Demystifying Development Jargons – Part 3

Continuing with untangling more jargon, in this post we shall talk about the hottest buzzword of recent times – “sustainability” (and all that is associated with it). A term that is on everyone’s agenda – from businesses to consumers, in politics, new technologies, and particularly in international development and humanitarian projects. This shift towards sustainability as a hot topic, how did it come about? More importantly, what does it mean?

When one thinks of sustainability, the mind is automatically drawn towards the environment and preserving our planet. We think about plastic pollution, climate change, and offsetting our carbon footprint. While all of these holds true, sustainability is a broad term indicating programs, initiatives, policies, and actions aimed at a more holistic and rounded approach to life in general.

Here are some definitions referring to sustainability:

  • Cambridge Dictionary: “Sustainability is the quality of being able to continue over a period of time”
  • Merriam-Webster: “Sustainable is the capability of being sustained; or relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”
  • Sustainable Development was defined by the UN in the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report as “development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”
  • The Sustainable Development Goals “are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich, and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities while tackling climate change and environmental protection”.

The common point from all the definitions is time. When speaking of sustainable practices, the goal is to think of the long term. As stated earlier, it is a holistic and rounded practice. What that means is, sustainability is multidimensional and includes the environment, economy, social (or culture), and human. They are interwoven and do not function sustainably in isolation.

Environmental Sustainability focuses on protecting and improving welfare through the protection of natural resources and natural capital. By finding the right balance, the economy can still thrive without compromising the environment. It is vital because the environment is a closed economic system, meaning, once we run out of natural resources, that is it. Our growth, development, and innovations are constrained by the stock of natural resources available.

Economic Sustainability aims to keep the economy strong, keep businesses profiting, and improve society’s standard of living. In sustainable development, economic growth has to continue, and herein lies the crux of the matter. Traditional economic models have failed to capture the impacts of development on the environment and society. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not care if the Euro is coming from polluting the environment or not. It does not indicate the measure of inequality or the level of crime in a country.

Social Sustainability focuses on society. Humans are social beings. We live in communities, form bonds, and create cultures. This has contributed to agglomerations, exchange of ideas, cohesion, and a value for human rights. Social sustainability aims to invest in social capital to ensure that society is thriving in the long run. It is a very important agenda on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where social equality and social empowerment intertwined with environmental sustainability in global development has increased value.

Human Sustainability aims to develop human capital. The focus is on health, education, nutrition, skill and knowledge development, and access to services. The prosperity of human capital development contributes to economic and social sustainability, and in the context of the SDGs, should be achieved within the constraints of environmental sustainability.

Sustainability is referring to the long term goal of the prosperity of all dimensions – environment, economy, society, and humans; and sustainable development refers to the processes, interventions, and actions that aim to achieve this long term goal. Sustainability is the goal and sustainable development is how it can be achieved. Sustainable development is a continuous process. It is not one action or policy that can help achieve sustainability and prosperity. It is continuous and ever-evolving.

In truth, sustainable practices have been around for centuries. It is pertinent now, with the focus being drawn to it to find the right balance or equilibrium between all the dimensions. Even more challenging is probably the vast diversity in geographies, cultures, and environment present. This means:

  1. We cannot have one single definition of sustainability. It has to fit the context.
  2. And therefore, sustainable development practices/solutions also have to be tailored to the context.