The emergence of the concept of "sustainable development"
It was the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) - through the World Conservation Strategy of 1980 - that brought the term "sustainable development" into development discourse. Their concerns, as a conservationist organization, were with the evident deterioration of the ecological and resource base that was a consequence of "conventional" approaches to development. Hence their focus was on the physical environment rather than on showing a concern for the human side of achieving sustainable development and the potential social impacts of the management regimes that might be employed to achieve sustainable development in the way they understood it. This "flavour" stayed with the term until well into the 1980s.
It was, however, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987) - generally known as the Brundtland Report - that popularized the term "sustainable development". The conventional development path was seen as being in danger of destroying the environment and depleting resources to the point where development could no longer be sustained and could go dramatically into reverse. The path would have to be revised in order to achieve sustainable development, defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987:8).
The WCED report spent little time analysing the disparities in resources available to different constituencies within and between different societies and so did not make any significant recommendations concerning redistribution or any great augmentation of aid between the countries of the North and the South. The major thrust of the report was to promote more investment in the South, generally with a view to augmenting economic growth, suitably regulated with regard to negative environmental impacts, to take the world into the era of sustainable development.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was an important milestone in the promotion of the idea of sustainable development. It resulted both in proposing three international agreements - on forests, climate change and biodiversity - and in tabling an "agenda for sustainable development in the 21st century", entitled Agenda 21.1 This document, signed by most of the heads of state who attended the conference, set out in 40 chapters and 600 pages an analysis of the growing - mainly environmental and resource - problems arising in the process of global development. A range of solutions to these problems, including the allocation of responsibility between a wide range of actors, was proposed.
It should be noted in parentheses that there were critics of the process of generating both the Brundtland Commission recommendations and the general approach of Agenda 21. It is clear that these remained firmly within the prevailing political context of neo - liberal free trade and the promotion of economic growth as being essential to sustainable development and without reference to any need for redistribution. Indeed, the involvement of major corporate interests in financing Agenda 21 would seem to have influenced this orientation (Schmidheiny, 1992; Hawken, 1993; Chatterjee and Finger, 1994) - leading to the omission of any effective structural suggestions with regard to the organization of a regime or framework to achieve sustainable development. The result thus promotes a voluntaristic approach to achieving sustainable development where each stakeholder group should find its own path and make a contribution in its own way.
In principle, heads of state attending the Rio conference were to take Agenda 21 home, where it was to be used as background for national, perhaps regional and then local agendas. In practice, most countries have by now produced some kind of response and it is notable that relatively little has happened in terms of actual implementation (Dalal - Clayton, 1997). This result is of less concern to this paper than the fact that, almost entirely independent of national government responses, there was an immediate response to Agenda 21 in the form of Local Agenda 21 (LA21) processes. By the late 1980s, there were several thousand localities where an LA21, or a related process, was under way.
Local Agenda 21, as a process of local participatory planning and management for sustainable development, is briefly defined in Chapter 28 of Agenda 21. There, it is stated that local authorities should reach a consensus with stakeholder groups in the community to initiate a sustainable development planning and management process, and that local initiatives should network with one another to exchange experiences. In fact UNCED was preceded by a series of conferences, organized by international local authority associations and others, aimed at impressing upon the Rio process the claims of local authorities and communities to play a major role in achieving sustainable development. Chapter 28 - the shortest of all the chapters - was the result.
These conferences produced various declarations and guidelines that indicated in much more detail than Chapter 28 did the approach to be taken by local actors in pursuit of sustainable development. A further development was the founding - supported by the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - of an international NGO, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). The role of this organization has been specifically to promote the spread of LA21 processes and other approaches to local sustainable development.
In fact, with the spread of the environmental movement in northern Europe particularly, by the late 1980s a number of local participatory sustainable development planning and management processes had already been initiated. By the mid - 1990s most European local authorities had some initiative of this kind under way (Lafferty and Eckerberg, 1998).
At first, however, there was little response in cities of the South. A few initiatives were supported by development assistance agencies - for example, the Dutch - sponsored "green towns" project in Kenya and the German government - supported "urban environmental training materials project" in Asia, discussed further below. Some projects were also initiated through town twinning arrangements between Northern and Southern municipalities - usually with the assistance of national and international municipal associations. Indeed, the transfer of local experience from North to South has been an important force in promoting LA21 - type initiatives in the South, rather than any initiative growing directly out of the UNCED recommendations.
As the 1990s progressed, however, and the concept of sustainable development became more broadly accepted, more local sustainable development planning and management initiatives sprang up in cities of the South - both with external support and, particularly in Latin America (Allen, 1999), through efforts initiated within the countries themselves. At the same time a few community development projects gained an additional dimension that focused on sustainable development. However, this was in part in parallel with a general growth in urban community development projects, most of which had little or no interest in the question of sustainable development.
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