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Sustainable development in developing countries by Rodrigo Velarde

Posted by: | April 6, 2011 Comments Off on Sustainable development in developing countries by Rodrigo Velarde |

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[1] Sustainable development is then a very broad concept that involves two words: development and sustainability.

For a long time and even now at some degree, there are people who believed that sustainable development is an oxymoron because it is impossible to reach development without polluting. Fortunately, there are other people who have proven that there is a way to reach economic development in a sustainable way.

This concept solves the issue on whether those words (development and sustainability or environment) can go together. And solving that issue is important because developing countries can’t excuse their unsustainable practices in order to reach development. That was basically China’s argument in Copenhagen[2] when they said that the US had its chance to grow up by polluting the world and that is now other countries’ turn.

Since the tension between environment and development is not necessarily present all the time, a country, specially a developing country, does not have to choose between growing up economically and preserving the environment. Actually, the other alternative to development is stagnation and that is not sustainable at all.[3]

Sustainable development is the way to reach development without causing a harm or damage to the environment[4]. Having that concept of sustainable development, we understand that pure economic development needs to have some limits because the achievement of sustainable development requires the integration of not only its economic, but also its environmental and social components at all levels.[5] If a society focus in only the economic component, then it would be a society whose gross domestic product gets higher, but also one that destroy the environment or one that disrespect their population’s rights.

Those three components of sustainability have to be present in any decision process relating to development for it to be sustainable development.

Of course there are people who believe that there is no reason for worrying about saving resources for future generations or stopping any kind of development. They think that our ancestors did not care about us when they developed, otherwise we would not have the standard of living we do now days. They also think that resources we consider crucial now may have no relevance in the future.[6] But recent studies prove that there will be serious consequences if we keep developing the way we have been.

Given that development is not only good but also necessary, the questions remaining would be how to achieve this development in a way that allow future generation to keep using the resources we use today.

Since many developing countries’ growth has a lot to do with the investment of private companies (usually foreign) that have operations in their territory, sustainable development should be regulated either by national or international law. But national laws in terms of sustainability are not very well implemented in developing countries yet, and international laws have a severe limitations if not agreed by the parties so there is a need for a new approach on how to achieve the goals of sustainability in developing countries that could make them complain with certain standards to assure that their development is actually sustainable. 

One possible solution is certification, a system of certification that assures that companies all over the word comply with international standards on sustainable development. Of course this system calls for standards: required or agreed levels of quality or attainment[7]. These standards would be minimum requirements that companies will need to meet in order to obtain a certification as a sustainable business.

There will have to be an international institution that gives this certification and that put pressure in the most industrialized countries for requiring their companies to get certificated if they want to take their businesses overseas.

The problem is that in a globalized world it is very hard to come up with standards that are going to fit every country or even every industry (since some industries are more protected than others). Even thought it might be possible, and in some cases even recommended, to reach a standard for companies all over the world to become sustainable, there does not seem to be a way of reaching a standard that is going to be applicable for the whole world, considering the different needs existing. It is maybe time to think about developing international standards for areas or even continents.

It seems almost ridiculous to require meeting with the same environmental standards two different companies, one located in Switzerland and the other one in China. How could people agree in a standard of sustainability when the concept of sustainability means many different things to different people in the first place, and a large part of humanity around the world still lives without access to basic necessities?[8] The answer is they probably can’t.

The only possible solution would be to have different standards of sustainability for different areas, but all of them being part of the same system for it not to loose strength. The world needs a certification system that sets the standards according on the area where the company is located, because helping will vary depending on the needs of the communities of where the companies are located.

Most of the social responsibility reports from American companies are made thinking about the needs of Americans, but those reports do not always take into consideration that those companies have operations and a great impact in other countries too.

An example of a company that makes efforts to do something for the sustainable development of communities is Nike, but they might not just do what is really needed in a given country. Nike’s asserts[9] that the company is helping communities in Honduras by training unemployed workers to upgrade their technical skills so they can compete for jobs. Well maybe that help is not really needed. Maybe the problem is lack of jobs and opportunity instead of lack of technical skills to compete for jobs. Maybe the community does not even have electricity. It just seems like there are many other things that Nike could do with the same resources and some information provided. Of course Nike does not have any obligation (morality aside) to help people in any different way, but their sustainability policy alone with proper international standards set up could just be enough to canalize their help in a more efficient way.

There are some international standards that provide certification, such as ISO 14000 standards. ISO 14000 is a voluntary environmental management system[10] that provides customers with a reasonable assurance that the performance claims of a company are accurate. However, this standard scheme does not specify environmental performance goals. This means that there are not goals set up for the companies to comply with. It just allows the companies to set their own goals, taking into account the effects it has on the environment, and the views of its stakeholders.[11]

Moreover, even thought ISO 14000 introduces the topic of sustainable development, its main focus is on environmental issues. There is no ISO for sustainable development that gives certification to companies that comply with any international standard.

ISO 26000 refers to sustainable development, but it is not a management system standard as oppose of ISO 14000; it is not appropriate for certification purposes[12]

There is a need for international standards on sustainable development then, standards that should focus on specific communities so they take in consideration specific needs and the best way to achieve sustainable development under the specific circumstances.

Sustainability should be measure depending on the characteristics of the community and not forgetting the social, environmental and economic components. If we take the Andean people who live around the mining companies for example, we should take into consideration that they lack electricity, cars, and even proper houses, that they have a high rate of mortality and illiteracy, and that their economic activity is so slow that probably do not pollute at all. The desired standard for the sustainable development projects on those areas have to be more focus on meeting basic necessities. What would be the point on giving away a soccer field for the children to recreate when there are more important needs to be met?

It is important to notice that a system of certification is not going to make a big difference unless there is a way to enforce it. Since the proposal is for a voluntary certification through an international institution, it would be difficult to achieve a enforcement method. The best way to force companies to get certified then is to make certification attractive to them. A way to make this certification attractive to the future costumer would be publicity. If this international institution makes available to the world the information of which companies are certified and which companies are not, it is going to make companies want to be in that list. There is definitely a green market out there and it is making companies work in social responsibilities reports to attract green costumers. The proposal is for this certification system to work under the same basis. 

[1] http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42-187.htm

[2] http://www.china.org.cn/environment/Copenhagen/2010-01/19/content_19268108.htm

[3] http://www.libertyindia.org/events/simon_lecture_feb02.pdf

[4] http://www.articlesbase.com/nature-articles/sustainable-development-for-developing-countries-174628.html


[6] http://www.libertyindia.org/events/simon_lecture_feb02.pdf

[7] http://www.wordreference.com/definition/standard

[8] http://www.globalissues.org/issue/367/sustainable-development


[10] A certification system is one that sets up standards and gives you a certificate that you meet those standards whereas a management system is one that assure costumer that you comply with your own goals.

[11] http://www.iisd.org/greenstand/default.htm

[12] http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail?csnumber=42546

under: General, International

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