A Critical Reflection on Sustainable Development

When I was a kid starting to learn how to bike, I got into a fight with my cousin over the use of bicycle. Our grandfather saw the incident and separated us. Then he promised me a bicycle. Hence, it was enough for me to treat my cousin fairly and nicely. Now I have outgrown biking and my grandfather has passed away, but I have yet to ride on that promised bike. In my life, I have never owned a bike and perhaps never will.

There seems to be a growing consensus on the problems (poverty, environmental degradation, conflicts, etc.) and their solutions (development, or lately sustainable development) by the international community. This consensus is manifest in the number of summits and conferences held in the past decades.

Coming from a “developing” country, I have witnessed and known the proliferation of programs and projects with the aim of “developing” our country since the 1960s. Most of these endeavors are internationally-funded and initiated. Up to now, we remain in the category of “developing,” while those donors and bureaucrats who conceptualized and introduced these programs and projects are from “developed” countries. I think they are working in the tendency and objective that the rest of the world must be like theirs – developed. They see the needs of the “developing” countries and believe that they are doing service to the poor. In the 1987 Our Common Future report by the Brundtland Commission, the concept of “needs” is elaborated with emphasis on the “essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given” (43). Although I see the real needs of the people, I still can not see the commonality of our future if today we live in diverse “presents.” If we are able to situate ourselves in a common present, then the possibility of talking about a common future sounds charming to those discerning ears and those who are able to live decent and longer lives. But for the poorest people, everyday is a survival, and the future is short-sighted. They may even argue, why talk about the future when what I think about the whole time is this moment I can’t live without.

On their book, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, Wackernagel and Rees (1996, 36) point out that “the assumption and the facts upon which each is based must be subject to logical scrutiny and repeated ‘reality checks’.” I think this is applicable in the prevailing and hegemonic narrative of development. To be effective, any assumptions, interpretations and facts on development, to my mind, must be “subject to logical scrutiny and repeated ‘reality checks’.” What happens is that major decisions are done outside of the concerned country by foreign bureaucrats and transnational entities. This creates tensions and confusions on the countries concerned which at times feel powerless and yielding to these decisions.
Wackernagel and Rees (1996, 33) differentiate development which means “getting better” from the most-oft misconceived equivalent – growth which means “getting bigger.” This is a useful distinction and shift. However, growth remains the dominant discourse in development. Even the Brundtland report still highlights economic growth; it states, “And we believe such growth to be absolutely essential to relieve the great poverty that is deepening in much of the developing world” (1). For me, it sounds hypocritical to talk about the needs of the world’s poor, and yet pursuing the masked thinking of the same thing (growth) that essentially degrades the environment and widens the gap between the rich and poor people and countries. Driven by its expansionist model, economic growth simply accommodates the concerns about the environment and disguises itself as sustainable development which is charming and promising to the “messiah-searching” people.

Many times over, leaders and bureaucrats who often preach to have seen the future have always promised a better one than what we are and have. My grandfather made a charming promise too. It was disarming and believable. Like the imagination of traveling on a bike which would take me to places, I doubt the certainty of our common future. I am afraid, really afraid that development is like my bike which never came. I hope against hope that my fear is unfounded. Make me not believe otherwise.

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