Making development sustainable

Goal: Implement national strategies for sustainable development by 2005 so as to reverse the loss of environmental resources by 2015.
Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD)

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More than a billion people world-wide live in extreme poverty and preventable diseases are a major cause of mortality in developing countries, so why should we care about the environment? The answer becomes obvious once we recall that in developing countries activities based on natural resources, such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, still contribute more to the economy than industry or services. And since many of the world’s poor depend directly on these activities for a living, environmental degradation hurts the poor disproportionately.

These people are exposed to air and water pollution and are highly vulnerable to desert-ification and to land becoming infertile, as well as disasters such as floods and landslides, whether caused by nature or man. Better environmental management can directly improve their lives, increase their productivity and build momentum towards sustainable development.

Maintaining the integrity of key environmental resources is a precondition for improving the immediate welfare and safeguarding the long-term economic opportunities of the poor. This includes reconciling the needs of different users and preventing competing claims over increasingly scarce resources degenerating into violent conflicts, whether locally or internationally.

At the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, governments committed themselves to formulating and implementing national strategies for sustainable development. Five years later, at a UN General Assembly special session, a growing feeling of urgency led governments to set a target date of 2002 for introducing such strategies in all countries. The OECD’s strategy for development co-operation, Shaping the 21st Century, commits donor countries to supporting developing countries efforts to meet this target.


There is no single sustainable development strategy. Each country must formulate its own approaches, in line with its social and economic priorities, its cultural values, institutions and political structures. Also, the wide range of environmental challenges faced by different countries, in line with their respective geographical, ecological and climatic features makes country-specific approaches indispensable.

Moreover, introducing a sustainable development strategy need not necessarily imply establishing new processes, new plans or new institutions. A country may have policies and institutional mechanisms conducive to sustainable development, such as to ensure that industrial development plans take account of the long term consequences on, say, air and water resources, but without having a formal “sustainable development” strategy or document. Conversely, a country may have a formal sustainable development strategy which is not actually implemented. Assessing whether a country has or is developing the basic “building blocks” of a sustainable development strategy is not straightforward. Does the country have the capacity to identify key development constraints and opportunities, to mobilise private and public players around shared goals, and to integrate sustainability into its development policies?

To help answer such questions, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) based at OECD is working to elaborate good practices for donors in assisting developing countries to formulate and implement sustainable development strategies. Partnerships are central to building such strategies – DAC’s own work is being done in consultation with other development interests.

One country to demonstrate this is the Philippines, which established a council for sustainable development after the 1992 Rio Summit. The rallying point for government, civil society and private business was the phasing out of leaded gasoline in April 2000. Philippine Agenda 21 is the country’s blueprint. Key businesses have implemented sustainable production initiatives, such as reusing by-products, controlling pollution and including environmental provisions in collective bargaining agreements with labour unions.


Many environmental problems, such as climate change and deforestation, have clear global dimensions. But, as a general rule, the impact of environmental damage is felt at the local, national or regional level. Water shortages and contamination, soil erosion or forest, mangrove or coral reef degradation harm first and foremost the local communities who are directly exposed. Even the severity of air pollution is highly variable in different areas of a single city and even more so in an entire country. Accordingly, most indicators of environmental conditions are primarily relevant at the local level. As a result, developing a capacity to monitor environmental conditions, and the impact of degradation on people’s lives, is an important part of efforts to define a country’s sustainable development strategies.

Still, there are good universal indicators of human development which a good development strategy can use. Access to safe water is one and is a fundamental development aim. Almost 20% of the world’s people depend on unimproved water supplies to meet their daily needs. Urban populations are better served than rural, but even piped water from municipal supplies may be contaminated by disease-bearing organisms and industrial pollutants. Those without access to safe water supplies must struggle daily to meet their needs and face the constant danger of water-borne disease.

Another issue of global concern is deforestation. Without human interference, large parts of the world would be covered with forests. Through unsustainable harvesting and degradation, the world has lost millions of acres of forests and with them the economically important wood and non-wood products they supply. In the early 1990s about 17 million hectares of tropical forest – four Switzerlands – were cleared annually. If this rate of deforestation continues, 5-10% of tropical forest species will face extinction in the next 30 years. The impacts go beyond that, to soil erosion and the disruption of hydrological systems, as well as climate patterns. Deforestation also directly undermines the livelihoods of forest-dwellers – often indigenous tribes who are among the most marginalised and vulnerable people on earth.

Energy use (and abuse) and its atmospheric effects is another global challenge. It requires adjustments mainly by developed countries in order to allow for faster growth in developing countries without further damaging the atmosphere. The objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to achieve the stabilisation in the total stock of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere, before it reaches a level that could result in disruption in the global climate. The move towards climate-friendly economic development will hinge on the extent to which economic growth and energy use can be delinked (see

Observer 221/222, summer 2000: The environment in 2020; see website).


This is a tricky task. High-income countries make more efficient use of energy and may have cleaner technology, but they produce larger total emissions. As poor countries develop, they can also become more energy-efficient – producing more goods and services from the same quantity of energy. But total energy savings from efficiency gains will be more than offset by growth in total consumption. So, if poor countries simply follow the model of the high-income countries today, their total energy use will continue to grow – and with it their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, the policies to reduce global greenhouse gases, such as improving energy efficiency in transport or industry, overlap with those to reduce local pollution. This applies both to rich countries – the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide – and to developing ones. Long term solution to the climate change problem will depend on a radical transformation of energy consumption patterns in both developed and developing countries, away from dependence on fossil fuels. The shift will require political commitment and global co-operation, as well as institutional, technical and social innovation.




OECD, “Development Co-operation and the Response to Kyoto,” OECD and IEA Forum on Climate Change, Paris 1998.

©OECD Observer No 223, October 2000

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