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The Three Principles of Sustainable Development

By Arthur B. Keys, Jr

Over the past 60 years, hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty. Hundreds of millions more have obtained middle class lifestyles and opportunities, enjoying goods and experiences only available to the very wealthy of previous eras. As important, large areas of the globe are now free from large-scale conflict. These gains have all been made possible by sustainable economic and social development. Sustainable development is the topic at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development from June 20-22, otherwise known as Rio +20. The key question is simple: How can those in more affluent nations help the less affluent nations sustainably develop, bringing about peace and stability?

Sustainable development is easy to define—it's the generation of incomes, wealth, and opportunities that result in the creation of additional incomes, wealth, and opportunities, without reducing the ability of future generations to do the same. But, it's not always so easy to achieve. Analyzing a model used in over 40 countries, we have concluded sustainable development is guided by three concrete principles. 

First, build on what already exists. Development projects are especially effective when they help people improve what they already do. In Africa, for example, this primarily means agriculture. Sustainability requires direct work with farmers, as well as infrastructure-based stabilization investments that expand market access and overcome constraint along the value chain. Investing in infrastructure—roads, bridges, and the electrical grid—can yield impressive results for the development of market-driven economic activities of all kinds, including agriculture.

Second, development organizations must work with and through communities. Sustainable economic and social development only succeeds if it identifies with and engages local power structures by leveraging the knowledge and capabilities of local leaders and groups. By engaging the community, one helps reconcile competing interests that impede work and develop the long-term commitment and resources to maintain market-friendly governance structures.

Third, development groups must build the capacity of local partners. As the USAID Forward initiative puts it, "development organizations must build in sustainability from the start." Building on what already exists requires reliance on local partners, communities, and leaders and the thick web of activities and relationships they have developed over years. Development is about helping people help themselves.

One African nation provides a view into how these principles are being successfully applied. The smallest country on mainland Africa, Gambia, has long had representative political institutions and a market-based economy and has significant agricultural potential, including products for export.

Through the Gambia River Basin Cashew Value Chain Enhancement Project (CEP), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Peace Corps, and non-governmental organizations are helping thousands of farmers increase cashew output. The goal is to move beyond subsistence into market-oriented production that raises incomes and produces wealth that can be put to use in the cashew and other sectors. Through better seeds, innovative growing and harvesting techniques, improved land management, and training in business management, cashew farmers and others along the cashew value chain are building a globally competitive sector. Taking the value chain approach allows seed sellers, traders, processors, shipping companies, exporters, and others to better appreciate how prices are set, where the opportunities exist for greater revenue, and how to position themselves to gain maximum benefit from their efforts. It’s a comprehensive approach with an eye to selling in regional and, eventually, global markets. CEP is designed to help increase the incomes of at least 80,000 people in Gambia and the neighboring countries of Senegal and Guinea Bissau, which also produce cashews. The market skills developed in the cashew sector can then be transferred to other agricultural sectors in all three countries, further raising incomes, enhancing social opportunities, and deepening the economic ties that help maintain peace and stability.

As bleak as the media portrays the international plight, our world is immeasurably more secure, prosperous, and free than at any other time in human history. Sustainable development is not the only thing responsible for this relative peace and social and individual advancement. But peaceful growth does not happen without sustainable development. We all need to remember that.

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Dr. Arthur B. Keys, Jr is president and CEO of International Relief and Development (IRD).

[Image courtesy of Flickr]

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