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Progress to be proud of - putting planet and people first

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Dr Camilla Toulmin. Director IIED

Date: 
23 July 2012
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Camilla Toulmin is Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), having formerly run IIED’s Drylands Programme from 1987-2002.

The big theatre of global events such as the recent Rio+20 summit can leave us feeling down-hearted. But when you look behind the grey suits and dull negotiations, you find a vibrant and more positive picture on the ground, in many different parts of the world.

Ordinary people – community activists, entrepreneurs, local scientists, small farmers and many others – are unearthing solutions and forging the alliances that are necessary to achieve change. The Fair Ideas conference that IIED organised ahead of the Rio+20 summit threw a much needed spotlight on these endeavours, as do initiatives like Development Progress.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our towns and cities, where most people will live in the future. Powerful movements of the urban poor are emerging, such as the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights with which IIED has worked with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Already more than 700 local groups have invested in a range of environmental and social improvements that touch almost 200,000 people in 18 countries.

Localised development works. This does not mean that we let our leaders off the hook – far from it. Governments and big business are still too sceptical about handing over control to local people and their organisations. Too many international policies still hold back, rather than liberate, grassroots action and innovation.

But there is a worrying disconnect between what is happening locally and what our leaders do globally. Our challenge for the next 20 years is to do much more to construct a bridge – founded on robust evidence of what works best – between the two.

One of the most important areas where we need governments to quickly learn new thinking is how we track progress in development and measure success. It is falling to smaller, less powerful countries to show the way in this respect.

The idea of Gross National Happiness, developed in Bhutan, is a radical departure from GDP and the same old economic metrics that have pushed us perilously to our planetary limits. Imagine a world where all countries put a real value on finite natural resources and social wellbeing.

This kind of thinking reframes our traditional notions of progress. For too long, progress has been defined by monetary values, often in the form of average incomes. This has masked the real costs of economic growth that fails to address environmental and social dimensions, amply demonstrated by the economic crisis of the last decade – a decade in which greed amongst top-earners has brought devastating damage on everyone else. We need to balance the books properly for people and planet.

Soundbites rarely tell the whole story. But Oliver Greenfield, Convenor of the Green Economy Coalition, got very near to doing so when he recently observed: "The laws of physics will not change, so the rules of the economy must." This broad alliance of business, trade unions, NGOs and others has set out the key principles for a new economic model in The Green Economy Pocketbook.

There is genuine concern amongst some low income countries that moving to a green economy will hamper poverty reduction and stop development happening. However, the consensus at Fair Ideas was that a transformative green economy would not act as a brake on development. Rather, it would lift people out of poverty through more sustainable use of the soils, forests, water and land that are the natural assets of the poor.

The experience of some countries bears this out. Speaking at Fair Ideas, René Castro, Minister of Environment and Energy in Costa Rica, described his country’s experience: "Initially we protected national parks and wildlife regions with a ‘don’t take, don’t touch’ approach, but this was unsustainable. And so we shifted from full protection to promoting multiple use — protection of forest cover is now combined with agroforestry to provide farmers with an extra income to incentivise having more trees."

Using an innovative Payments for Environmental Services programme, Costa Rica has fashioned a remarkable turn around –  from large-scale deforestation to being lauded as a pioneer in forest conversation with multiple social and income benefits.

Interestingly, research shows that Costa Rica’s democratic credentials played a crucial part in this success story. Similarly, natural resource management in Namibia has worked because communities are in control. Greater accountability must be the pivotal plank of any future development progress.

The fact is that to fully address the needs of the poor, we will have to rein in overconsumption, iron out inequalities within and between nations and learn to share nature’s wealth on this single planet.

In this context, the traditional aid business is struggling to cope in a changing world where the simplistic North vs South division no longer works as a way to understand the world. As low-income countries face a wide development deficit and increased climate stress, we will urgently need to find new, better ways to fund development, for example by establishing global levies on global ‘bads’.

If Rio+20 is to have a lasting legacy, it will be the Sustainable Development Goals that were sketched out at the summit in June. There is a long way to go as we now review the Millennium Development Goals led by Prime Minister Cameron, but if we end up with some kind of post-2015 framework that defines development as achieving a better quality of life for all within the ecological limits of the planet, that really will be progress to be proud of.