OECD Observer
Back to the basics

The Johannesburg summit is a golden opportunity to move forward on some tough sustainable development issues. But the agenda has grown and become unwieldy. Progress will depend on getting back to some global basics. 

What are the realistic prospects for sustainable development in the first decade of the new millennium? The short answer is that they will be a lot brighter if those who rally behind the sustainable development banner – particularly in developed countries – confine themselves to a less rather than a more ambitious agenda. Why?

The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 was a conference on environment and development, with the focus on meeting the developmental and environmental needs of both present and future generations. Significantly, the programme of action it laid out, called Agenda 21, consisted of two sections: the social and economic dimensions on one hand, and the conservation and management of resources for development on the other.

A reading of the 27 principles of the Rio Declaration discloses a breathtakingly ambitious policy terrain. But it is still tractable. It adheres to the environment and development dimensions that drove the Brundtland Commission. And most of the Rio Declaration’s principles can still be made sense of and implemented by governments, regardless of their political persuasion.

I have no argument with the Rio Declaration as a working guide. But I do harbour doubts about the agenda which has been grafted onto it since Rio, and in particular the emergence of the so-called “three pillars” definition of sustainable development. The original two-part division between the socio-economic and the biophysical sphere apparently did not go far enough for some, and the socio-economic sphere has now been divided again into two separate social and economic “pillars” of sustainable development. I have made considerable efforts to find out when this characterisation of sustainable development emerged, but without success. It was certainly not part of the Rio outcomes, but is now firmly embedded in European Union and OECD literature.

In essence, the idea is that of a virtuous triangle of mutually reinforcing economic, social and environmental policies that together advance “a society that is more prosperous and more just, and which promises a cleaner, safer, healthier environment”, not just in the near term but in the long term, too.

This is, unquestionably, an elegant formulation. But it cannot provide any definitive boundaries for the trade-offs that inevitably occur between, for instance, seeking improvement in material living standards and maintaining ecosystems in their natural states.

There are two dangers here. The first is that in the search for “balance” between the three pillars, we end up in a world where everything is tradeable, with few, if any, environmental “bottom lines”. The second is that it is hard to see what might be excluded from these three all-encompassing pillars. In short, we risk emptying sustainable development of content by seeking to extend it to everything.

Now it might be objected that this is harmless enough; that sustainable development embraces many disciplines and that anyone worth their salt would know where the live issues are. But at Rio, considerable store was placed on the need to develop robust indicators that can informdecision-making on a hard core of issues. Indicators are vital, but we have made little progress in developing them – and the extension of sustainable development to a “three pillars” approach could mean that we never get there.

The European Commission, in its 2001 Strategy for Sustainable Development, referred to the need to focus on “a small number of problems which pose severe or irreversible threats to the future well-being of European society”. It identified a set of structural indicators, ranging from lifelong learning and childcare facilities to energy intensity and biodiversity. In the end, no fewer than 53 different indicators were envisaged, some of them with a distinctly developed-country feel.

The OECD’s approach has had similar teething difficulties. Its sustainable development indicators are expected to be included in economic reviews of member countries from 2004, alongside long-familiar economic indicators such as inflation, GDP growth, interest rates, and so on. The preliminary list embraces a sensible clutch of traditional environmental indicators covering water quality, air pollution and CO2 emissions. But there is just one social indicator – sustainable retirement-income policies.

The orphan state of this indicator is one issue, but more important is the question of what might be considered not part of sustainable development if such indicators are seen as relevant. Sustainable development is surely about global concerns; but can retirement incomes really be included in that definition? Even if they can, are they as important as, say, basic literacy (not on the OECD list) or even culture?

The consequences of selecting an indicator such as retirement incomes is meaningless in a region such as sub-Saharan Africa where the average life expectancy is less than 50. If the answer to that criticism is that sustainability is a relative, country-specific matter, we’re back where we started: policy trade-offs and insoluble debates about the distribution of wealth. No doubt these questions will be resolved, but we should begin by accepting that if sustainability is to have a meaningful, universally recognisable core, many issues will have to be excluded. Otherwise, the cart will simply not move forward.

Sustainable development as Rio launched it sought to tackle, at the global level, the relationship between development ambitions (in all countries) and environmental sustainability – a big enough task in itself. If we are not very careful, a “three pillars” approach will quickly become vacuous, particularly if it incorporates elements beyond the already awesome problems posed by absolute poverty and morbidity, or the depletion of the biosphere. This is not to deny the importance of the social dimension of sustainable development. But our approach has to be based on hard information that can change minds and win debates. Using the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), a core set of health, education and income indices, may be a way forward. Such an approach would leave us in a more analytically tractable situation: rather than pretending that some magical balancing trick is possible between the three pillars, we would be considering a human sphere of economic and social development that can be managed for better or worse, and a biophysical (or environmental) sphere subject to some real, scientifically demonstrable thresholds. The focus of policy attention would then be directed to development trajectories within those thresholds.

Institutional challenge

But even if we build the hard information and data we need, do we have the institutions to do anything with it? Rio spawned the challenge, “think global, act local”, but tackling global issues requires a huge commitment of diplomatic and negotiating resources. Surely, then, the focus should be on dealing with those things that can only be done at the global level. The atmosphere and the oceans are the obvious candidates; others are abject poverty and health threats, like AIDS and TB.

Not that there is any shortage of international treaties relating to the global commons, though many of these remain either incomplete or unratified. There are the Straddling and Migratory Fish Stocks agreements, for instance, or the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, to name but a few.

One of the key problems is that political goodwill and interest have been dulled by inter-governmental processes that, in the end, have no impact on national policies. Sustainable development meetings risk becoming the preoccupation of a self-perpetuating clique of negotiators and interest groups. This is increasingly the fate of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), Rio’s contribution to the stable of international forums.

The CSD was set up to “ensure the effective follow-up of the [Rio] Conference, as well as to enhance international co-operation and rationalise the intergovernmental decision-making capacity for the integration of environment and development issues and to examine the progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 at the national, regional and international levels...”

It would be hard to argue that the CSD has fulfilled any of these roles. Its multi-stakeholder remit held out the hope that ministers, academics, business leaders and NGO leaders would be able to engage frankly to unblock the way to a more sustainable future. Instead, we have had a country-based negotiating mindset, with foot-dragging consensus.

It need not have been this way. Rather than a toothless negotiating forum, the CSD could become a catalyst for sharp-edged, time-bound commissions to report on difficult issues that require international attention. Such commissions would need to be supported by teams of experts, but as importantly, they would have to include elected ministers who can then start to reclaim a popular grassroots mandate for the UN from its current diplomatic ownership. The World Commission on Dams chaired by South Africa’s education minister, Kadar Asmal, shows it can be done. Jeffrey Sachs’ Commission of Macroeconomics and Health is another model. This is the sort of stuff we should be serving up to CSD meetings. As a former CSD chairman I am acutely aware that this kind of action is needed to revive ministerial interest in pursuing sustainable development issues at the global level.

Beyond this, governments hold the keys to many of the barriers that stand in the way of development. Trade barriers, subsidies, aid, pollution control: all are creatures of government. But the institutions and instruments they have traditionally used to solve problems are no longer suited to the sort of global community that is emerging. This is a repeated refrain of many businesses and NGOs that claim to have transformed their own modes of operation. Governments have to catch up.

So, while we must always confirm the importance of market access, development assistance and insisting on improving our scientific underpinning of the debate with credible indicators, we should also recognise that institutions of international governance are needed to tackle genuinely global problems such as those that affect the global commons. If we can go on from Johannesburg to leave the negotiating mindset of the 20th century firmly behind by thinking laterally and flexibly about how global dialogue and rule-making should proceed, then the summit would have done more than many dared to hope.

* The OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development was created in 1998. OECD ministers have formally endorsed its role as “a forum for international dialogue among stakeholders”. Twice a year it brings inter-governmental organisations, business and civil society together to discuss the cross-cutting economic, environmental and social challenges of sustainable development. Its role is “to continue to generate policy ideas” which could achieve “sustainable development objectives”. Mr Upton, New Zealand’s former environment minister and former chair of the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development, has presided over the OECD round table since its inception.


• OECD (2001), Sustainable Development: Critical Issues, OECD, Paris.

• European Commission (2001), Strategy for Sustainable Development, Brussels.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002