Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 1)

Written by Hannah Todd

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming and criticism of aid unabating, governments have begun to increase cooperation between departments towards the creation of a successor to the MDGs – the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), due to be launched next year. Specifically this forges a triangle between economics, development and political strategy that has been lacking from aid and development to date.

Although bilateral aid (passing directly between governments) and multilateral aid (between countries via aid agencies and/or multilateral institutions) dwarfs the charitable and emergency aid of smaller NGOs like Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) it is important that we do not disregard the work of such agencies. It is precisely because smaller organisations have less margin for waste that they are forced to maximise their own efficiency. They thereby gain a better grasp of sustainability and their morals and mechanisms of working should arguably be made more central to the politics of bilateral and multilateral aid distribution.

Organisations such as HART not only help the communities they work with but also strive to engage with the principles and responsibilities surrounding aid and development. The most illuminating lesson I have learnt through working with HART this summer has been that aid is not cold hard cash. Instead, it is a decision. Most importantly, it is a decision that affects the course of a communities’ history. If delivered in the right way, for the right length of time, and in the most appropriate form aid has the potential to lay the foundations for an affluent and peaceful society.

Aid distribution: partners

The way aid is delivered dictates its value. HART exists to support its partners on the ground in eight countries around the world. Many international organisations can only go to locations with the permission of a sovereign government. But because HART’s partners are local, it maintains access to these areas even during times of crisis – when others have been forced to withdraw, either through conflict or because permission is withdrawn by the government. HART has no in-country staff and so if violence breaks out it doesn’t have an obligation to pull its staff out. In other words, HART maintains an access point to societies in need when they are most in need.

HART’s partners know how society works in their country and can achieve things that outsiders cannot. They are both the recipients and distributors of the aid HART sends them and this makes them more able to lay a sustainable foundation for the work that they do. The ‘partner model’ restores local agency and makes HART’s aid a form of private investment albeit without the conditions of repayment. HART’s aid provides the capital for project start-ups, local crisis relief and a range of other initiatives that contribute towards the overall improvement of a community’s standard of living.

This model successfully promotes sustainable development. The relationship is temporary and the supply of aid is withdrawn once the partner has built up their own contacts, thereby enabling them to continue along the path they started with HART’s help.

The unique role aid agencies such as HART play in facilitating this starting point is lending their voice and unique access to international governments that partners on the ground lack. This highlights the importance of the second of HART’s twofold remit: advocacy. Frequently partners move onto bigger funders but it was HART who got their work off the ground and HART who can recommend them as a referee in their applications to larger funders. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Yei, South Sudan, is one such example. Its healthcare clinics and agriculture projects no longer need funding from HART because EPC has grown to the point where it can forge partnerships across the country on its own and teach others, drawing on its now considerable experience.

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Learning

Age of Sustainable Development: Introduction

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

If you are passionate about international development, you’ve probably heard/read the name Jeffrey Sachs more times than you can count. Whether you disagree completely with his proposals or you absolutely adore his ideas and intend to follow his footsteps (see these Foreign Policy articles for overviews of Sachs’ view and his opponents’ views), reading him and judging is probably a given if you want to get into global development.

So, as a form of rite of passage from a development-curious person towards an opinionated development intern, we’ve (that is, Holly and Michelle) decided to take Sach’s new online course “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Coursera.

Part of what attracted me (Michelle) to the course was coherence. Sachs proposes a multidimensional approach for development and yet, he seemed unreachable for a regular student outside of the New York area. Joining the Coursera team shows commitment to the idea of trying to make education more accessible to people around the world, as one of the challenges within the societal dimension.

The course itself has a simple design. The lectures, split into manageable chunks of between ten to fifteen minutes, were interspersed with questions ensuring that any listener would remain focused. Each session is then followed by a quiz, that focuses on what should have been learnt from the lessons, along with building participants’ awareness of information tools such as gapminder.com or data.worldbank.org/indicator. The quiz is designed to encourage the use of both qualitative and quantitative skills, asking you to interpret graphic data and calculate possibilities. Finally, the course website has a forum feature, which allows you to create and respond to threads, opening the possibility of discussion on a particular topic of interest from the lesson with other users/students.

The first session was enjoyable. As enjoyable as looking at shocking statistics about the current state of affairs is, of course. It is true that some of the facts that were introduced were not new to us; however, they served to set the context we will be working on, in and outside the course. An example of the more well known facts with which he opens up the subject were:

  • 7.2 billion people currently inhabit the world, out of which more than 1 billion live in extreme poverty.
  • In a world with greater economic production, the population has risen alongside that – it more than tripled in the 20th century. We are expected to reach 8 billion people by 2024 or 2025.
  • Half of this expanding world population lives in cities, designed to support a certain(…ly far smaller) amount of people. By 2030 the percentage will rise to 70%. An important part of human development will thus depend on sustainable urbanization, smart cities, smart architecture, smarter technological systems, etc.
  • Misguided technological advancement can physically (i.e. environmentally) hurt the earth. Not only are the CO2 emissions affecting the ozone layer, but they affect the chemistry of the ocean, making its water more acidic. The way we put nitrogen based fertilizers into the soil, in such large amounts, changes the normal nitrogen cycle.

This definitely gives you something to think about…

But while all of the technical information was very informative there were two main ideas which showed why the course will be a great time investment. The first one being that Sustainable Development is not only analytical but also a normative for an ethical approach. What is a good society? From this basic question Sachs presents his idea about the triple-bottom-line approach, economy, society, and environment. And, of course, the list of words that compose the ‘development jargon‘ these days: socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, good governance – the list goes on.

The second idea stems from all of the topics presented: at the essence of Sustainable Development is problem solving. A starting point towards defining sensible goals for a crowded, interconnected planet. This problem solving focus is strongly emphasised by Sachs.

If we keep these two ideas in mind while watching the video-lessons, we might actually be able to understand the concept of Sustainable Development objectively. Building on what is said (in, admittedly, Sachs’ well-known perspective) but without limiting ourselves to it.

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