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The clock is ticking

Why equity and sustainability matter for human development.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2012 23:38 IST

Since 1990, the baseline year against which we measure progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Overall people are healthier, wealthier, and better educated than ever before.

Yet figures disguise some truths: that ending poverty is an unfinished agenda; that inequality is increasing; and that our planet's eco-systems are under stress.

This is also evident in the case of India. On the one hand, India follows a high growth path with an average growth of 6% to 8% per year. On the other hand, 38% of its people live below the poverty line and more than 400 million do not have access to electricity.

The intersection of recent energy, food, financial, and economic crises and natural disasters has left many people in our world struggling and disenchanted. The uprisings in the Arab world suggest that these pressures, exacerbated by political exclusion, can create instability and conflict.

What do we want our common future to look like? Sustainable development is "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Yet the world's current patterns of consumption and production are unsustainable: they cannot raise living standards without breaching planetary boundaries. So, how can we maintain an upward development trajectory without doing catastrophic harm to our planet?

Uppermost in our minds must be the importance of integrated decision-making which seeks to weave together the economic, social, and environmental strands of sustainable development. Expanding access to sustainable energy offers a good example of how to advance all three pillars of sustainable development simultaneously. Living standards can rise, economic growth can be pursued, and environmental balance is maintained. Goals of equity and sustainability are also advanced.

Across developed and developing countries alike, we need to build the capacity of institutions to incorporate sustainable development perspectives into strategies and policies, and enable citizens to make inputs into both decision-making processes and implementation.

Inclusion and equity are indispensable requirements for sustainable development. Just as development cannot be only about economic growth, nor can sustainability be only about protecting the environment. Development must be people-centred and promote rights, opportunities, choices, and dignity. Green growth must also be inclusive growth, generating social progress and contributing to eradicating poverty and achieving greater equality, as well as sustaining our natural environment.

These principles must also extend to discussions on global responsibility and cooperation for sustainable development. Financing for sustainable human development must increase significantly. New public financing mechanisms need to be explored, and public finance needs to be leveraged to attract much larger scale private investment. Progress also requires that we harness knowledge and innovation, maximise the potential of south-south and triangular cooperation, and facilitate technology transfer in the service of equitable and sustainable development.

So what could our future look like?

Our future could be grounded in equitable and sustainable human development, with the explicit goal of expanding people's freedoms and choices without compromising those of generations to come. The Rio+20 Summit, now only three months away, has the potential to set the direction for such development for the coming decades, just as the landmark Rio Earth Summit did in 1992. Let us hope that the opportunity to do that is seized by world leaders when they convene in Rio de Janeiro in June.

(Helen Clark is the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Mar 22, 2012 23:36 IST