Sustainable Development

Henry Veltmeyer, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

With the United Nations’ publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, the concept of sustainable development entered the mainstream of development theory and practice in regards to the relation between the economy and the environment. In the 1980s the concept of sustainability acquired a more distinct social dimension in a growing concern with increasing the level of popular or community participation in the development process. This concern coincided with a turn away from state-led forms of national development toward the strengthening of civil society, a shift in development practice away from large-scale infrastructure and nation-building projects and programs toward small-scale community-based projects that are closer to potential beneficiaries and participants, and an extension of the concept of sustainability from protecting the environment to a concern for livelihoods, particularly of the rural poor. The literature on sustainable development and livelihoods that has emerged in the wake of these changes and growing concerns is voluminous. CJDS over the years has sought to advance knowledge in this complex field by publishing articles on the cutting edge of new research and thinking. In this issue, we are pleased to publish three articles that reflect current research directions in the area of sustainable development.

The article by René Parenteau and Pascal Lavoie looks at the development agenda of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as embodied in a series of policy papers related to projects in the field of urban environmental management. The authors argue that CIDA’s agenda is concerned with “standard” environmental issues in an urban development context, so much so that it fails to properly conceive of social development, good governance, and the globalization of environmental service markets — issues defined within the framework of the four paradigms that underpin the thinking and practice of the multilateral development agencies. The result is that CIDA’s projects in practice are generally poorly designed and poorly implemented, particularly as regards Asia (CIDA’s agenda, it is argued, is more suited to the African context). This conclusion is framed by an in-depth content analysis of four important CIDA policy statements and several documents used to construct a theoretical model of CIDA’s policy and programming in the area of urban development and environmental management.

The paper by John Devlin, Nonita Yap, and Robert Weir focuses on another phase in the project cycle: that of project evaluation assessment. The literature in regards to participatory development tends to focus more on the design and management phase of the project cycle but the authors argue that environmental assessments (EAs) raise important issues of popular participation. Like Parenteau and Lavoie, Devlin, Yap, and Weir also focus on CIDA’s agenda (as reflected in commissioned EAs) vis-à-vis sustainable development. As for this agenda, the authors take issue with the widespread assumption shared by CIDA’s policy analysts and many scholars that public participation in the process of project design and approval is both indispensable and fruitful in terms of development outcomes. The paper reports on a comparative analysis of EA legislation and regulations in 27 countries and four regional development banks and on a review of 17 EA processes in six developing countries. Based on the evidence drawn from 17 case studies, the authors conclude to the contrary “that public participation to date does not avoid irreversible environmental change or ensure that those on the margins of decision-making will have their concerns addressed in the project design and approval process.” However, the authors also find and point to some examples of success. The paper describes cases where public participation in EA has led to the abandonment of large projects.  Presumably these projects are deemed to be environmentally unsustainable.

The paper by Guillermo Foladori reflects on the academic discourse on sustainable development, noting that the concept includes not only the environment and the economy — the two dimensions of central concern to both scholars and practitioners in the field — but the social. In his review of the evolution of the concept of sustainable development, the author concludes that just as many development economists and policy-makers subordinate the environment to the economy, most theorists and practitioners in the field subordinate the social to the ecological. The implications of this are analysed and assessed, raising questions for further reflection and research.

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