Thursday, 03 March 2016 04:14

It has been nearly three decades since the term ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’  had been used as popular mantra following the 1987 publication of the UN-sponsored World Commission on Environtment and Development (WCED) report, “Our Common Future”, widely known as Brundtland Report.  It defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

Based on this definiton, sustainable development contains two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."




Despite its acclaimed vagueness and ambiguity, the Brundtland definition of sustainable development has been highly instrumental in developing a “global view” with respect to our planet’s future. Extensive discussions have been taken place at local, national, and global levels in an attempt to address different aspects of sustainability which resulted in a growing recognition of three primary aspects of sustainable development.

  • Economic:  this aspect acknowledges a system in which interactions of humans with natural environment in using resources to create goods and services should be on a continuing basis and be able to add value to their lives. It encourages a fair trade system that equitably distributes benefits and costs. It further considers economic development plans that protect and/or enhance natural resource qualitites and quantities through improvements in managing policies, practices, technology, efficiency, and changes in lifestyle.
  • Environmental: this aspect acknowledges the need to enhance and maintain the biophysical systems that sustain all life on Earth. An environmentally sustainable system must maintain a stable resource base, avoiding over-exploitation of renewable resources and deplete non-renewable resources.  There is a high understanding on natural processes and integrity of landscape, watershed, and aquatic ecosystem to guide design of sound economic development strategies.
  • Social: this aspect acknowledges  fairness and equality in distribution and opportunity and adequate provision of social services including health, education, gender equity, jobs, natural resources, and political accountability and participation.


Parallel to the interdependency of these three aspects,  there have been challenges which have led to complications of the original and simple definition of economic development.

The goals implied are multidimensional, raising the issue of how to balance objectives and how to judge success or failure. The unprecedented complexities within the myriad of systemic dysfunction, each with its own economic, ecological and social dimensions, has called for an evolution of sustainable development paradigm in terms of its measurement.


The connection of the three pillars has encouraged a widened  and various discourse as there is no single cause or solution. For example, what if the economic value of a new industrial plant constructed by cutting down forest exceeds the economic value of the lost forest? what if provision of adequate food and water supplies appears to require changes in land use that will decrease biodiversity? What if non-polluting energy/eco-friendly sources are more expensive, thus increasing the burden of the poor? What if eco-friendly produce exported from less developed countries to developed countries are rejected and put to waste due to high standard quality control? How to prioritize freedom of expression while you can not feed your own family? Which goal should take greater importance?And the list continues.


Noorgard (1994) argues that ‘it is impossible to define sustainable development in an operational manner in the detail and with the level of control presumed in the logic of modernity’. Despite the complexities of the issues, there is a common understanding that there shoud be an efficient formula to measure sustainable development in order to achieve a well-balanced quality of well being in an ecologically friendly planet. However, sustainable development cannot be measured by the traditional economic model of increasing per capita income or gross domestic product (GDP) as this can mask the situations where the poor are getting poorer despite increasing average GDP (UN, 2008). Therefore,  sustainable development measurement should be aimed at designing  viable schemes combining the economic, social, and environmental aspects of human activity. These three areas must be taken into consideration by governments, communities, companies, and individuals to achieve the ultimate goal, that is to find a coherent and long-lasting balance between these three aspects.


In the attempt to measure sustainable development, there are major challenges to be addressed as it takes place at global level  where various actors in different environtment  are interdependent. Many initiatives have been taken at local, national and global level to try to address the indicators of sustainable development and methods for comparing each pillar. These initiatives include ecological footprinting, multi criteria decision analysis, United Nations Human Development Index, green national net product,  indicators of sustainable economic welfare, genuine savings, genuine progress indicator, pollution-sensitive human development indicator, sustainable human development indicator, United Nations commission on sustainable development, consultative group on sustainable development indicators, wellbeing index, environmental sustainability index, and global scenario group.


Each of these methods try to fulfill the original message of sustainability that it must allow the basic needs of present and future generations to be fulfilled with regard to demographic constraints, such as access to water, education, health, employment, and the fight against hunger or malnutrition. Sustainable development should also consider the improvement of well-being quality which involves easier access to medical care, social services,  and also culture. In addition, respect for rights and freedoms and the promotion of new forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal power, are important aspects of sustainable development. Sustainable development must allow the planet’s resources and conditions to be protected for future generations and natural assets to be shared. The concept of sustainable development also involves narrowing the gaps between rich and poor countries.  At a global scale in particular, the North and South economic gap and unequal distribution between the world’s population could be the cause of tensions and  conflicts, which leads to regression rather than development.


Many scholars argue that each instrument has their own limitations and thus require an in-depth analysis as the conclusion for each method can be different.  Alfsen and Greaker (2007) state that most indicators fail due to large number of indicators, often representing measurements without theory, only focusing, to a limited extent, on parameters of critical importance for sustainable development. Rather than focusing on the critical parameters, these indicators often attempt to measure all aspects of development. Conversely, with single aggregate indicators it is difficult todetermine the methodology for weighing and individual areas of importance. In conclusion, Alfsen and Greaker (2007) suggest a balanced measure of sustainable development should have:

  1. A clear plan for the utilisation of natural resources and environmental accounts.
  2. A broad theoretical framework based on comprehensive national wealth supported by capital accounts of relevant assets, conversion and end use of accounts for the analysis of policy impacts.
  3. A common framework is needed among countries of the world based upon a resource or capital approach.
  4. Authoritative national and global indicators based on the concept of national wealth are desirable.


(a lesson learned from “Shortcourse on Managing Sustainable Development”, Maastricht University, The Netherland)



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