Today's date:
Fall 2002

Democracy and Sustainability

Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 1998.

Cambridge - "Environment and development are inextricably linked," in the words of Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations. It is this understanding that lies behind the invoking of the idea of "sustainable development."

The need to think about the environment cannot really be dissociated from the nature of the lives that people, especially deprived people, live today. Indeed, if people have a miserable living standard currently, then the promise of sustaining that pitiable standard in the future can hardly be very thrilling. The goal has to include rapid reduction of today's deprivations, while making sure that whatever is achieved today can be sustained in the future. Global cooperation is needed both to alleviate today's deprivations and to safeguard our future.

But do the prospects of effective global cooperation look promising? One issue that has received much attention is the need for development assistance and finance, and the extent to which the richer countries are willing to help the development efforts of the poorer ones. On this front, things do not look particularly promising, if I am any judge. The International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Mexico last March, produced a document-the "Monterrey Consensus"-that is quite upbeat on powerful rhetoric but rather bashful on the likely magnitudes of financial assistance. The chasm between expectation and delivery is beginning to look big. For example, the financial expectations entertained by the so-called New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) seem to be radically out of line with the level of assistance that can be realistically expected, at this time, from the richer countries or from international financial institutions. In general, from the financial perspective, the outlook cannot be seen as rosy.

Nevertheless the activists for a better financial deal will no doubt soldier on, and rightly so. But it is also extremely important to be clear that fruitful global cooperation can take many different forms-not just general financial assistance. Let me illustrate.

On the environmental side, the ground that has been lost by the slowing down of international agreements and also by the reneging on past understandings (for example, by the United States regarding the Kyoto Protocol) needs to be reversed. On the economic side, the importance of reducing entry barriers in the richer countries for products from the poorer ones deserves much greater practical acknowledgment. Johannesburg offers an excellent opportunity for both.

Also, despite the pessimism about general financial assistance, there is wisdom in Annan's penetrating observation that people in other countries tend to be much more "responsive when you present them with a major human problem and a credible strategy for dealing with it." The response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one obvious field, but the more general need for concerted efforts in basic health care and basic education calls for more global commitment in supplementing local engagement.

To consider another area, there are many institutional reforms urgently needed for the global economy. To illustrate, there is a strong case for making patent laws more efficient as well as less contrary to equity. The existing laws do not facilitate the actual use of desperately needed medicines in less affluent countries, because the obligatory royalties for patents often cost many times more than the actual production costs. No less importantly, the existing patent laws do not provide adequate incentives to the producers of medicine to develop more appropriate drugs (for example, low-cost, single-use vaccines), which are critically important for less affluent people.

There are also many positive things that the poorer countries can do for themselves, without any financial help from the rich, who need not be seen as the moving agents of change. In this context, we can even question the general strategy of defining sustainable development only in terms of fulfillment of needs, rather than using the broader perspective of enhancing human freedoms on a sustainable basis. The essential freedoms must, of course, include the ability to meet crucially important economic needs, but there are also many others to be considered, such as expanding political participation and broadening social opportunities.

Indeed, it is not at all obvious why the enhancing and sustaining of democratic freedoms should not figure among the central demands of sustainable development. These freedoms are important in themselves, but furthermore, they can contribute to other types of freedoms. For example, open public discussion, often stifled under authoritarian regimes, may be pivotally important for leading a fuller human life and also for a better understanding of the importance of environmental preservation and its far-reaching effects.

There are many rewards of seeing people as "agents" who can exercise their freedoms rather than merely as "patients" whose needs have to be fulfilled. Being less anxious about getting big financial assurances from the richer countries is among those rewards. Important as financial assistance may be, there are also other ways forward, which can be helped by more focus on agency rather than just one need-working on one's own or in collaboration with others.

back to index