Sustainable Development

The world as it is today, is more than ever facing some very big challenges. A sustainable development – and an inclusive development – is higher on the agenda than it has ever been. Before defining what sustainable development really means, we need to look at why it is so utterly urgent.

sustainable developmentStill today 3,5 billion people live on the equivalent of 2,5 $ per day – according to the purchasing power parity formulas. So despite the massive and rapid technological developments changing the world at high speed, there are still far too many people not included. And the number is growing, despite what international development institutions might be telling you in their propaganda. Without going into details of the complexity of poverty and development, it is clear that the urgency to act is bigger than ever.

The effects of global warming, which are getting stronger and stronger by the year, will affect everyone in the world and this also makes it so that for the first time in history there is a threat for all mankind. If we really want to face this reality and find solutions, humanity needs to unite to solve this problem. The multi-governmental platforms are not coming with sustainable solutions at this very moment and it is again the most vulnerable of this world that are under the biggest threat. And this is a factor we need to take into account in all the so-called development.

So what is sustainable development? Let’s look at the words and the definitions.

Development is defined as “the act or process of growing or causing something to grow or become larger or more advanced” – as defined by In the context we are working in, we could define it as the improvement or capacity growth of communities, individuals and even nations and regions.

Sustainability means in its most general understanding “the endurance of systems and processes” – as defined by In our context, in terms of aid or development work, this means the continuity and endurance of projects.

Combining all the above-mentioned information for the social sector working with poverty, this means we need to determine development not only as a short-term impact, but as a practice with long-lasting effects. Going further on this line and within the context in which we work, we could start by looking at “Sustainable development” in the terms of “Successful aid”.

So as a starting point to define what is sustainable development, we need to look at which development efforts have worked, and which efforts have failed. Finding out what has worked is easy. Finding out which has failed, is not. Most organizations – in this sector mostly based on donations and fund raising efforts – are not very eager or happy to share their failures. But let’s look at it from an international perspective and let’s look at the leading academics in the field and what their research has shown.

In the world of philanthropy and international development, there is a big and continuous debate on the ways, means and impacts of the sector.

On one side of the debate, leading voices such as Jeffrey Sachs, hand in hand with celebrities such as Bono and Bill Gates, claim that not enough money has gone from the rich world to the poor – to say it in simple terms. Their theories state that a much bigger investment will lead to – ultimately – the eradication of poverty.

On the other side of the debate, leading authors in the field Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly claim that the international aid system is broken and even worse; it is harmful for the poor. According to their research, too many decisions have been made with a top-down approach, starting from the ideas that wealth will trickle down to the poor when countries develop. Too many decisions have been imposed on the poor, thinking it will help the poor. Reality has shown otherwise. In the vast majority of the cases, economic emergence of a country correlates strongly with a growing inequality. We can count the exceptions on one hand, and these few exceptions have required massive social investments from the countries in question.

It is hard to prove, even nearly impossible to prove whether aid has been harmful, or whether aid has had a positive impact. We can’t determine how countries would have looked like without efforts from the ‘West’. However, we can analyze trends and make relative conclusions based on that. Looking at development aid by intergovernmental institutions such as World Bank, IMF and nation-to-nation aid, there clearly is a trend of ‘enforced’ liberalization of the market, and encouragement to privatize and move to free trade without tariffs and local economical incentives or subsidies. The Structural Adjustment conditions in the loans and/or aid offered are for a big part to ‘blame’ for that. All independent research clearly shows that privatization efforts lead to growing inequality. Local and small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs can’t compete in the markets and big corporations take over, leading to extreme poverty on the bottom of the pyramid. The rich are getting richer, and the poor stay poor or slip deeper into poverty. A report by Global Issues, made a very clear analysis of it.

Ernesto Sirolli, author of ‘Ripples from the Zambezi’, and Jacob M. Appel, author of ‘More than good intentions’ get a bit deeper into the socio-psychological aspect of the debate, and they put the finger on the wound. Too many initiatives by international organizations, and NGO’s as well, have started with good intentions but have not adequately shown results. Too many actions and projects have been decided about from an office somewhere, once again imposing ideas on the poor. Sirolli states the solution very simple in his TED talk: “We have to listen! We have to listen more!”

Development Aid, if we want it to be sustainable, needs to start from the bottom, from the people, from the voices of the poor. Let’s take a look at which projects do seem to work out for the better.

Paul Polak, author of “Out of Poverty. What works when traditional approaches fail.” and life-long psychiatrists started building his projects from long conversations with the poor. His organization, which supports small-scale farmers and starting entrepreneurs, has grown fast and is helping millions people to climb out of poverty. His main vision is to look at the poor as potential producers and potential customers, rather than as receivers of charity.

Jacqueline Novogratz and her Acumen Fund, impacting millions of poor lives for the better, states that everything has to start with dignity. The Acumen foundation has supported hundreds of small businesses with logistics, administration and micro-loans.

Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen foundation have their base in the philosophy that the poor just need a small loan to get their businesses started. He bases his work on working with women and in group, creating a social responsibility and cooperation to reach income goals. The Grameen bank – “Bank for the Poor” – is supporting over 9 million people (97% are women) with micro-credits, making clear impacts for the poor communities.

Another example of this approach is Humana People to People, who have different branches in over 20 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. The Humana People to People philosophy is based on “People to People”, as the name states, and on “Shoulder to Shoulder with the Poor”. In the variety of projects that the organization has, the people are in the center of their own development. People can liberate themselves; people can get up and fight their way out of poverty.

Other examples of successes in fighting poverty are The Green Belt Movement, the ever-growing Permaculture Movement, the Transition Movements, etc.

All these examples have 1 main factor in common; they start up from the bottom up. The people living in extreme poverty prove to be very resourceful and often only need a small push in the back to help them out of poverty and to make real transformation in poor communities.

Traditional development aid, which often started and starts with a lot of good intentions and often starts with a top-down approach shows to have failed; the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

Sustainable development is seldom created by a group of people deciding from their office which method to impose on the poor. Real change is made by mobilizing and assisting people to develop their own capacities and their own communities.

In 2011, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, professors at MIT, published the book ‘Poor Economics’. Duflo and Banerjee have taken a much more ‘social science’ approach to the world of international development, and after their years of research they ended up concluding on a variety of projects that work, and projects that don’t work. Through series of social ‘development’ experiments and comparing results, they ended up with a book well-worth reading for everyone in the field. Without going into the political debate, Poor economics becomes a guide for designing successful projects.

Over the recent decennia, the development work or the fight for the poor, has of course gotten an extra dimension. The dangers that the world is facing as a result of Global Warming – created by the rich – add a new challenge into the mix.

So, talking about sustainable development nowadays, we also have to think about sustainability in the terms of our home, planet Earth. The UN has adapted the Sustainable Development Goals, replacing the Millennium Development Goals and has taken an approach that takes protecting the Earth in consideration. The goals – based on the 9 Planetary Boundaries, as stated by the Stockholm Resilience Center – seem to have a lot of promising factors in them but it remains to be seen what results it will lead to.

If there is something that history has taught us for sure, it is that imposing ideas from the rich on the poor has always lead to more poverty and suffering. If we leave the power to the governments and multi-governmental institutions – most often corrupted by multinational corporations – we will continue on the same path that we have been on for a long time.

History proves that the people know best and that people are the most powerful resource of change. Empower and assist the people to create sustainable development and we will see a sustainable world. The silent revolution, starting from the grassroots, will lead to the change we need to see in this world.

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Sustainable Development

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