Entries tagged with “sustainable development”.

I just finished reading Geoff Dabelko’s “The Periphery isn’t Peripheral” on Ensia. In this piece, Geoff diagnoses the problems that beset efforts to address linked environmental and development problems, and offers some thoughts on how to address them. I love his typology of tyrannies that beset efforts to build and implement good, integrative (i.e. cross-sectoral) programs. I agreed with his suggestions on how to make integrative work more acceptable/mainstream in development. And by the end, I was worried about how to make his suggestions reality within the donors and implementers that really need to take on this message.

Geoff’s four tyrannies (Tyranny of the Inbox; Tyranny of Immediate Results; Tyranny of the Single Sector; Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success) that he sees crippling environment-and-development programming are dead on. Those of us working in climate change are especially sensitive to tyranny #2, the Tyranny of Immediate Results. How the hell are we supposed to demonstrate results on an adaptation program that is meant to address challenges that are not just happening now, but will intensify over a 30 year horizon? Does our inability to see the future mean that this programming is inherently useless or inefficient? No. But because it is impossible to measure future impact now, adaptation programs are easy to attack…

As a geographer, I love Geoff’s “Tyranny of the Single Sector” – geographers generally cannot help but start integrating things across sectors (that’s what our discipline does, really). In my experiences in the classroom and the donor world, integrative thinking eludes a lot more people than I ever thought possible. Our absurd system of performance measurement in public education is not helping – trust me. But even when you find an integrative thinker, they may not be doing much integrative work. Sometimes people simply can’t see outside their own training and expertise. Sometimes they are victims of tyranny #1 (Tyranny of the Inbox), where they are too busy dealing with immediate challenges within their sector to think across sectors – lord knows, that defined the last 6 months of my life at USAID.

And Geoff’s fourth tyranny speaks right to my post from the other day – the Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success. Read Geoff, and then read my post, and you will see why he and I get along so well.

Now, Geoff does not stop with a diagnosis – he suggests that integrative thinking in development will require some changes to how we do our jobs, and provides some illustrations of integrative projects that have produced better results to bolster his argument. While I like all of his suggestions, what concerns me is that these suggestions are easier said than done. For example, Geoff is dead right when he says that:

We must reward, rather than punish, cross-disciplinary or cross-sectoral approaches; define success in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, positive outcomes in multiple arenas; and foster monitoring and evaluation plans that embrace, rather than ignore, different timescales and multiple indicators.”

But how, exactly, are we to do this? What HR levers exist that we can use to make this happen? How much leeway do appointees and other executive-level donor staff have with regard to changing rewards and evaluations? And are the right people in charge to make such changes possible? A lot of people rise through donor organizations by being very good at sectoral work. Why would they reward people for doing things differently?

Similarly, I wonder how we can actually get more long-term thinking built into the practice and implementation of development. How do we really overcome the Tyranny of the Inbox, and the Tyranny of Immediate Results? This is not merely a mindset problem, this is a problem of budget justifications to an often-hostile congress that wants to know what you have done for them lately. Where are our congressional champions to make this sort of change possible?

Asking Geoff to fix all our problems in a single bit of writing is completely unfair. That is the Tyranny of What do We do Now? In the best tradition of academic/policy writing, his piece got me thinking (constructively) about what needs to happen if we are to do a better job of achieving something that looks like sustainable development going forward. For that reason alone it is well worth your time. Go read.

The WWF has just released its 2010 Living Planet Report (download a copy here).  The big headline, being run by all the news organizations, is that we “need to find another Earth”.  The headline is attention-grabbing, but misses the real issue here.  In several posts on this blog I’ve referenced the fact that we need about three Earths worth of resources to allow everyone to live at the standard of consumption of the average person in the US.  Implicit in this measurement has been the fact that we here in the US (and in Europe, Australia, Japan, parts of China, parts of India, etc.) can go on consuming as we do just so long as the other 4-odd billion people don’t consume much at all.  This is the part of sustainable development nobody likes to talk about – there are two ways to achieve it: either cutbacks on the consumption of those who consume the most until consumption at a fairly high level is available for all (how most people tend to think of it) or just keep a hell of a lot of people really, really poor so that a small minority can just go on consuming (de facto, this is the choice that we’ve made up to this point – that’s right, if you are reading this blog, you live the way you do because 4 billion people cannot).

Well, this report now throws a bit of a wrench into the ugly, unacknowledged path we have chosen – turns out that our current levels of consumption will not be sustainable past the next 20 years no matter how many people we impoverish.  Our global population and consumption figures are simply too high.  That’s right, by 2020 we’d better have figured out how to get twice as much resource out of this planet as we do now.  I don’t see that happening.

I don’t think this means the revolution is coming anytime soon – I think the steadily rising inequality we see here in the US will eventually be mirrored by similar patterns across the advanced economies, as a smaller and smaller group of people cling to their privileges.  Further, the whole two Earths in 20 years argument is a bit overstated, as they work in carbon sinks and other regulating services from ecosystems that are not completely understood and therefore sometimes more resilient than expected, and are often fungible with other resources and biophysical processes.  But if the WWF is right (it is too early to say for sure), we are shifting into an era where our choices for how to achieve sustainable development narrow to one: reducing consumption.  Then we will have new choices – who reduces, and how?