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Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed Countries…Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009

Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed

By Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT (SD) has been evolving for more than 37 years. The 1972
United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, contributed
to this evolution by emphasizing that protection of the human environment is a crucial element in
the development agenda to explore the connection between quality of life and environmental
quality. However, it was not until 1987 that the term “sustainable development” was defined as
“development that can meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability
of future generations to meet their own needs.” 1 This definition established the need for
integrated decision making that is capable of balancing the economic and social needs of the
people with the regenerative capacity of the natural environment. The Brundtland Report also
suggests that creating separately existing environmental institutions is not enough because
environmental issues are an integral part of all development policies. They are crucial to
economic considerations and sector policies and should be integrated as part of energy decisions,
social issues, and other aspects of development work (Franks, 1996). The next milestone, the
Earth Summit-giving equal importance to the environment and development-endorsed Agenda 21,
a program of action governing human activities with an impact on the environment. It also
endorsed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of Forest
Principles (UN, 2002). In addition, in the UN Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto
Protocol, article 4 of the UN Climate Change Convention provides that “the Parties have the right
to, and should, promote development.” The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism is
designed in part to assist participating developing countries “in achieving SD.” At the 2002
World Summit on SD held in Johannesburg, South Africa, heads of state and world leaders
committed to implement Agenda 21 and decided to carry out a plethora of partnerships to
promote SD, which has many aspects, including economic and financial, environmental and
ecological, as well as social. That is why Roseland (2000) shows that the chief focus of SD is on
society, and its aim is to include environmental considerations in the steering of societal change
especially through changes to the way in which the economy functions.

All the efforts demonstrate that the promotion of SD is about visioning these alternative futures
through attitudinal and value changes, policy innovations, political transformations and economic
restructuring, embracing a future that is sustainable. Its challenge is to ensure that society moves
along a social trajectory that avoids both the pathways that lead to a direct deterioration of the
social state and those that lead to a situation from which further progress is impossible; a situation
of inequality depression-the dividend world (Meadowcroft 1999).

Due to the catastrophes in the least developed countries (LDCs), the task of providing an
operational context for the concept of SD and identifying practical policy guidelines for its
realization has never been more urgent. In such regions, policies are being pursued that are
making excessive demand on limited resources and the carrying capacity of fragile eco-systems.
As World Bank (2006) indicates in Rogers et al. (2008), about half the world’s population
subsisted on less than $2 a day in 2002. About 44 percent of all households in Africa and 31
percent of people in South Asia lived below the $1-a-day poverty line. Eighty percent of the
LDCs soils are fragile, 47 % of the land is too dry to support rain-fed agriculture, and average
rainfall varies by 30 to 40 % per annum. In many areas, World Bank (2004) indicates, population

World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987.

Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed Countries…Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009

pressure is pushing farmers onto marginal lands and causing deforestation, severe soil erosion,
and declining productivity. Where environmental abuse leads to loss of arable land, wildlife and
water supplies, and even local climate change, the effects are felt in declining incomes and a
diminishing quality of life to result in chronic poverty.

In the LDCs, the issue of deforestation further illustrates some of the complex linkages between
soil and water in the matter of resource depletion. Degradation or destruction of forests causes
soils to be rapidly diminished in their productive capacity because time does not permit their
restoration and technical remedies are out of the reach. In these countries, the amplitude of food-
drought cycles increases, affecting flood-prone and irrigation-dependent croplands. This is
exacerbated by sedimentation and siltation of irrigation channels, reservoirs, natural lakes, and
offshore waters. What is more, other unwanted consequences arise through, for example, the use
of fertilizer and a substitute fuel, robbing soil of fertility to the extent of an estimated minimum of
20 million tons per annum. Thus, the use, or misuse and overuse, of the total forest resource
negatively affects other natural resources, including soils, water, hydro-power potential, species,
and gene reserves. Shortcomings in the forestry sector will spill over into agriculture, energy,
public health, communications, and fisheries, among other development sectors. Present use
degrades the natural resource base to the detriment of the current generation in subsequent years
and of generations into the indefinite future, questioning SD.

As argued by Boyce (2003), “social and economic inequalities can influence the distribution of
the costs and benefits from environmental degradation and the extent of environmental protection.
When those benefit from environmentally degrading economic activities are powerful relative to
those who bear the costs, environmental protection is weaker than when the reverse is true. The
analysis suggests that socio-economic inequality leads to environmental inequality, which may
consequently affect the extent of environmental quality. This objective has been met through
Target 9 of the UN Millennium Development Goals2, which was launched in 2000 and demands
that environmental conservation should be an integral part of any economic and development
policy, but unsuccessful in effect. In this regard, the LDCs are the focus of attention as they are
thought hey will be unable to meet the targets set until 2015. They are still in poorer conditions in
all aspects. That is why Melnick et al. (2005) highlight the critical importance of achieving
environmental sustainability to meet the MDGs with respect to poverty, illiteracy, hunger, gender
inequality, unsafe drinking water and environmental degradation. They argue that achieving
environmental sustainability requires carefully balancing human development activities while
maintaining a stable environment that predictably and regularly provides resources and protects
people from natural calamities.

According to Rogers et al. (2008), to achieve SD, causes of poverty like resource depletion and
degradation in perpetuity should be tackled. Furthermore, factors of development that leads to
resource depletion, degradation, and climate changes needs to be broken if development is to be
sustainable. UNEP (1995) stresses that poverty must be reduced by meeting basic needs: health,
education, shelter, productive employment, control over common property, and population
management. Similarly, to minimize the environmental and social consequences of development,
a strategic assessment of policies and plans must be under taken. Projects must be assessed for
their impact upon the environment and society as the data on some cross-country indicators of
poverty and environmental change indicate that poor countries are much more dependent on
natural resources as assets than rich countries and the ratio of people to forested land is more than
three times higher in LDCs than in high income countries. The core challenge to the development

“Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the
losses of environmental resources” - Target 9 of the UN’s MDGs.

Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed Countries…Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009

agents, consequently, is to provide productive work and a good quality of life for the existing 2.8
billion people now living on under $2 per day while absorbing the two to three billion people who
will be added to the world’s population in the next 30-50 years. Thus, substantial growth is
needed in output and productivity in LDCs, and improvement in the ecosystems and the socio-
fabric on which development depends (Leach, and Mearns, 1991). Data from the same source
indicate that the ratio of the 20 richest countries to the 20 poorest has doubled in the last 30 years,
and it has doubled not so much because the rich countries got richer, but because the LDCs have
not experienced any growth. Indeed, the growth rate in these poorest countries has been minus
1%. There has been low growth, high conflict, and inequality, which taken together have
undermined development gains. The number of poor people remains unacceptably high. Even if
income is discounted as an accurate indicator of well-being, other measurements, such as
malnutrition, or children under the age of five that are underweight, confirm the number of the
poor—about 900 million people, close to the 1.2 billion that now earn $1 a day. What is even
more alarming is that, of the 33 LDCs, 17 have been engaged either in civil, ethnic, or border
wars since 1990. Such military conflicts bring down development benefits and corrode social
structure. Thus, there is a group of countries that are under stress, are falling behind socially and
economically, and yet have not been at the center of global public attention.

To mention some more examples in LDCs, the adverse impact of environmental change will be
most striking in LDCs because of their high dependence on natural resources. Low-income
families and regions are more vulnerable not only to human-induced environmental hazards but
also to natural disasters and environmental risks. Water scarcity is already a major problem for
the world’s poor, and changes in rainfall and temperature associated with climate change will
likely make this scarcity worse. Crop yields are expected to decline in most tropical and
subtropical regions as rainfall and temperature patterns change with a changing climate (IPCC
2001b: 84). The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that land suitable for rain-fed
agriculture may shrink by 11 percent in developing countries by 2080 due to climate change
(FAO, 2005: 2). There is also some evidence that disease vectors such as malaria-bearing
mosquitoes will spread more widely (IPCC 2001: 455). Global warming may bring an increase in
severe weather events like cyclones and torrential rains. The inadequate construction and exposed
locations of poor people’s dwellings often make poor people the most likely victims of such
disasters. The countries in these regions do not have the capacity to mitigate the problems by their
own. Due to higher surface temperatures on land and increasing water stress, by 2025, as much as
two-thirds of the world population, much of it in the developing world, may be subjected to
moderate to high water stress. Estimates of the effects of climate change on crop yields are
predominantly negative for the poor countries in tropics, even when adaptation and direct effects
of CO2 on plant processes are taken into consideration. From another angle, another great
challenge associated with the global task of SD is without doubt the strong and regionally very
uneven growth of the world’s population. It seems that this threat comes more from the
developing countries. Some 97% of the population growth will occur in LDCs (DGVN, 1992).
The extent of population growth and the unequal spatial distribution of the human race will
trigger off or reinforce global change and may cause strong emigrational pressures. This has an
important impact on food production and food security in LDCs where food production barely
keeps up with population growth.

As Gupta and Asher (1998) indicate, the key factors governing SD are poverty, population,
pollution, participation, policy and market failures, and prevention and management of disasters.
According to estimates made by the UNDP, the wealthiest 20% of the global population earns
82.7% of the total global income. This bracket also accounts for 81.2% of world trade, 94.6% of
commercial lending, 80.6% of domestic savings, and 80.5% of domestic investment. By contrast,
the share of total global income of the poorest 20% is a mere 1.4%. Their contribution to world

Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed Countries…Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009

trade (1.0%) and commercial lending (0.2%) is statistically negligible. Rogers et al. (2008) also
state that most of the poor live in South Asia (550 million), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa and
then the Middle East and North Africa. A recent study (Cavanagh and Anderson, 2004) indicates
that there are now 497 billionaires in the world, whose collective wealth is greater than the
combined wealth of the poorest half of humanity of over three billion people. According to UN
documents, the number of millionaires in the world has soared to 7.7 million, and the number of
poor people earning less than a dollar per day increased from 1.1 billion (in 1992) to 1.3 billion in
2004. A more recent (2007) UN report says, the number of millionaires in the world now stands
at 9.5 million. The global income distribution and disparities drawn up by UNDP in 1992 and
1999 Human Development Report (HDR) suggests that global income inequality has worsened
since then.

Rogers et al. (2008) mentions that the share of world resources devoted to helping the poor has
declined for decades and is a tiny fraction of what the US has repeatedly promised, and failed to
give. Except for a few developed countries of the world, most industrialized countries have failed
to fulfill their global commitment of 0.7% of their GDP for international assistance to reduce
poverty. Current resource allocation for addressing the plight of the poor by the US is only 0.15%
of its GDP. According to Sachs, the current generation can choose to end poverty provided that
we are able to mobilize resources from the developed world, in accordance with commitments
made at the Earth Summit held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and reiterated by the World Summit on
SD held in 2002 in Johannesburg. However, there are pessimist views that surround action
failures and genuine responses for achievement.

So, where is the sustainability after three decades of SD conventions and ten years of the MDGs?
What should be emphasized taking into account these concerns?

To conclude, this brief paper has tried to touch upon the core concerns in SD in LDCs. The
discussion highlights that the most serious indicator of losing the way on the path to a sustainable
future would be an increase in absolute levels of poverty in the world, increasing gaps between
the rich countries and the poor countries. Increased polarization between the rich and the poor is
leading to increased terrorist violence, failed states, further deterioration of the environment, and
mass migrations for economic survival and environmental reasons. What is more, population
growth and urbanization, deforestation, food and water shortages and global warming are likely
to call the sustainability of the planet into question. Hence, it is believed that the most serious
missions for both civil society and nation states is to establish the best institutional, policy and
governance frameworks that will enable societies to move forward on the contentious issues of
global resource sharing. These are absolute prerequisites for moving the planet to a sustainable
state by the end of the next century. The need to make micro-macro policy links between local
level rural livelihoods and national level poverty reduction efforts represented by Poverty
Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) is also very crucial in the LDCs. Theses plans and realities
call for more actions and genuine collaborations from all the international governing bodies to
save the world from the catastrophes that the world may face if the problems persist for the
coming 30 to 40 years, leave SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT.

Sustainability of Sustainable Development in Least Developed Countries…Berhanu Gebremichael, UNTN, SLD, 2009


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