Choosing Sustainable Development

solar grid an aid to international sustainable development

The local emphasis of sustainable development discussions differs, depending on whether we're considering Copenhagen, a remote village in Africa, a suburb in the U.S., or the reported 500,000 people living in a large cemetery in Cairo.

This particular page lays out in brief our idea on how sustainable development in the global South depends on a society's political organization, aspirations, values, and housing and economic patterns. A unique approach based on the assets of each nation--and a very strong emphasis on education of all classes and both genders--will be the route to a better life through sustainable development.

Along the way we will offer a few ideas about how developed nations can contribute to and learn from sustainable development world-wide, so if you identify more with Copenhagen and American suburbs, please keep reading.

Why Is This Important?

Recently we were asked why we even write about this topic on a community development website. We have a simple and straightforward answer.  Sustainable development is important to community development because sustainability emphasizes long-term aspects of what we do today. 

Specifically, if we do not want our community development projects to be temporary improvements to our geographic communities that quickly fade, we need to think about sustainable development. If we do not want our community development successes in the developed world to feel like hollow victories when we look at tremendous suffering in developing countries, we need to devote some of our community compassion to thoughts about how the developed and the developing worlds will learn from one another’s experiences.

Wherever you are, being able to create and maintain a viable infrastructure (which means the delivery mechanisms for transportation, communication, energy, electricity, and internet), built environment, economy, and fair and caring social system is key to preventing the waste of human life and talent, renewable and non-renewable natural resources, and natural systems of our world.

What Developing and Developed Nation Communities Have in Common

This page doesn’t seem complete if we don’t mention that regardless of whether you are in London or an African village, there are some commonalities in community development, and therefore in the sub-category of sustainable development.  Let’s list two:

1. A village-first or neighborhood-first approach works. Wherever you are, people are more likely to be mobilized on their own behalf on a very local level where they can understand conditions in detail, see the results of their labors, and develop friendships with those who do community work alongside them.

2. Advances in technology, particularly low-cost, decentralized approaches discussed below, have made it easier for a village or neighborhood to control its own destiny on topics formerly requiring city-wide, large-scale, or even nation-scale solutions. But taking advantage of that technology, whether you are an urban neighborhood or a remote village, requires these “soft skills”:

  • Community organizing. An interested population ready to mobilize in its own self-interest can now do plenty to increase its odds of having good internet access, electricity, food security, and an accessible clean water supply. Some of these may require an outside investment at the outset, but properly set up, the population then can control operation and maintenance.  The neighborhood or village remains the most important unit in solving these problems.  Reorganize your tribe if it doesn’t work for you. Look beyond yourselves to find examples and prototypes of how to organize yourselves. Become less reliant on a hierarchy; you need everyone’s brains and ambition.
  • Working smarter, not harder. Look for practical approaches that your village or neighborhood can afford and can maintain organizationally. While we noted just a paragraph ago that imitation of the example of others can be helpful, make sure you are not following some model that really will not work in your situation.  The sweeping generalizations of a national government or the United Nations might be helpful, but they are no substitute for learning about the likely results of particular actions and then working to create your own solutions.  As an example, don’t look to the Gates Foundation to send you cash every month to support childhood survival; understand what their research has uncovered and then act on your own to find a local solution. (Read their 2017 annual letter here.) 
  • Depending on yourselves, not a national government or the international NGO community.  Now of course this is not an absolute, and you can’t solve civil war, an overwhelming refugee situation, terrorism and extremism, or even some economic problems at the local level, no matter how hard you think and how much you organize and mobilize everyone.  But solving what you can reasonably manage often creates an upward spiral of good things for your community.

Smart Sustainable Development for Developing Nations

It often requires real effort for people who grew up in industrialized and wealthy nations to be satisfied with simple solutions based on what is at hand.  However, people in less wealthy cultures are often ingenious at using what they have. For instance, they could easily envision that an abundance of wood and debris floating down the river could be used as biomass to generate fuel. 

Cultural preservation can be very compatible with sustainable development, if both goals are kept in mind while programs and policies are designed.  For example, preserving the culture, as well as supporting the welfare of the plants and animals around them, seems natural to most indigenous peoples. Yes, complexity multiplies when there are numerous goals and objectives, but culture and development need not be regarded as incompatible if leaders are willing to be vocal about the importance of environmental sustainability.

A key principle is using the smartest technology and least disruptive intervention possible. If people are suffering from extreme poverty, disease, war, and lack of education and economic opportunity, it's time to choose strategically what will be sustainable and not attempt to imitate everything that Europe, Japan, and North America have done on their way to a middle class, democratic society. Where sanitation, adequate nutrition, telephone, electricity, internet, and connecting roads are missing, it is important to use the least expensive, easiest to maintain, and most locally available materials to get the job done, regardless of whether the sequence of Western development is followed.

In fact, leapfrogging over steps taken by developed nations to arrive at sustainability has become common in the developing world. We cite just three examples, electricity generated and stored very locally instead of at large power plants, cell phones as opposed to land line development, and internet access through cell phones rather than desktops. Since electricity is critical to the other two, let’s look more closely at that, just to provide some more concrete examples.

Solar panels and microgrids, and less commonly wind turbines, are providing electricity to individual homes and villages where there is no electricity. Still nearly 20 percent of the world’s population does not have electricity. Solar-powered access to lights, televisions, and charging mechanisms for cell phones are making possible better education (since students can study at night), and better understanding of and communication with the outside world through understanding the news of the world and taking advantage of internet-based services and information.

When a village can receive just one cell phone and keep it charged, farmers can learn about weather and markets, and understand more about crops and agricultural methods that can succeed in their location under changing global weather patterns. Refugee information for NGOs and families searching for a lost member can be provided. Ordinary people can begin to track what their government is doing.

Electricity-based cooking can reduce the health-threatening practice of using biomass for cooking, leading to indoor air pollution with real health consequences. Electric refrigeration is an important global issue because much food rots before it can reach the people who need to consume it.

Electricity-driven improvements in education and information also are enhancing health outcomes. For instance, when women are educated, AIDS tends to decrease and vaccination of children increases. Many clever cell phone health apps have been devised.  For example, people can use SMS technology to find out if the drugs they have been given are counterfeit in a part of the world where nearly a third of the drugs are not authentic.

Lesson To Be Learned About Sustainable Development

As human beings we borrow behaviors from one another all the time, and often this is the way we learn.  Some cultural achievements of the North are very valuable--including traditions that increase individual motivation to do good and to take responsibility for what happens in society. These elements include democracy and its supporting pillars of universal education and the drive toward equality, property ownership, and ability of individuals to save money in an institution that contributes toward a pool of capital that can be used for investment.

But this does not mean that the developing nations should repeat all of the environmental and economic mistakes of the northern half of the globe on their way to more equality, more voice, and more prosperity for all.

The use of personal automobiles to travel everywhere, air pollution, water pollution, manufacturing without any thought to the damage done to the earth throughout the life cycle of the product, and burdensome individual debt based on competitive consumption are better left to history.

More and more, the international community is discussing broad global issues and themes. We are encouraged that the latest UN 15-year vision document, Sustainable Development Goals, involved considerably more input from ordinary folks than the previous iteration.  Yet political leaders must continue to be engaged. To that end, every year the United Nations convenes a High-Level Political Forum, which consists of voluntary reports on an extensive network of programs and activities that you may want to follow if you are interested in this topic. Each year the presentations center on a theme; in 2018 the topic will be transformation toward sustainable and resilient societies.

We hope local and national leaders from both emerging market countries and advanced economies can learn to listen to one another’s history, values, and dreams.

Three Ways Developed Countries Can Contribute to Worldwide Sustainability

1.    Remedy the excesses of a consumption-oriented society.

In the so-called developed countries, high levels of consumption of both natural resources and manufactured products have produced an economy and a lifestyle that may not be able to be sustained over a long period of time.

It is time for nations and NGO’s to bravely accept the responsibility of reducing the habit of throwing away valuable resources. For example, over-consumption produces a huge volume of solid waste, and waste reduction becomes an important strategy. To repair past damage, it is critical to address brownfields, or sites that are suspected of being polluted, to repair past damage.

To move into the future, there must be a culture of recycling buildings rather than building everything new. Urban sprawl must be curtailed so that the amount of energy consumed for transportation and the amount of "stuff" required to build out to extreme edges of town can be lessened.  We must promptly roll back community development mistakes a soon as they are recognized.  As examples, we can address one-dimensional suburbia with a suburban retrofit. Or we can remove freeways in downtowns.

Individual and community efforts in energy conservation and smart use of water resources also become important in the context of societies with advanced economies and middle classes accustomed to consumption.

Sustainable development at its core means being able to envision extending an adequate standard of living for many generations into the future. If a lifestyle uses natural resources at too rapid a pace, it's time for different choices. By rediscovering habits of living that use renewable resources rather than finite ones, the so-called developed countries can leave more natural resources in place for future generations, and demonstrate a viable path forward for emerging economies.

2.    Harness the power of innovation research to create new ways to provide technology, energy, adequate food systems, and prevention or curing of diseases.

Universities, foundations, and individual communities in developed countries should focus attention on creating very low-cost solutions to providing electricity, phone,  internet, and public services everywhere. Such an emphasis would benefit not only developing countries, but also the more complex societies where the research and development is taking place. For example, decentralized ways of generating and distributing electricity would be helpful to African villages, but also could create less risk of huge electrical grids being wiped out by terrorism or natural disaster.

Currently projects in urban farming, vertical farms, rooftop agriculture, and the like are fashionable and often highly successful in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. This interest in local food production might identify new agricultural techniques, such as hydroponics, that are feasible in parts of Africa and elsewhere that have suffered from soils being degraded and desert conditions accentuated. 

The learning should go in both directions, by the way. For example, identification, training, and support of a community health worker is making a huge difference in parts of Brazil, Africa, and China; the lessons learned there could inform discussions about rising costs of health care in developed nations and the lack of health care options in more remote rural communities.

3.    Devote some of our wealth to identifying ways to contain conflict and improve the functioning of human systems.

The third way to consider is to use some of our wealth to research better ways of reducing conflict, avoiding war, and integrating people into cultures quickly without negating positive contributions that the newcomers may make. This is all about convening to discover our common humanity and how that can be evoked to reduce the perceived threat of someone who is different from us.  We need great thinking, and therefore probably new conversations, about how to make cities more humane, since it is believed that for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. But regardless of settlement size, we need new ways of learning to get along while still recognizing and appreciating strong opinions and distinctive cultures.

We need better systems for banking, determining how to compensate people fairly, and helping individuals adjust to economic dislocations caused by technology, automation, and loss of comparative advantage for specific economies.

Lastly, we need to learn to inject some margin for error into all of these calculations.  For example, human society needs to be able to adapt to a fairly wide range of error in our current projections about climate change. We need redundant systems to help prevent accidental war.  We need multiple pathways for bringing up children so they become responsible adults.

With most basic human needs covered for most people within developed societies, we need to turn our attention to some of these other sustainable development challenges. Continuing to try to live up to high ideals of equality, opportunity, and community for every man, woman, and child will lead us toward better societies and better role models for one another worldwide.

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