February 29, 2008

Sustainable Development beyond developed countries neo-colonialism: sequencing and co-development

Sustainable development comprehends two important elements:

  1. The importance of meeting today's needs without compromising future generations’ needs.
  2. Three dimensions are crucial: economic development, social equity and the preservation of the environment.

This concept also means that not only developing countries try to follow a path that led to development. In fact, also developed countries try to achieve economic, social and environmental goals, even in a different situation and with different constraints. This is also the idea defended by Anthony Payne (1). The importance for both developing and developed countries of the concept means that, in order to achieve sustainable development, the international system should allow and enable both categories of countries to achieve their development goals. This is the idea of co-development.

Currently sustainable development is the only principle that, in its two dimensions ,can be shared by all the people across the world. For this reason, sustainable development should be considered the principle which should drive actions and decisions at the national, regional as well as global levels. This is far to be achieved because international economy and politics continue to be the realm of power relationships. Furthermore, there is not a real consensus on how to define and how to operationalize it.

What is more, the concept is often used by developed countries to “kick away the ladder” needed to an effective development strategy. For example, by imposing to developing countries free trade ideologically (2) or by constraining to respect some environmental norms. These constraints imposed by developed countries take often the form of a kind of neocolonialism.
Developed countries underline too much the importance of environmental protection in developing countries. However, even if achieving the three dimensions of sustainable development is a crucial goal, a developing country, that by definition is characterized by a lack of resources, both human and financial, should prioritize the goals. In fact, decision-makers and society should achieve hierarchically three fundamental goals.

The first and more important goal is to ensure that a society is creating the wealth needed to reach acceptable living conditions. To reach this goal, in the current historical situation, there is a need to find a path to economic growth (3). Only with this precondition a society can obtain the resources needed to improve or, for developed countries, maintain the level of wellbeing.

Nevertheless, achieving this first goal is not enough to ensure the welfare of a society. In fact, a society should reach a level of social equity too. It matters not only for a normative reason but also to ensure the stability of the society: a precondition to maintain growth and to increase the welfare.

This second goal is not enough to ensure that the well-being of the population will continue to increase. In fact, usually (4) growth creates an important number of environmental issues. These damages are borne by citizens when the main objective is to lift out people of poverty. However, when the level of welfare is enough high, the environmental cost become less bearable by citizens. Is at this moment that a society should invest resources to find solutions to environmental issues.

Of course, it will be better to achieve all these goals together, but due to lack of human and financial resources, this is simply impossible for developing countries. A sequencing is needed. In fact, if we look at the history, developed countries get closer to sustainable development through three stages:

  1. Second half of the 19th century – beginning of the 20th century: industrial revolution with “wild” growth;
  2. Beginning 20th century – 1970: Set up of the welfare state;
  3. 1970 – today: increasing attention to environmental problems.

What I want to say is not that developing countries should not care about environment. In fact, for example, if there is win-win situations between environmental and economic goals, developing countries should adopt such public policies. A developing country should simply avoid environmental policies that limit growth.

This, of course, poses a number of problems for developed countries, particularly the European Union, that really want to achieve number of environmental goals. In order to achieve the co-development objective, developing countries should be allowed and enabled by the international system to follow their path to increase their economic growth and, beyond a level of development, improve social equity. Considering also their historical responsibility, developed countries should do more to preserve environment both in their countries and in developing countries through development cooperation programs and technology transfer that will not limit developing countries’ economic growth. There is some steps in this direction (notably the GEF) but these efforts are far to be enough.


(1) Payne Anthony (2005), The Global Politics of Unequal Development, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
(2) I will handle the trade and development issue in another post.
(3) For an interesting analysis of the elements that explain how a country can start and maintain growth see Rodrik Dani (2007), One economics Many Recipes. Globalization, Institutions and Economic Growth, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
(4) Because usually growth start with some industrialization. However, a growth path based on advanced services will have a smaller environmental impact.

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