The word 'sustainability' is on everyone's lips in the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June. But if development policy is to improve, mere lip service must be replaced with binding agreements.
To meet the demands of sustainability, development policy must be ecologically sound, socially just and economically efficient. These criteria were officially recognized at the UN Summit on Environment and Development in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.
Indian environmental activist and Alternative Nobel Prize-winner Vandana Shiva recalls it was "a great breakthrough" at the time.
"It was the basis for a sustainable, democratic development towards a world where we would all be better off," Shiva said.
But today she feels the spirit of the Rio criteria has been betrayed: "The World Trade Organization (WTO) has undermined those goals."
The WTO was established in 1995 to reduce trade barriers and liberalize international trade. Its activities have mainly benefitted major corporations and export-oriented industrial nations by allowing them to flood the markets of the global South with partly subsidized products and services.
Leaving the growth cult
Shiva said economic growth should no longer be the sole measure of success or failure of development efforts.
"Growth is a one way street that drives money and resources into the hands of multinational companies. The interests of the population are neglected, particularly when it comes to patenting seeds and privatizing drinking water," she said, referring to the so-called "water war" of Bolivia.
The popular uprising against the privatization of the nation's water supply resulted in the 2005 electoral victory of Evo Morales.
As Bolivia's first indigenous president, Morales shifted the nation's policy priorities to highlight the indigenous principle of the "good life" as a guideline for political and economic decision-making.
The 'good life'
The goal of politics is not economic growth at any cost, but the satisfaction of basic needs of the population and respect for the environment.
"The concept of the good life comes from our ancestors," said Alfredo Candia, a Bolivian economist who is also the managing director of his country's embassy in Berlin.
"We want no growth at the expense of other countries or nature," he added. "Our goal is to overcome poverty and improve living conditions for the population. The basis for this can only be development in harmony with nature."
Bolivia's strategy is to develop its own industrial base. The nationalization of oil reserves in 2006 led to the renegotiation of contracts with foreign oil companies, effectively doubling government revenues from oil production. The extra money has been spent improving infrastructure, education and social programs.
Chee Yoke Ling sees Bolivia's policy shift as a step in the right direction. The head of the Malaysia-based Third World Network considers fundamental reform of the global economic system as inevitable.
"Developing countries must use their own resources to develop value chains. It is absurd that these countries simply export their natural resources and import expensive industrial products," Chee said.
"This was actually agreed on 20 years ago, but we have failed to ensure that these findings were implemented politically."
Sustainability affects all of us
From the perspective of the European Union, development efforts have improved over the last two decades.
The EU is one of the largest donors in the world. With an annual development budget of 50 billion euros, it represents about 60 percent of official global funding.
"It is clear that a number of countries that were once big aid recipients have reached the stage where they now generate stable middle incomes, so they are much less dependent on foreign funding and are able to drive development efforts under their own steam," said Klaus Rudischhauser from the European Commission's Directorate General for Development and Cooperation.
Europe is interested in maintaining good economic relations with other countries, he added. "Our economy is globalized. The advantage of globalization is that we are able access bigger markets and profits."
Brazil, India and China are prime examples of this trend, but their success is not solely due to development assistance.
Rudischhauser warned the growing prosperity of the new middle classes in emerging markets poses new problems: "It is important that developing countries do not just strive to replicate the same wasteful standard of living that we have today. We must ensure that growth in partner countries is not sought at any cost. Sustainable growth must be a priority."
But Chee Yoke Ling of Third World Network said real change can only take place when the scope of development policy is broadened to look beyond the classic concept of "developing countries."
"Sustainable development must also take place in Germany and Europe," Chee said. "Sustainability affects all of us. We will see a turnaround when those who have more invest more and finally help those at whose expense they once became rich."
Author: Mirjam Gehrke / sje
Editor: Kristin Zeier