CSR and Sustainability

It's time to modernise notions of "Green development" for the 21stCentury

I was asked to take part in a debate on the topic of “Green development in the global south” at the SOAS Policy Forum on Friday, held at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. 
Here’s what I had to say below. 

I have two problems with the title. Both around accuracy.
First, “green” progress is impossible without social progress. 
Secondly, “the global south”. Where is that? It sounds far away, like the kingdom of Dorn in Game of Thrones. 
In short, it is an outmoded, wrong and unhelpful dichotomy. 
We have immense poverty and development challenges on the borders of, even within the EU. Look at average wages and pollution problems in Bulgaria, for example. 
How about Russia? The ‘Stans?, Mongolia? Albania, Ukraine? These countries are in some cases only a few hours away yet sustainable development (not just green development) is just as important for them. 
We must get away from this “them and us”, the rich guilty north vs the impoverished south.  
This is an old paradigm and its increasingly unhelpful, even if it still seems to be popular in the United Nations and the shaping of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Instead we need to view our world as inexorably and inevitably connected. 
Technology transfer can now become two way. Entrepreneurial ideas, which drive economies, can and do come from emerging markets. 
Two examples are mobile banking pioneered in Africa and much cheaper soft loan funded Chinese solar. 
These will change “us” as much as “them”. They already are. Look at how China is now taking the reins, not just imformally in the case of solar but formally with shaping and creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Back to green development. 
My company works a lot in the area of how big companies can help prevent deforestation.
Deforestation has traditionally been seen as a green issue. 
It is. But it’s much more than that today. 
For example lets talk about Indonesia. Almost all large companies who were engaging in cutting down natural “high carbon stock / high conservation value” forests have stopped now. 
This is due to NGO, market, regulatory and investor pressure. This has taken a long time, but serious progress is being made. 
There are still some rogue actors, suppliers, a couple of big companies, but today much of the deforestation that causes the haze you may see on a bad day in Singapore is caused by impoverished communities, illegal land squatters (often the same thing) and rogue individuals or groups, low level crime if you like.
So what does this mean? It means that much deforestation in Indonesia is being caused by people. Often very poor people.
This means the solutions have to be socially oriented. 
They must be about practical business/NGO partnerships, dialogue, about sustainable livelihoods, about agricultural diversification, about access to micro finance and capital. 
But also about functioning legal systems, well trained and respected police, properly paid judges, defenders and appropriate institutions. We should also include education systems and accountability, which is where academic institutions also come in. This is particularly true in the sharing of ideas, convening and developing technologies and a sense of exploration.
The solutions to these difficult challenges of creating social capital and functioning systems where few currently exist are myriad. 
They may have green outcomes but they must be social in design and implementation.
That’s why green development in the global south should be replaced by the notion of global sustainable social, economic, institutional and environmental development.
And it must not be based on notions of guilt but on the encouragement of entrepreneurship, access to capital and systems reform to prevent unsustainable business and encourage sustainable innovation. This is vitally important.  
This is harder to put on a banner perhaps, but is infinitely more effective as a paradigm. 

3 Comments

  1. Some of us in the global south are overjoyed to hear our northern cousins may be finally getting the message. A feast with slaughter and wild dancing may yet ensue.

  2. Perhaps you can elaborate, or are you just a sarcastic troll?

  3. Nicola Robins, Incite (SA),

    Yip. Fair comment. I apologise. And sorry also for lowering the tone of your blog – which actually I thought was great.

    Working in this field in southern Africa for the past twenty years has been instructive and it has been frustrating. One of the frustrations has been the extent to which post-colonial countries have continued to follow trends set by former colonising powers – even when they are addressing issues through a lens that is clearly limiting from a local point of view.

    One of these has been the green business movement. (By focusing on business, I am excluding responses such as the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and various indigenous movements across the continent which see green through a decidedly social lens.)

    While of course natural capital is key to development, the way greening has been promoted in isolation from social challenges has made sustainability work difficult. Many businesses are simply not interested in greening because it is seen as anti-people and anti-growth. That doesn't go down well when you have youth unemployment levels upwards of 50% and a growing population. For many companies in Africa, green is something you do to keep foreign capital flowing. It's a necessary decoy from what matters.

    It's taken years for the linkages between green and social issues to start entering the mainstream, and I think that's cost us a great deal.

    That said, perhaps my sarcasm is more inward-looking than anything. South Africa's political shift has inspired many people. And yet we find ourselves engulfed in the throes of xenophobic hatred and violence. So today I find myself worried that the move to modernise "green development" – to shift it into something that consciously provides for people – has come too late. But I support it anyway.

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