New configurations of actors for sustainable development

Le développement durable en action : à la recherche de nouvelles configurations d'acteurs
Article Index
Beyond the social foundation but above the…
Why oil subsidies should be removed

The promotion of sustainable development has overused a number of ideas and themes to mobilize and influence policymakers. Today environmental and social emergencies are increasing the need to find new means of taking action.

A quarter century's worth of attempts to 'sell' sustainable development offer a range of lessons which, if properly incorporated, can serve as a guide to better success in future. Four of these lessons - all closely related - are explored here. Following an analysis of these four issues, the next section of the article discusses a number of emerging approaches that will be crucial to humanity in making a shift towards more sustainable development modes.

Fundamental contradictions at the core of the sustainable development narrative

The myth of mainstreaming

One of the most pervasive verbs in the sustainable development vocabulary since the late 1980s has been 'mainstreaming'. The word itself, born of the US custom of turning nouns into verbs, was popularized by the World Bank, and quickly permeated the sustainable development narrative worldwide. The notion is both convincing and fundamentally flawed.

We all know and accept that when policies in different areas run on separate tracks, the opportunities for optimization tend to be lost. The core narrative of sustainable development during the first twenty-five years has been articulated around the notion of policy alignment and policy coherence. The imagery used to illustrate it has followed a similar route. The sustainable development platform is supported, like the legs of a stool, by the three pillars of economy, society and the environment. If one is broken or weakened, the stool becomes unstable. More recently, preference has gone to the helix image of the DNA molecule. The three strands weave together to provide the genetic make-up of sustainable development and in the imagery the strands are always equal.

In reality, unfortunately, they are not. Whatever the standard used to measure them - budget allocation; time dedicated to them in parliamentary debate; prestige of the political posts associated with them, etc. - economic policy occupies one plane, social policy one well below, and environmental policy a distant last place. In any government, the finance or economic ministry is a place of high political importance, whereas ministers of environment - in the company of ministers of post, or youth and sports - occupy the lowest planes.

The notion of mainstreaming emerged to address this. Economic policy, realistically, represented the stream. The task for social and environmental policy was to flow into and mix with the stream thus ensuring that they became fully integrated in a single, mighty river. No more milking stools; no more strands twisting off into infinity without ever coming into contact. The image is the Danube, the Mississippi; in looking at the river downstream from the confluence, it is impossible to say that this cubic metre came down the Inn or the Missouri. It has all become one.

However, even from an imagery point of view, there are two major problems. Observe a clear, blue mountain brook flowing into a muddy river. A few kilometres downstream and the blue water has disappeared, leaving nothing but the muddy river. By this token, environmental policy flows into economic policy and quickly loses its identity. It has in no fundamental way changed the character or composition of the river, and it has certainly not changed its flow direction.

This leads to the other awkward aspect of the image. The call to mainstream assumes that the stream is the right stream, and that it is fundamentally moving in the right direction. It also accepts - at least passively - that the direction, speed and destination of the flow are determined by economic policy. Indeed, it essentially means that economic policy is a given - or at least that its principal characteristics will be set well before any contribution from the tributaries of social or environmental policy will be accepted.

What the economic crisis that began in 2008 demonstrates is that we cannot accept the basic shape and functioning of economic policy as a 'given'. If, as it appears at least conceivable for the sake of argument, the fundamentals of economic organization are flawed, then mainstreaming is a disastrous policy. In retrospect, the enthusiastic way that the term was bandied about by the World Bank and other temples of economic orthodoxy should have been a warning.

The divorce of economic policy

Most proponents of sustainable development bet on a strategy of seducing economic policy and it lost. Once economic policy is defined and set, the range of options for social and economic policy in a mainstreaming scenario shrinks to encompass only those compatible with economic policy as defined. This sealed the failure of sustainable development in the first two decades; to the extent that it was mainstreamed, it disappeared into the muddy waters of an economic paradigm that values economic growth over all other considerations - the imperative of full employment, the progress of social justice, respect for planetary boundaries or the integrity of ecosystems. Far from mainstreaming, the social and environmental streams of sustainable development found themselves swimming against the current. Or, in the words of David Orr, they found themselves 'walking north on a southbound train' (Orr, 2003).

If any good came out of the economic crisis that broke in 2008, it lay in the beginnings of a deep reassessment of the functioning and impact of our economic system. Indeed, the crisis appeared to confirm the growing doubts as to whether the neo-liberal economic model could genuinely deliver on broadly-supported goals relating to social justice and inclusiveness, and on environmental responsibility. The ensuing debate has set sustainable development off in an entirely new direction and allowed it to find new vigour and energy. It began with the search for the structure and organization of the green economy (which trades under a variety of names - green growth, a green and inclusive economy, eco-civilization, a safe and just operating space for humanity, etc.). What all - or at least most - of these have in common is the understanding that the economy is not by any means a 'given', a set structure that social and environment policy must seek to infiltrate and infect.

Instead, the insight of the green economy is to understand that it is the organization and functioning of the economy itself that will deliver sustainable development. The aim must be to design economic policy and regulation so that the economy can, by its very functioning, deliver on the social and environmental objectives that we seek to secure. A green economy is one that creates jobs and safeguards livelihoods. It is one that diminishes and finally eliminates social exclusion. It is one that returns development within the limits set by planetary and resource boundaries and maintains essential ecosystem services.

In 2001, Dani Rodrik of Harvard published a report for UNDP entitled 'The governance of global trade as if development really mattered' (Rodrik, 2001). It looked at the multilateral trading system and speculated how it would be organized and how it would function if the alleviation of poverty were its single goal and objective. The answer, of course, is that it would look and work very differently from a trading system in which development is a stated goal, but where the implications of taking that goal seriously are never placed front and centre.

In view of its past failures, there is an urgent need seriously to ask ourselves what our economy would need to look like if it were designed to deliver not only economic growth and wealth accumulation for some, but a balanced form of development that is situated in the 'doughnut' above the social floor but under the ceiling set by planetary boundaries.

The equity gap

There is no shortage of efforts to do just that. Rio+20 has updated the global agenda; Sustainable Development Goals are being crafted; a High-Level Political Forum has been created to steer and oversee the diligent implementation of both. And, sectorally, the world is creaking under the weight of solemnly-adopted goals and targets, few of which lead to the sort of change that would bring development onto a sustainable path.

There are, of course, many areas where we have advanced, and many problems of the past have been solved or are well along the way towards a solution. Where we have not advanced much, however, is in respect of issues that require addressing the equity gap, or a shift in the way in which the economy works. So we can adopt a mercury convention, or repair the ozone layer, or nudge the palm oil industry towards sustainability. But we find it almost impossible to advance on any issue that requires closing the gap between the privileged and less privileged, or that requires an amendment of the economic framework that sets the terms of competition among states.

We will not make the shift to a green economy, much less to sustainable development, unless and until we can do both. The chances of doing that based on global intergovernmental consensus-building are almost non-existent. We have to find other approaches.

Despite the international conspiracy to see only the rosy side of the outcome, Rio+20 failed in almost every respect against the very standards of measurement set by the international community itself. The gap between the binding agreements governing climate and the needs of a 2-degree world is enormous - and would be even if these agreements were fully implemented. The same gap exists in biodiversity conservation, or fisheries management, or human rights, and the list goes on. A vast proportion of the time, attention and funding of governments goes into the formal process, even when this process fails to advance at a pace that would allow it properly to address the problems.

The same is true in the world of economic policy. The World Trade Organization secured a mandate to negotiate the Doha Round (2001) only by promising to address the development problems caused by the Uruguay Round (concluded in 1994). Contrary to the promise that the Uruguay Round would benefit all members of the multilateral trading system many developing countries found that, while these benefits were there in theory, to secure them in practice would require human and institutional capacity that they lacked, improved governance, and better access to investment capital.

The intention on the part of many of the stronger trading nations in making these promises was no doubt to pay lip service to development, and to argue that trade-led economic growth was tantamount to development. Only the world has changed and the developing countries are now looking for real development concessions - such as greater development policy space; they are looking for trade arrangements that actually narrow the gap between the stronger and weaker trading nations, and for trade rules to respect the development space the latter need to address issues such as food security.

The world has changed, and it is idle to continue pinning our hopes on the tired processes of another century.

Migration of authority

The intergovernmental system rests still on the myth that the truly important decisions in society - and most especially those with impacts beyond international borders - can only be taken by states, and in most cases by national governments. This is to ignore the significant three-way migration of power over the past few decades.

Authority has migrated upwards - to supra-national structures such as the European Commission or to international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the Bank of International Settlements, and many more. Mostly by conscious decision, but sometimes by the simple reality of power, authority that was once exercised in national capitals is now exercised at a level beyond the individual state.

Authority has also migrated downwards. In many if not most nations, authority that once rested with the national government, the army or the royal family is now distributed to sub-national jurisdictions. Many of the decisions affecting development are now taken by state or provincial governments, by municipalities or communes. The principle of subsidiarity - which states that authority should be exercised at the lowest level of governance compatible with efficiency - is increasingly accepted as the right governance template, even if it is hard to implement in practice.

Perhaps most important, however, authority has migrated outwards, beyond the confines of the public sector, whatever the level of geographical organization. It is no secret that the market plays a far greater role in development than it did in the past. Whether by influencing government rule-setting, or through playing a more active role in delivering development benefits on behalf of the government, the private sector is now a far greater development actor than ever in the past.

What is true of the for-profit sector is as well for the non-profit sector - for civil society broadly considered. Non-governmental organizations have stepped forward to offer a range of social and environmental services, sometimes on behalf of governments, and more often to step into the breach as governments cut back on what they are able to offer. From small community or church groups acting at the local level to the giants like Oxfam, Action Aid and Care, civil society is a massive part of the development machinery nationally and internationally.

And yet our intergovernmental system continues to act as if we had just signed the Treaty of Westphalia.

Seeking a new configurations of actors

It is interesting to pose the question of which pathways, and what configurations of actors, offer the best prospects for progress on particular issues. An honest answer would rarely insist that the official intergovernmental process lies at the top of the list. Instead, it would more likely spell out a series of configurations that recognize the three-way migration of authority described above.

If, for example, the single objective of humanity were to avoid carbon entering the atmosphere, and a contest were mounted to choose the three sets of actions that would be most likely to succeed in achieving this objective, it is likely that the solutions would be very creative. They might include, for example:

* The complete removal of subsidies to production and consumption of fossil fuels.

* Action to oblige investors to factor in and accept the carbon risk attached to their investments.

* Working with the insurance industry and the public sector to 'de-risk' investment in renewable energy.

* Working with fiscal authorities to introduce differential taxation for 'clean' versus 'dirty' development.

* Supporting the C40 network of megacities to accelerate climate action where an increasing proportion of the world's populations reside.

* Launching a global Green Bonds market to fund green infrastructure and energy technology transformation.

* A global campaign to 'strand' coal assets at the earliest possible date.

None of these ideas (and they are selected almost at random from among many possible contenders) require 193 governments sitting around the same table to reach a consensus. While of course it would be preferable if they did, the point is that a great deal can be done to address the climate challenge provided that the exclusive priority is not given to the tired and disappointing UNFCCC process and it is accepted that action can and must take place on many different levels, involving many different actors or combinations of actors, working in a wide spectrum of modes from academic research, through local action to aggressive campaigning or deliberately disruptive action.

Taking the first of the examples suggested above, what prospects are there for fossil fuel subsidies to be eliminated, and what impact would it have? First, a massive amount of public money is devoted to lowering the price of carbon-based fuels. Taking subsidies to exploration and production in combination with those to consumption of these fuels, estimates of public subsidy range from $550 billion to over $1.5 trillion per year (Clements B. et al., 2013; Arze del Granado et al., 2010). Adopting the more conservative figures (and the difference lies largely in how subsidies are defined), this compares to over five times the amount targeted by the Green Climate Fund. Worse, it serves effectively as a massive incentive to give preference to carbon-based fuels over the alternatives. Through subsidizing fossil fuels, the same governments that have pledged to act urgently to address climate change are paying us royally to behave in a way that undermines the very goals they have set, that pushes their realization back by years if not decades, and that makes stabilization of global warming at 2 degrees well-nigh impossible.

We are not talking about theoretical figures. The money spent on subsidies could, absolutely, be placed in the Green Climate Fund. It could be invested to end the energy poverty of the rural poor across the developing world. It could be placed in a fund that serves to de-risk the clean energy transition. It could be used to repay some of the national debt and lower the cost of borrowing new capital. It could be used to retrain coal miners, or to start up small businesses in areas that will suffer from the death of the carbon industry. And, of course, it could be invested in health and education. So not only are subsidies to fossil fuels an unfortunate use of taxpayer money, they have an actively negative impact and represent a massive opportunity cost. Finally, to those who argue that they may be expensive but that they are an important source of support for the poor, it is important to understand that even the International Monetary Fund finds that some 43% of all fossil fuels subsidies benefit the top fifth of income earners, and only 7% the bottom fifth (Arze del Granado et al., 2010, p.2247, Table 12).

If there is a compelling case for phasing out subsidies to fossil fuels, nobody thinks it is easy. There are several reasons why it is so difficult to remove subsidies once they are in place. First and foremost, it is not for nothing that subsidies are sometimes called 'the currency of politics'. Politicians with access to the budget allocation process use subsidies to reward interest groups in their constituencies on the understanding that this will secure their vote in the next election. Subsidies to US corn ethanol have little to do with climate action or lowering dependence on oil from the Middle East, and a great deal to do with electoral arithmetic in states like Iowa.

Second, the political economy of subsidy reform is complex.

Those who suffer from the subsidy are widespread and diverse; those who benefit are concentrated and organized. Interest groups will lobby fiercely to defend their subsidies while those for whom it is just a questionable allocation of tax money lack the motivation to go to the barricades.

Finally, it is difficult to mobilize international action on subsidy reform since subsidy policy is - with the exception of occasional trade impacts - domestic policy par excellence. The way that the French parliament allocates tax revenue is, with exceptions, not the business of other countries. Indeed, given the sensitive and highly political nature of subsidy allocation, a great effort is made to ensure that subsidy allocation is poorly reported, poorly understood and, to the extent possible, ignored. Foreigners poking around in this dirty linen are particularly unwelcome.

And yet, the question about fossil fuel subsidies - all $500 billion annually - is not whether we can afford to confront them given the complexities, but whether we can afford not to if we genuinely believe in sustainable development. But when it comes to deciding how they might best be confronted, it is clear that new approaches are needed.

Non-traditional alliances

The late International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) researcher Konrad von Moltke used to point out that many of the successes at addressing complex international problems could be traced back to what he called 'non-traditional alliances'. By that he meant not just alliances involving a diversity of stakeholder groups - government, intergovernmental organizations, local authorities, business, academia, civil society, the media... - but more especially alliances that would not otherwise get together around any other issues. Wolfgang Reinicke studied a range of these in his 1998 book Global Public Policy: governing without government?

and drew out some of the reasons for their success.

The alliance around negotiations on fish subsidies at the World Trade Organization is an example. There are few issues that would gather as disparate a group of countries as the 'Friends of Fish', because it is difficult to imagine on what other issues they might find common ground. But the preparation of the negotiations required years of research and data gathering by FAO, OECD, UNEP, WWF and others, and more especially the advocacy and mobilizations skills of WWF and its network. Three essential elements need to come together to ensure success: a solid foundation of research and data so that the facts of the case are not seriously in dispute; the authority of 'officialdom' that is vested in governments and intergovernmental structures; and the freedom, communications skills and mobilizing power of the better members of civil society.

Reinicke chronicles several examples - e.g. the setting of a globally-accepted standard for large dams, undertaken by the World Commission on Dams; or the successful negotiation of a treaty banning anti-personnel mines, which won the campaign the Nobel Peace Prize.

The world still relies far too much on formal negotiations among governments at a time when governments hold only some of the cards that make up a full deck. We need now to show a great deal more imagination in how we approach problems and their solution at the international level.

Action coalitions

Returning to the reform of fossil fuel subsidies it has been established that, as a challenge, it is formidable. As with the examples above, success depends on a solid base of research and data and strong communications skills, but also on the mobilization of political courage among governments. In the end, only they can actually eliminate or restructure the subsidies. The challenge then, is to create an environment that lowers the political risk of subsidy reform to the government in question.

In some cases, what is needed is transparency - a job for civil society and the media. Once the public knows that the subsidies intended for the poor are going to the middle class and that alternatives exist, their attachment to the existing subsidies is loosened. Successful campaigning can change the political risk profile, introducing the perception that maintaining the subsidy can be more dangerous politically than moving towards reform.

Few organizations, however, possess the range of skills needed to undertake all of what is necessary - the research, the communications, the mobilization - successfully. Most specialize at least to some extent - they focus on research or analysis, or they mount public campaigns, or they lobby politically at a high level. The culture to do each successfully is different from that required to do the others and it is difficult, if not impossible, to pull all the pieces together in one organization. It is probably not even desirable.

A new trend, therefore, is the development of purpose-built coalitions around specific policy targets, with all coalition members agreeing on a common agenda. While this is not new - note the examples above relating to fish subsidies or land mines - two aspects have risen to the surface in the past years. First, the nature of the challenges - addressing atmospheric carbon, or mismanagement of fisheries, or abuse of land rights, or female genital mutilation - are such that no single organization can address all the facets. Second, the risk of failure for any organization is so great that it would be unwise for it to venture into the dragon's lair on its own.

Addressing fossil fuel subsidy reform in Egypt, or India, or Mexico requires the data available from the International Energy Agency or the World Bank and their official contacts at the national level. It requires the skill and experience of organizations like IISD's Global Subsidies Initiative to understand the political economy of reform and to draw the partners together into an action coalition; but it also needs skilled players in-country, in civil society, in academia, and in the media; and it requires trusted spokespersons prepared to stand up and express the inconvenient truth and offer alternatives.

Increasingly, such action coalitions are coming together around specific international challenges, or challenges too thorny to address only at the domestic level. That trend can only become reinforced over the coming years.

Further aggregation

For the same risk-related reasons, funders are beginning to respond in the same way that campaigning members of civil society have learned to do. They understand that the complexity and intractable nature of many of the most important issues present them with a risk that few would be prepared to accept on their own. So they are coming together in funder aggregates to take on some of the more difficult challenges. For example, the European Climate Foundation (ECF), along with many others, is increasingly convinced that none of the scenarios for stabilizing climate change within acceptable limits involves more than the marginal use of coal. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently declared that all fossil fuel use must be phased out before the end of the century if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Clearly, even eliminating coal is a formidable challenge, especially since it will involve taking on powerful and well-organized lobbies, stranding investors' assets, restructuring whole sectors of industry and the economy, and causing loss of employment at the local level in coal-producing areas and within derivative industries. At the same time, players like ECF know that this is a necessary transition and that, the sooner it is undertaken, the better-off society will be.

Their response and that of an increasing number of funders and foundations has been similar to that of civil society: band together in purpose-built coalitions. ECF and others are looking both for a coalition of funders able to put the necessary resources behind what will clearly be a Herculean effort. But they are also trying to identify the players they need on the field, the mix of skills, experience and reach that will allow them to deploy a complex and ambitious strategy with a chance of success.

In the end, most of the key issues around sustainable development share a common thread - they require a change in the pattern of incentives and disincentives that govern the consumption and lifestyle behaviour of citizens. Since most of these incentives are in place because they respond to the interests of individual groups with access to power, they are entrenched and difficult to budge. Nevertheless, budge they must, and one can take comfort at the long history of 'impossible' issues that have in the end been solved or are on the way to solution. Ending smoking in public places is a telling example. When efforts began, the first reaction was that the tobacco lobbies have full control over members of parliaments or national assemblies and are prepared to spend billions to defend their access to innocent lungs; and, sure enough, for years this seemed to reflect the truth. Then, in one country after another, public smoking was kerbed and a smoke-free environment became the norm rather than the exception.

The trouble is, we no longer have the time to pick off issue after issue. Some issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, need to be addressed now.

regulation and new industrial policy

It is striking in the above examples that the role of government - once central to debates on public policy - now seems secondary. Or worse, the inability of governments to act genuinely in the long-term public interest is seen to be a large part of the problem. Is the choice, then, between bypassing governments and forcing them to act through public pressure?

This would be too pessimistic a reading of present potential. However, it will be necessary to move past the assumptions of neo-liberal economics that government is necessarily a cumbersome and inefficient alternative to the market and should be reserved for a limited set of actions - such as ensuring national defense or conducting foreign policy - for which the market is ill-suited.

Together with the rethinking of sustainable development action, there is in parallel a deep rethinking of the role of the public sector and increasing calls for government to regulate in the public good. This is at least in part because the market has proved to be such a poor mechanism to defend the public interest in a wide range of areas. A movement is underway not only to debate how best government might put in place a framework of policies and regulations that are favourable to the sustainability transition; there is also the beginning of a debate on how government can go further, and set in place a framework that deliberately steers the economy in a desirable direction. This debate on a 'Green Industrial Policy' represents a fundamental shift away from thirty years of economic orthodoxy, and one that could play a major role in accelerating the green transition.

See, for example:

Just as neo-liberal economic thinking led to the dismantlement of government structures and services around the world, it is now increasingly accepted that only government can set in place and defend the enabling policy and regulatory framework that will ensure that the public good is genuinely defended.

Just as Dani Rodrik imagined an overriding goal for the trading system and examined what design would be needed to reach that goal, Green Industrial Policy suggests that there are public goods in the form of social and natural capital every bit as important as economic capital and asks what actions governments should take to ensure that these forms of capital are generated, even if it means new restrictions on the search for immediate gain on the part of a few.

Addressing the equity agenda

It has been clear for some time that we are stuck when it comes to making progress on issues that depend on addressing the equity gap, whether it is between rich and poor countries or the rich and poor within countries. Delivering a global trade deal that allows smaller traders to take some of the market share heretofore reserved for the larger traders is beyond the abilities of the trading system today. Similarly, adopting a binding climate deal appears impossible because of fears that the action required would fundamentally challenge the foundation on which today's economy is based.

And yet we will not reach sustainable development unless and until we can take on equity as the fundamental core of the challenge. This means conceiving of a form of economic organization that respects both the social floor and the planetary boundaries, that situates itself in the space in between, in what Kate Raworth refers to as the 'safe and just operating space for humanity'

. This will not happen by citizen action alone (or at least not until it can change the policy and regulatory framework) and the last three decades have demonstrated that the market, left to its own devices, will not do it either. Deliberate action in the public sector, encouraged if not forced by citizen action and where possible recruiting the positive segments of the market is the only way to succeed in time.


We are on the cusp of a major change, and if we are able to configure the change elements positively, the shift to sustainable forms of development could happen fast. It is not inconceivable that renewable energy could become the norm in a short period of time, leading to a rapid end of the dominance of the fossil fuel interests. We have, in the past, seen many seemingly intractable issues brought to a tipping point and then transform fundamentally in a short period of time. We have seen plenty of evidence that humanity retains a strong survival instinct and that it will eventually choose the right course - though probably, as Winston Churchill said of the Americans, only after exhausting all of the alternatives! We have learned a great deal about how change occurs and are becoming better at replicating it.

What is needed now is a sharp acceleration of the shift to new forms of action, involving alliances of players from across the spectrum, coalitions of donors, and positive action at the public policy level. It is no longer only about what you do, but how and with whom you do it. Examples abound (Lovins Hunter L., Cohen B., 2011; Hawken P., 2008), from those supporting the proper use of free markets to those who believe in reversing globalization; from those who support divestment of dirty investments to those seeking to create new green investment vehicles; from those who believe in moulding personal behaviour to those who believe in changing the rules that govern global trade and investment. There is room for all these approaches. Indeed, diversity and experimentation are the most likely routes to success.

Sufficient examples exist to suggest that this is the wave of the future, not the repeated and disappointing mega-summits, the pious reports of independent commissions, or the monotonous series of failed intergovernmental negotiations. In keeping with the words of American inventor Thomas Edison: 'There is a way to do it better - find it!'.

Beyond the social foundation but above the environmental ceiling

The 'doughnut' representation of Kate Raworth illustrates the environmental and social issues to be addressed to achieve a balanced form of development.
Show Media

Why oil subsidies should be removed

The persistence of fossil fuel subsidies is one of the failures of the political commitment to a more sustainable form of development and to mobilization against climate change.
Show Media