual and collective problems by generating, step by step over a long period of time, a new lifestyle. This definition has been borrowed from the Réseau Africain pour le Développement Integral (RADI), a pan-African NGO based in Senegal, which maintains that development must be the result of a sustainable and dynamic link between the natural environment and the socio-cultural setting of the populations.
Such a concept of development, based on qualitative improvement of living conditions in steps over a long period, necessarily implies that the needs and desires expressed by the populations themselves are taken into account, in the context of an overall participatory framework which integrates the efforts of all concerned. Furthermore, it requires that the productive effort not depend on the simple destruction of natural and human resources for short-term gains. In fact, it means helping the populations to rely on their own capacities to find solutions to their problems which are respectful of their traditions and cultures.
Above all, we believe it is necessary to recognize that development depends first and foremost on the use of existing potentialities to improve people's lot with the resources they have. There is nothing abstract about development; it should be the result of a dynamic and sustainable movement which enables the population to build up a development process over the short, medium and long term.
And, without entering into the debate on the concepts defined and results obtained at UNCED, we can still question ourselves as to what needs to be done on the African continent to materialize all the good intentions expressed at the international level.
First of all, it is necessary to harmonize the development strategies of African countries to take into account the environment variable. This signifies that African ministries of environment should no longer simply concern themselves with patching up the damage. They must be at the heart of all new policies.
It also signifies coherence between agreements signed at the international level and decisions taken at the national level. The case of Senegal illustrates this contradiction. In April 1991, a year before UNCED, the government of Senegal authorized the clearing of a 45,000 hectare classified forest. Yet as a Sahelian country, Senegal ferociously defends the application of a convention to fight desertification. Such contradictions should no longer be tolerated.
The environment aspect was the poor relative of development projects or programmes in the countries of the South, particularly in Africa. Whether at the level of company management, of application of government policies or even of NGO activities, this aspect was often considered a separate element. But it is imperative that it be intrinsically integrated at all levels, if we are to undertake sustainable development without compromising the immediate needs of the populations.
To ensure the survival of both the tree and those who have no alternative but to cut it, it is imperative that the environmental element of development be automatically integrated into all actions.
We have set ourselves the objective of presenting, in an African perspective, our understanding of the functioning of mechanisms indubitably linking the concepts of environment and development. Starting with African realities, we have sketched different interpretations of the development cycle and its environmental component. By a more efficient mastery of the various elements implicated, we hope to have contributed to a better understanding of the development challenges.
Certainly, the preservation of the environment will not only require substantial financial resources, it must also be fully integrated into the mechanics of development. To sum up, we think we have clearly demonstrated that a real effort of will is needed to combat poverty.
But, at first sight, the safeguarding of our environment requires changes in our behaviour vis-à-vis nature, and an understanding of the limited resources of our planet, stemming from an effective participation of the people in the management of everything touching their environment, whether local or planetary.