Are We Moving Towards a Sustainable Future? Reflections from the SID World Congress

'We are living in a moment of uncertainty and we need to ask the right questions and try find the right answers'.

by Angela Zarro

We are living in a moment of uncertainty, when we need to ask the right questions and find the right answers, SID President Jan Pronk said at the opening speech of the SID World Congress 2011 on July 29. Is the current crisis a consequence of a development process that has inherently lead to a widening gap between those who have the resources and those who stay behind? Or is it due to policy mistakes made by individual national countries? Do we need to review the concept of development itself or is it the world system in disarray?

The 2011 edition of SID triennial congress, organized by the Washington Chapter, put in place an interesting set of dialogues among world leaders and development experts where in fact many questions and efforts to debate these issues unfolded intensively during the three days.

One novelty for a SID world event was the large presence of managers and CEOs coming from the corporate and banking sector, in addition to the main representatives (both governmental and non) of the international development community. Whether or not their presence could be read as a sign of a new genuine interest in a more development oriented approach to economic growth remains to be seen. The role of private sector, capital investment and public private partnerships was in general emphasized as a viable way for development. In contrast with this, the urgent need for radical change of the actual system, in order to provide serious answers to the ecological and humanitarian disasters taking place, clearly emerged.

Many participants claimed we cannot do business as usual. This is precisely where the major divergence shaped up at the SID Congress, between those supporting the private sector as a key solution to alleviate poverty and those warning out against the dangers laying behind it. Certainly such divergency provides scope for a nuanced critical analysis of the today's uncertainty.


New development models....?

Many participants seemed to agree that there are new players and new partners in development: corporations would be the new actors and middle income countries the new partners. Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Barak Obama, stressed that the world is not divided anymore in beneficiaries and donors, but made of many different partners.

The emerging markets represent the half of the global growth, and we need to understand what role EU, Japan and the US are going to play in such a context and at the same time how developing countries and emerging markets can work together in a different way from the past, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said.

There is an on-going development experience, providing an additional model to the US, Europe, and South Korea, and which is being shared among countries of the South. Many of these countries are still in transition in between being successful emerging countries and still trying to make their political framework. This tells us that partnerships among countries are not only about money, but also about exchange of knowledge, Mulyani Indrawati, WB Regional Managing Director pointed out.

However is this development what we have fathered so far? Or is the world still divided into developed and underdeveloped countries? UNDP former director Thierno Kane provocatively asked, quoting Wolfgang Sachs.

New partnerships vs old concerns

Gayle Smith remarked that development is a renovated interest of the US, as part of the economic and security national agenda. It is a priority now for the US to figure out how to invest in the political or economic changes which are on going in many countries (ex. the Arab Spring) and how to bring private capital.

However, one can argue that if development remains only an economic and security interest, and private corporations become the key player and the main funding source of development, how can we assure that partnerships among different countries are equitable, balanced and development driven? How can we ensure that economic growth is inclusive and sustainable?

It is completely unsustainable to put in place a development agenda without domestic resources, Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director, warned out, in response to a private investment corporation which was emphasizing the need to rely more on private capital in development as the key solution to reduce poverty. If the private sector requires stability, coherence and transparency, on the other side, private sector shall respect rules and legislations and be socially responsible so that citizens can feel that the relations between the private and the public is working and is advantageous to them as well. A strong leadership and a good action plan are crucial in order to ensure equity and financial accountability.

Not everything can be done by the private sector, Jan Pronk pointed out. Public-private partnerships are good to explore but can also provide ground to corruption and nepotism, if not regulated. Relying only on the private sector will also lead to a situation where public money which are fundamental to guarantee people's access to basic needs, public goods and livelihoods, are not made available anymore.

Sustainability...of what?

We can't do business as usual!

In 20 years Asian workers will make the 40% of the global consuming spending with a big portion of their population moving to middle class. An irreversible scenario of increasing demand, high prices and raising income will shape up. Resources are and will be scarce and if we keep doing business as usual, Africa, the major world resource reserve, will pay the highest price of climate change, Kandeh Yumkella, Director General of UNIDO, explained.

In 20 years, he added, the new middle class of Africa will not be keen anymore to serve only as the world resource supply. We have told these people to democratise and liberalise in order to be able to live like us and now we cannot tell them 'please slow down'. Africa could rather become the new production and growth center of the world, if long term actions of poverty reduction and creation of wealth are made. In order to do so, Africa doesn't need -and doesn't want!- only basket driven rural solutions. The Arab Spring is clearly saying that these people want real jobs, freedom of expression, infrastructures, education.

Sanjay Reddy, professor of economics at the New School for Social Research in New York, said: We need to go beyond business as usual and technical discussion. Relying only on economic growth as a possible solution is not sustainable. Now more than ever, we need to decouple the structural thinking according to which resource intensive economic growth, by reducing unemployment, is the only solution to development. Thus the question is: how do we move to a different thinking that decouple economic growth? Moreover, Thierno Kane said: if progress and development means catching up, what model are we catching up? How do we really create a new agenda?

Development and sustainability are not simply about making sustainable investments whose results or changes are likely to be seen 20 years later. The concept itself of sustainable development, Sanjay Reddy explained, introduces the question: sustainability of what? Why the concept of sustainability has remained so far at level of abstraction without reaching new achievements? The sustainable development agenda has crystallized for too long on the economic pillar which has ended up in the climate change discourse; on the other hand the human development agenda has narrowed down on a limited (although important) number of issues (health and education) and missed lot of the broader concept of citizenship and participation, SID Managing Director, Stefano Prato pointed out. The risk is that the concept of sustainability remains an empty mantra, just a slogan, without making sense of which development paths are to be desired and which not, Sanjay Reddy added.

The Arab Spring for instance, Thierno Kane argued, is telling us that we need to go back to a more participatory democracy that implies the possibility for people to say what they would like to see and hold a system of control and freedom of interfering. This is also about sustainability. Moreover, not only we need to look at citizenship and democracy at national level, we also need to rethink at the entire governance system of the UN.

A new substantial agenda for sustainable development, a growth that is inclusive and equitable, and a renewed governance are some of the essential postulates to go forward. Partnerships across countries or across sectors, need to be development driven. This does not mean we should get rid of growth. As Tariq Banuri, Director of the Division for Sustainable Development, said we rather need to understand how to restore growth, keeping in mind that those countries who have ignored the Washington Consensus, seem to have performed better than others. Should we perhaps start from here and not repeat the experience of the 70s and 80s?


We all agree on the need for new interlocutors in development across countries and sectors. We all agree that there is no a unique model anymore. We are in a new phase, where new technologies for instance play an important role. However let's not think that everything new is good. Poverty reduction must remain the highest priority and with it inequalities must be addressed urgently. Jan Pronk stated during the final remarks at the closure of the congress.

Provision of goods, services and jobs can do a lot, however economic growth has its own limits.The capacity of the market to provide satisfaction to all human needs has its own limits; physical resources are limited. Let's not forget, Jan Pronk also said, that development is not only about economics, there is a political dimension that can not be undermined. Given today's uncertainty and scarcity of resources, people in the North might take the decision to make a step backward, not only in terms of growth but also in their use of power. An economic and military slowdown of northern countries, although a difficult decision, would imply a different and perhaps more equal distribution of wealth and power worldwide.


Other views about the SID Congress can be found at the following links:

Economic development living millions behind, by Kanya d'Almeida, in Terraviva/IPS

1000 conversations later, by Wendy Harcourt, in taketheconversationfurther

Gender equality in a changing world. SID World Congress, day 1 part II, by Emily Cavan

Top development leaders gather for SID World Congress, in Devex



Photos: SID Tanzania Chapter at SID World Congress 2011, in Michuzi blog.

Video: Amb. Juma Mwapachu speaks on the SID World Congress (in English and Swahili), in Michuzi blog

Video: Interview with Jan Pronk, President of SID International Governing Council (YouTube/ SIDWashington)



The author of the cartoon is Masoud, from Tanzania. The image belongs to a series made in Washington D.C. during the SID Congress, which will be published soon on the SID Forum.


Cover photo: Sean Rogers 1/flickr