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

GDP growth: +0.2% Q4 2019
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% January 2020
Trade (G20): -0.1% exp, -1.3% imp, Q4 2019
Unemployment: 5.1% January 2020
Last update: 11 March 2020

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