Democracy and Sustainability
Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge,
was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 1998.
Cambridge - "Environment and development
are inextricably linked," in the words of Kofi Annan, the Secretary
General of the United Nations. It is this understanding that lies behind
the invoking of the idea of "sustainable development."
The need to think about the environment cannot really be dissociated from
the nature of the lives that people, especially deprived people, live
today. Indeed, if people have a miserable living standard currently, then
the promise of sustaining that pitiable standard in the future can hardly
be very thrilling. The goal has to include rapid reduction of today's
deprivations, while making sure that whatever is achieved today can be
sustained in the future. Global cooperation is needed both to alleviate
today's deprivations and to safeguard our future.
But do the prospects of effective global cooperation look promising? One
issue that has received much attention is the need for development assistance
and finance, and the extent to which the richer countries are willing
to help the development efforts of the poorer ones. On this front, things
do not look particularly promising, if I am any judge. The International
Conference on Financing for Development, held in Mexico last March, produced
a document-the "Monterrey Consensus"-that is quite upbeat on
powerful rhetoric but rather bashful on the likely magnitudes of financial
assistance. The chasm between expectation and delivery is beginning to
look big. For example, the financial expectations entertained by the so-called
New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) seem to be radically
out of line with the level of assistance that can be realistically expected,
at this time, from the richer countries or from international financial
institutions. In general, from the financial perspective, the outlook
cannot be seen as rosy.
Nevertheless the activists for a better financial deal will no doubt soldier
on, and rightly so. But it is also extremely important to be clear that
fruitful global cooperation can take many different forms-not just general
financial assistance. Let me illustrate.
On the environmental side, the ground that has been lost by the slowing
down of international agreements and also by the reneging on past understandings
(for example, by the United States regarding the Kyoto Protocol) needs
to be reversed. On the economic side, the importance of reducing entry
barriers in the richer countries for products from the poorer ones deserves
much greater practical acknowledgment. Johannesburg offers an excellent
opportunity for both.
Also, despite the pessimism about general financial assistance, there
is wisdom in Annan's penetrating observation that people in other countries
tend to be much more "responsive when you present them with a major
human problem and a credible strategy for dealing with it." The response
to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one obvious field, but the more general need
for concerted efforts in basic health care and basic education calls for
more global commitment in supplementing local engagement.
To consider another area, there are many institutional reforms urgently
needed for the global economy. To illustrate, there is a strong case for
making patent laws more efficient as well as less contrary to equity.
The existing laws do not facilitate the actual use of desperately needed
medicines in less affluent countries, because the obligatory royalties
for patents often cost many times more than the actual production costs.
No less importantly, the existing patent laws do not provide adequate
incentives to the producers of medicine to develop more appropriate drugs
(for example, low-cost, single-use vaccines), which are critically important
for less affluent people.
There are also many positive things that the poorer countries can do for
themselves, without any financial help from the rich, who need not be
seen as the moving agents of change. In this context, we can even question
the general strategy of defining sustainable development only in terms
of fulfillment of needs, rather than using the broader perspective of
enhancing human freedoms on a sustainable basis. The essential freedoms
must, of course, include the ability to meet crucially important economic
needs, but there are also many others to be considered, such as expanding
political participation and broadening social opportunities.
Indeed, it is not at all obvious why the enhancing and sustaining of democratic
freedoms should not figure among the central demands of sustainable development.
These freedoms are important in themselves, but furthermore, they can
contribute to other types of freedoms. For example, open public discussion,
often stifled under authoritarian regimes, may be pivotally important
for leading a fuller human life and also for a better understanding of
the importance of environmental preservation and its far-reaching effects.
There are many rewards of seeing people as "agents" who can
exercise their freedoms rather than merely as "patients" whose
needs have to be fulfilled. Being less anxious about getting big financial
assurances from the richer countries is among those rewards. Important
as financial assistance may be, there are also other ways forward, which
can be helped by more focus on agency rather than just one need-working
on one's own or in collaboration with others.
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