Sustainable Human Development: Searching for a new agenda

The crisis the world has been undergoing in recent months is indicative of the depth of the limitations to the dominant development approach as not only a financial crisis, but also the climate, energy, food and care crisis.

by Stefano Prato

The world has changed greatly since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, close to twenty years ago. The crisis the world has been undergoing in recent months is indicative of the depth of the limitations to the dominant development approach as not only a financial crisis, but also the climate, energy, food and care crisis. This unprecedented situation demands that there be new solutions found in order to return to and make real the vision of sustainable human development.

The terms 'human development' and 'sustainable development' emerged in the early 1990s. Major UN conferences in the 1990s beginning with UNCED in Rio in 1992 drew global attention to the need for people-centered and environmentally sustainable development that was conscious of limits to growth and new ways of doing development. However, the two terms soon took on divergent meanings and found significant obstacles in their implementation.

It is generally accepted that sustainable development calls for the convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity and environmental protection. However, despite the visionary nature of the sustainable development concept, implementation was largely centered around the search for politically acceptable compromises between economic growth and environmental sustainability, leaving the social dimension to play a relatively narrow role. Yet the concept remained elusive and implementation proved difficult: unsustainable trends largely continued and sustainable development did not manage to find the political entry points to foster real progress. As a result, climate change became the de facto proxy for the implementation of the sustainable development agenda, while the related negotiating frameworks did not offer an appropriate space for the much necessary broader strategic discussions.

In parallel though intertwined spheres, the human development concept emerged twenty years ago as the result of a conceptual redefinition of the development agenda that aimed at generating countervailing conceptual and political power against the mantra of economic growth and infrastructural development. Such conceptual rethinking was generated by an alliance between key intellectuals, civil society networks and like-minded people within the UN. A lot of good progress can be reported since then.

However, despite the much stronger focus on health and education than in the past, today many multilateral and bilateral agencies embrace a concept of human development that embodies a paradigm of market-centered individual economic empowerment. This is distant from the people-centered development approach (with its strong emphasis on community self-reliance, gender equity and sustainable livelihoods) that many civil society and community-based organizations struggled to promote. Hence a gap within that original political alliance: a conceptual, strategic and partnership gap. Once again, implementation narrowed the agenda down to common denominators whose political significance can be seriously questioned.

As the world begins preparations for another Earth Summit in 2012, there is an urgent need to bridge the conceptual and strategic gaps between the sustainable development and the human development agendas, by also breaking the narrow interpretations of their respective current implementation frameworks. In order to contribute to this overall objective, the Society for International Development (SID) aims to organize a strategic planning session in the context of the upcoming SID World Congress, to be held in Washington, DC, USA, on July 29-31, 2011. Such a session will aim to:

  • Generate the initial outline of a possible conceptual framework for sustainable human development as bridge between the sustainable development and human development agendas;
  • Define a research and policy dialogue initiative that might be undertaken by the SID network globally in the lead up to the 2012 Earth Summit;
  • Catalyze the potential engagement of key potential partners in such a research and policy dialogue initiative, including possible funders.

* Read the follow-up article by Sanjay G. Reddy, Sustainable Human Development: Beyond the Concept

Stefano Prato is Managing Director of the Society for International Development and he is based at the International Secretariat in Rome.

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