Pressing toward a sustainable future

When the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)was first founded back in 1985, we had little idea that 22 years later we would be in the middle of the fight for economic freedom for the world’s poor. For years, in speeches, articles, and on our daily Just the Facts radio commentary, we have argued for positive approaches to solving environmental problems through technology and human ingenuity – and that people are the earth’s greatest resource.

Our work soon took us around the world – to environmental summits and world trade conferences in places like Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Cairo, Marrakesh, and Bonn – where we listened to, and occasionally confronted, the movers and shakers who sought to impose ill-guided policy prescriptions to the rest of the world. In September 2003, while attending the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, we were presented with a challenge that ultimately changed the nature of our work and mission and in the process changed our very lives.

That challenge was a simple one – we joined a coalition of organizations in a project to get to know the people of Cancun who worked in the luxury hotels at which the WTO congregants were staying. Our mission led us far outside our comfort zone to the village of Valle Verde, home to one of many enclaves of newcomers to Mexico’s Yucatan boomtown – people who by day work in the hotels or on construction crews in the city, and by night live in handmade huts without paved streets, running water, flush toilets, or even electricity.

Cancun, we had learned, had grown from a sleepy town of 25,000 in 1980 to a metro area of nearly a million people in just 25 years, far outpacing the ability of the Mexican government to provide ordinary human services. Most of these new residents had migrated from interior Mexico or even Central American countries to find work and make new lives for themselves in a city far away from their extended families.

We organized an event where we handed out two tons of food to the wonderful people of Valle Verde, many of whom scratched their heads in disbelief as environmentalist groups also showed up to complain that some of the corn products we gave them (which were purchased at a local Walmart) were “unsafe” because they were genetically modified. We also learned that all of these people had dreams and hope for their children’s future – and that they knew quite well what their families needed and were willing to work hard, start their own businesses, and build their own community – and to work to change their own laws to make a better future more attainable.

Suddenly it hit us – that poor people in Valle Verde, and likely others around the world, know pretty much what they need to improve their lot, and these folks are grateful for outsiders who will treat them with dignity and work side by side with them as partners. These partners must also be advocates who will encourage them to speak for themselves – to share their dreams for development and freedom and a future for their families – and then stand with them to shield them from reprisals from both within and outside their country and ensure that their voices are heard. Such partners also deserve to share in the wealth they help to create – and not, as has all too often been the case, to profit at the expense of their “friends” in the developing world.

So we went back to Washington and began revamping our organization, starting with our mission statement. We realized that all of our hard work for the environment meant little if it did not include helping people living at, or near, subsistence levels. Our top priority soon became developing and pursuing strategies to increase the likelihood that people in even the poorest nations may attain to a sustainable livelihood, with access to food, water, energy and other essential human services.

Sustainable Development Must Meet Needs

As we developed our new template, we reviewed the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which in its 1987 report, “Our Common Future,” defined “sustainable development “ as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Commission also identified four elements of sustainability – environmental, economic, social, and political – and sought …

to recommend ways concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economical and social development and lead to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives that take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development.

In her Foreword to “Our Common Future,” then-Chairman Gro Harlem Brundtland, who later became Director General of the World Health Organization, acknowledged that, “Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.”

Chairman Brundtland went on to state that, “A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophe.” In her view, “Meeting essential needs requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that those poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth.”

We thus realized that we, too, were advocates of true sustainable development – that is, our mission in the developing world is to encourage and assist people and their governments to take the steps necessary to transform their stagnant, dependent societies into forward-looking, prosperous communities so that they will have the resources at hand to address environmental and human health concerns over the long term.

We are confident that, once today’s poor have created “sustainable” societies – once their children have a decent chance of living to adulthood, getting an education, and earning a living for themselves and their families — they will have the energy and wisdom to properly care for their environment.

The Vision from Valle Verde

Our friends in Valle Verde already understand, by in large, what they need to be able to do to improve their health and their environment. They strongly desire to have running water, proper sanitation, and other environmental essentials – they just lack the means to secure those blessings for themselves at the time.

CFACT returned to Valle Verde in summer 2005 to find that the village had already gotten electric power along with a rudimentary elementary school building. We brought them solar ovens, which proved to be very useful after the village was hit hard by a hurricane that fall, and we worked on plans to help villagers start small businesses to provide services to their neighbors.

We also met with government, business and university leaders in the city to discuss the needs of the village, and laid out a plan for creating an umbrella group to assist budding entrepreneurs in business management. As we prepared to leave the village once again, our friend Francisco Mendez Olan, president of the village committee, expressed his joy that Valle Verde had provided us with a model for our new approach to sustainable development and hoped that his community could help even more, noting that there are many people around the world whose lot in life is far worse than their own.

We came back from Cancun two years ago with a renewed commitment to sharing our new vision for the developing world – one in which communities of affluence help emerging communities in poor nations, one village at a time. This vision involves building partnerships in which people with resources and influence make themselves available to people in poor communities who need help in creating wealth and building a sustainable future.

We already knew that all across the developing world, there are faith-based and other grassroots missions which have built strong relationships with local villagers but which typically have had a narrow focus – digging wells, starting schools, providing medical care, and maybe even helping villagers obtain micro-financing.

We also knew that entrepreneurs around the world are always looking for new ways to create wealth – and that wealth creation is at the very least the secret dream of many villagers who are being served in some way by these various missions. Similarly, there are educators eager to teach, builders of infrastructure looking for new construction projects, and so on. What is typically lacking is an integrated vision for real growth that allows for both personal and corporate endeavors – or any entity capable of soliciting the various kinds of expertise needed to foster growth and wealth creation at the village level.

Sustainable Development Must Be Indigenous

Now, most of these resources are readily available to would-be entrepreneurs and community leaders in the U.S., where thousands of Horatio Algers started with little or nothing and created either great wealth or great works that benefitted many people. In many nations, however, the obstacles to the creation of either personal or public wealth are almost impossible to overcome without outside help – and all too often that outside help has been part of the problem.

For example, just before our visit to Valle Verde in 2005, new attention was focused on poverty in Africa by the G8 summit at Gleneagles and the Live 8 concerts held worldwide. It is widely known that half a trillion dollars in aid to sub-Saharan Africa has to date lifted only a very select few of the citizens of these former colonial lands out of abject poverty. At Gleneagles, the G8 nations pledged another $60 billion, but Bono said the commitment, which included little new money, was little more than “Euro-babble” that masked broken promises.

Two years later, the London Telegraph asked its readers whether Bono and LiveAid founder Bob Geldof are better friends to Africa than the G8. The paper wanted to know whether the impassioned rhetoric of rock stars or the policies of professional politicians had been more effective in solving the problems in a continent in which people struggle every day, often breaking numerous environmental principles, just to survive the threats of disease, war and genocide, a lack of adequate healthy food, and even wild animal attacks.

The sad truth is that, while the rich and the popular vie to be seen as better friends to Africa’s poor, neither group has been willing to admit that both are in far too many ways seeking to advance a new colonialism upon those whose liberty and prosperity they claim to be supporting. All too often, this neocolonialism is dressed up in environmental terminology.

Westerners of all stripes have, perhaps unwittingly, declared that Africa is, first and foremost, environmentally pristine and must stay that way – that preserving its unique environmental qualities is far more important than feeding its people, protecting them from disease and lessening the chances of war. Thus, true development in Africa has been stymied as Western institutions have placed burdensome conditions on any funding for infrastructure – highways, power generating stations, and the like – and even for agriculture and commerce.

In our view, misguided interpretations of such terms as “sustainable development” and the “precautionary principle” stand in the way of African progress and the development of an indigenous African environmental movement capable of making its own decisions about what is vitally worth preserving and what may be used wisely to create wealth, secure peace, and address longstanding vestiges of the colonial era.

The real answer to ending poverty in Africa and elsewhere around the world is simple – unleash the power of free markets to create wealth and of political and economic freedom to ensure that wealth created reaches down to the poorest in societies. Eritrean economist and former finance minister Gebreselassie Tesfamichael laid down the gauntlet in a July 24, 2005, op ed in the Washington Post:

For decades, we had watched governments throughout the continent compromise their sovereignty as they adopted economic models imposed on them by both the West and the East in order to get aid. We could not help noticing how aid distorted the development process. For instance, donor organizations emphasize the social sectors – health and education – while almost entirely ignoring the commercial and business sector…. We wanted. . .a partnership rather than a donor-client relationship.

Tesfamichael exposed the error of the G8-Live 8 approach to assisting Africa’s poor with his simple statement that, “It’s what Africans do themselves that will determine how far and how fast we move forward..” Africans today want to know whether Western nations, and Western businesses, will be part of the problem or partners in the solutions.

Sustainable Development Cannot Be Neo-Colonialist

One widely held viewpoint in the West is that “sustainable development” must be limited to what is allowable under the “precautionary principle.” This principle was defined in the 1998 Wingspread Statement to mean that, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Clearly, this principle is functionally neo-colonialist and thus does not comport with true sustainable development in poor nations.

The precautionary principle disregards the question that actual or potential benefits of the action may far exceed even the theoretical harm it might cause. For this reason, advocates insisted that poor nations could not use the pesticide DDT to control malarial mosquitoes (as rich nations had done a few years earlier) – not even through semiannual indoor residual spraying in small quantities. Adherence to the precautionary principle in this case was a major factor in the loss of 50 million lives to malaria since DDT was banned. Even today, there is major pressure to prevent poor nations from using this life-saving pesticide.

Another problem with the precautionary principle arises from these questions: Who defines what is a “threat of harm”? What if there are conflicting threats of harm? Which takes precedence given such conflicts – human health and safety or the environment? For example, in 1997 a 14-year-old boy lost in a wilderness area in New Mexico was spotted by a helicopter, but the U.S. Forest Service warned that any landing to rescue the child would violate the Wilderness Act. Yet the Service just months later apparently saw no legal conflict when it allowed another helicopter to land in a wilderness area to rescue an injured gray wolf.

The Clean Development Mechanism is another product of the Kyoto Protocol that is touted as a tool for sustainable development. This mechanism also fails to meet the standards of true sustainable development for poor nations specifically because it was designed to enable first-world countries with carbon reduction commitments under Kyoto to purchase offsets (and thus continue emitting carbon). The “mechanism” is investment in emission-reducing projects in developing nations in which the cost per credit gained is almost certainly to be far lower than the cost of reducing carbon emissions at domestic facilities.

The problem is that the investments under which the rich gain carbon credits are designed to meet the needs of first-world nations – not those of developing countries. Thus, the CDM is largely just a new instrument of colonialism, inasmuch as poor nations are cajoled into accepting CDM projects that do not necessarily fit within their own development priorities (for example, highway construction, petroleum refineries, or nuclear power plants are not viewed as “clean development”).

The CDM also exacerbates another perennial problem in developing nations – corruption. According to one observer, aid (and, by inference, CDM investment) makes the poor passive recipients of largesse rather than active participants in their own economic betterment. The result is that projects that would benefit the poor are shelved in favor of projects that benefit power brokers at home and neo-colonialist interests abroad.

It is, of course, possible that a given CDM project might actually fit the developing nation’s needs – but one reason the CDM has been only mildly successful is that most developing nations understand that their priorities are not well served principally by “clean” projects. They need new infrastructure, dependable energy production, and modern transportation to move their economies forward – and it is precisely these things that many in the West fear they will obtain because, in their mistaken view, they believe it will cause further destruction to the environment. This is a sad state of affairs, and one that must be changed if true sustainable development will have an impact in making the world a better place.

Continued in Part II

(Special thanks to CFACT senior policy analyst Duggan Flanakin who greatly contributed to this article)

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CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.