Sustainable development and governance

Persuasion, not posturing, will reverse the degradation of our world. 

The phrase sustainable development was first coined by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. A friend of mine neatly summarises the case: ‘We should live here on earth as though we were intending to stay for good, not just visit for the weekend.’

Most governments these days the good, the bad and even the ugly have an Environment Department and an Environment Minister. However, sustainable development requires more than just a department, a minister and white papers. It requires a mosaic of institutions, policies and values. Good governance is required to create a political eco-system that is adequate to save the real one.

Throughout the world, and not just in developing countries, political repression, war, corruption and woeful economic management have been the enemy of the environment and the well-being of present and future generations. Just as Amartya Sen has convincingly argued, famines do not happen in open, independent societies, so dictators are rarely friends of the earth.

But can we depend on democratic systems, even at their most sophisticated, to produce governments able to take uncomfortable decisions for the unverifiable benefit of future generations? I would argue that accountable government is by its nature more able to secure the popular legitimacy necessary to take difficult decisions, and is less prone to corruption. This makes democracy better placed to incorporate environmental costs into political and economic decisions.

However even those democratic leaders who espouse environmentalism sometimes appear fatally constrained by a prevailing public mood or a powerful private lobby. This is where we need to look wider than simply the ballot box. A liberal democracy requires more than elections. It needs an environment of checks and balances, of accommodating not exclusive values, that enables it to flourish in the interests of all its citizens, not merely in the interest of the largest number of them.

Part of this essential fabric of a liberal democracy is what we call today civil society the independent groupings and bodies, from professions and churches to non-governmental organisations. Their role and influence has massively increased as fast as that of national elected governments has been reduced. Where democratic governments fail, civil society non-governmental organisations can come to the rescue. Hence it is suggested that we need to take far greater account of civil society in order to secure sustainable development.

However there is a danger here. Everywhere, the mass political organisations upon which democratic governments have traditionally been based are crumbling. This threatens to put political parties in hock to the rich with opinions, or to interest groups with their own focussed ambitions. The authority of the traditional mechanisms for delivering sensitive and sensible majoritarian government are being compromised at the same time as governments have to cope with the growth in power of multinational corporations.

Governments and multinational enterprises are smart enough to know that the pooling of national sovereignty is required in some areas where national boundaries have been over-run by economics, environmental change and technology. International organisations on a regional or a global scale have been created to try to manage the consequences of globalisation. But they have difficulty in attracting the public loyalty necessary to give them the legitimacy they require; and they also lack the public approbation gained by a sense of participation in decision-making and of openness to public accounting.

Into the gap floods a tide of NGO activity which is in many respects an admirable and welcome demonstration of growing global pluralism. In many developing countries the NGOs are more democratic than the structures of government. But that is not the case in the richer north of the globe. Too often good arguments are pursued in a manner that threatens us all with something worse than majoritarianism, namely minoritarianism.

The question that we need to address is how to spread the benefits of dynamic trade, helping the minority of countries and the minorities within countries who are left behind when the growth in trade makes most people better off. We are not likely to get answers to this if the debate in developed countries becomes dominated by an undemocratic minority, however well-intentioned. Good governance does not mean that the minority is always right.

Democratic governments need to face this challenge by encouraging more responsibility in debate from NGOs. Political parties should create structures that enable interest groups to contribute fully to the party political debate. Governments and international organisations need to open up the discussion on public policy, to tap the expertise of informed minorities, in a process whose end result will be determined by the majority. They should also involve NGOs far more in the delivery of services and not just the discussion of politics.

To ensure that the debate on sustainable development is as constructive as possible, and that it delivers results that can command majority consent and attract minority acquiescence, the rich, pluralist, developed democracies need to understand that they have lessons of governance to learn as well.

Behind these organisational and political shifts is a reaffirmation of the democratic spirit, the understanding that democracy is an adventure in dialogue, the attempt to persuade and secure consent, the belief in Adlai Stevenson’s memorable phrase that average men and women are a great deal better than average.

We have lived through an era of political leadership as superstardom, the articulation of promises and solutions usually beyond the reach of even the most charismatic leaders, however many electoral terms they are awarded. Naturally, leaders can move things a little this way or that, for better or worse. But I believe that it is necessary for human vanity to take a second, sustainable place to a style of political leadership that recognises the value of persuasion over posturing. It is reason alone that can produce the aggregate of benign acts that alone can reverse the degradation of our world, its natural environment and for that matter its spiritual ideals.

I am not being entirely novel in making this appeal. Six centuries before Christ, Lau Tzu, Chinese sage and Keeper of the Imperial archives, wrote this:

"A leader is best When people barely know that he exists Not so good when people obey and proclaim him. Failure to honour people, They fail to honour you. But a good leader, who talks little, When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves’". 

Exactly. And what they will have done, if we are fortunate, is revitalised democracy to save our world.

(This is an edited extract from Chris Patten’s BBC Reith Lecture).

©OECD Observer No 221-222, Summer 2000




Economic data

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • COP21 Will Get Agreement With Teeth: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Bloomberg

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
Other

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016