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Development in an unstable world

Baring Foundation Seminar on Refugees and Displaced People. 20 January 2005.

You have given me a challenging theme. I do not have to tell you that we all live in an unstable world. Those at this conference know it better than most. Later you will be going into 3 specific aspects:

  1. building capacity when civil society has broken down;
  2. the role of NGOs when government is weak;
  3. international advocacy or engagement at the grassroots.

I can do little better than look at the background. First what does development mean? Or better still sustainable development? The best known definition comes from the Brundtland Commission of 1987.

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

But that begs as many questions as it answers. I have a suggestion of my own:

"Durable change for the better while protecting the earth we inherit and the earth we bequeath".

Or a sound bite from Robert Gray:

"Treating the world as if we intended to stay".

We should also be clear what it does not mean: following the methods of industrialization espoused in the West (countries all in totally different geographical circumstances). Instead it should mean something specific to each country or regions' resources and culture.

This is of course easier said than done. The fundamental question is why we should promote change at all. In short what has gone wrong? If we and future generations are indeed to stay, we must look first at the condition of the Earth. A periodical visitor from space would find more change in its surface in the last two hundred years than in the preceding two thousand, and more change in the last twenty years than in the preceding two hundred. As was suggested in the title of a recent book, there is something New Under the Sun.

There are nine main problems:

  1. Our success as an animal species has led to an incredible increase in human numbers;
  2. Deterioration of soils, depletion of resources, and accumulation of wastes;
  3. Demand for fresh water, and pollution of both fresh and salt water;
  4. Destruction of biodiversity; species extinctions; and the unknowable effects. There is a telling quotation from WWF:
    "All species are doing a job, even if we don't know what the job is. Removing a species from the ecosystem is like removing a rivet from an aeroplane without knowing its function. Nobody would want to fly in that aeroplane, but that is what we are doing to our environment."
  5. Changes in atmospheric chemistry:
  6. Ozone depletion and UV radiation;
  7. Climate change with its devastating potential effects, including global dimming;
  8. Sea level rise;
  9. Impacts of technology.

As the Astronomer Royal has said recently, the chances of civilization surviving the century should only be rated at 50 percent due to:

All these whether alone or together constitute threats to the resilience of societies. It is not a cheerful picture, above all in the countries in which many of you are working.

In his new book Collapse, Jared Diamond has undertaken some fascinating case studies on why in the past some societies have collapsed and others have succeeded. He underlines that there is no determinism or inevitability. To the factors I have mentioned, he adds conflicts between nations, tribes and communities; trade issues and interdependencies; and ability to recognize problems, keep the long-term in view, and take the necessary action in time. The human factor is well illustrated by the differences between what has happened to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, on the same island of Hispaniola.

What then are we trying to achieve? In general terms the Millennium Development Goals of 2000 are useful. These are to:

  1. eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. improve maternal health
  3. achieve universal primary education
  4. combat HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  5. promote gender equality
  6. ensure environmental sustainability
  7. reduce child mortality
  8. develop a global partnership for development

But for those working on the ground, something a lot more specific is required. From my experience as Permanent Secretary of what is now DfID, certain grassroots priorities always stood out. The need to:

This general approach from outside is of course fraught with difficulties, and you will all have experienced them. But I have found, for example, that micro-enterprises as Seeds for Africa; Send a Cow/Heifer International; elimination of school fees and uniforms; insecticide-treated bednets for children; local water improvements schemes (SAFAD); and micro-credit schemes (eg Grameen) in the Year of Micro-credit are more popular and effective than many macro-aid schemes, which can, all too easily, be disguised export promotion from industrialized countries, where money can get into the wrong hands.

Of course increased aid from industrial countries is welcome but money is not the only issue. We also need partnership schemes of the kind discussed at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002. The international response to the tsunami disaster shows what can be done. Now we have the Millennium project report on world poverty under the chairmanship of Jeff Sachs: among other things, this called for better coordination of aid efforts, more discrimination in favour of the poor, a great deal more aid, lowering of trade barriers by industrial countries, support for public investment, particularly in infrastructure, more transparent government, etc.

There should also be wider recognition of the threats to world wellbeing of the kind I mentioned at the beginning. How aid is promised and delivered - if it is - is another major issue: I am suspicious of talk about debt relief and new Marshall plans until I can see the small print.

A final word on one of the themes of this seminar: refugees and displaced people. Let me refer to the work done "Environmental Exodus" some years ago. The central requirement from nearly all points of view is to help create conditions in which refugees can return or stay at home. This in turn raises demographic problems. We must not be shy about promoting population restraint. The key factors are the status of women; education; care in old age; and availability of contraception. All well demonstrated in what has happened in Bangladesh. At present there are accompanying problems of widening gaps between age structures in different parts of the world, and between rich and poor within and between countries.

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