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Evolving approaches to sustainable development


Profile of IDRC's Environment and Natural Resource Management (ENRM) program area.

"Sustainable development" is a widely used term that means different things to different people. Our Common Future, the 1987 report issued by the Brundtland Commission, defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The concept speaks to the necessity of fulfilling human economic and social aspirations while preserving the environment on which those aspirations inevitably depend.


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IDRC was the custodian of the Brundtland Commission’s work and in the two decades since, the Centre has continued to experiment with new means of realizing the promise of sustainable development. One lesson that has become clear over time, says Jean Lebel, Director of the Centre’s Environment and Natural Resource Management (ENRM) program area, is that defining sustainable development is an evolving process.

“We have plenty of examples of the common wisdom of sustainable development, what it is, and how to implement it, but there is no one recipe for achieving it,” he explains. “A solution that fits a country in Africa might inform us about how to approach a problem in Latin America, but while the process might be similar, the solution could be quite different.”

Controlling malaria, for example, requires “context-specific remedies, rather than a single silver bullet, because malaria is a disease that’s linked to local social conditions and environments,” says Lebel.

A multidisciplinary approachStill, for the ENRM team, what is consistent across contexts is a clear sense of which methods are likely to produce results. For one, IDRC-supported research projects are multidisciplinary, meaning that they bring a broad range of expertise to bear on environmental and social challenges that invariably have multiple dimensions. As well, IDRC-supported research employs a multistakeholder approach, involving all concerned parties in the search for workable solutions.

“The work of the ENRM program area is centred on the profound challenges brought about by the complex links between human well-being and the processes of globalization, development, and natural resource degradation.”
— CS+PF 2005–2010 (PF, para. 36)

There are abundant examples of the impressive — and often unexpected — results this process can produce. In Bolivia, for example, there had been 32 attempts to reform the national water law and to more equitably divide scarce water supplies among municipalities, industry, and the country’s Indigenous communities and poor farmers. Bolivian researchers, supported by IDRC, initiated a new process involving sophisticated hydrological modeling and far-reaching social consultation — eventually arriving at a consensus that broke the political stalemate and led to the passage of the new water law for irrigation.

Building on this success, researchers have developed and tested regulations to implement the law and are now addressing issues of water quality and transborder water management.

Similarly, in 2005, the Pan American Health Organization made special note of how a project supported by IDRC since the late 1990s allowed communities in Mexico to respond to a provision of the NAFTA environmental side accord calling for the elimination of DDT for malaria control. Researchers crafted a multipronged solution that combined alternative household-spraying techniques, the use of geographical information systems for focal control, and strong community participation to reduce mosquito-breeding sites.

The result: because of the program’s success in fighting malaria, DDT use was phased out before the new regulation took effect. Now, the Mexican process has become the model for a new antimalaria program across Central America.

ENRM works primarily through three programs. Ecosystem Approaches to Human Health (Ecohealth) is concerned with the intersection of environmental degradation and ill-health — a pressing matter since poor environmental conditions are directly responsible for 21% of preventable illness such as diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infection.

Urban Poverty and Environment builds on the 20 years of experience IDRC has established in urban agriculture, as well as focusing on themes such as water and sanitation, solid waste management, and vulnerability to natural disasters.

This initiative addresses issues exacerbated by the explosion in urban populations, which have grown from 33 to 47% of the world’s population since 1972. Rural Poverty and Environment, meanwhile, explores questions related to the dependence of developing countries’ rural poor on increasingly threatened environmental resources.

Community-level successes have shown that better management of the environment can lead to improvements in human health. These local successes beg the question of whether local advances can be “scaled up” for a more global impact.

To this end, ENRM is launching a new endeavour: the Focus Cities Research Initiative will explore and advance best practices to reduce environmental burdens in poor urban areas. Other ongoing work — such as a Jordanian project to conserve water and boost household income by reusing so-called “greywater” — sparked widespread international interest.

Lebel acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead. “There is the potential for sustainable development fatigue,” remarks Lebel. Still, the application of proven approaches to emerging global challenges — the role of environmental factors in the spread of avian flu and the impact of climate change on Africa are two such challenges ENRM is addressing — indicates that IDRC will remain a prominent voice in critical global environmental and social debates.

“The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human wellbeing and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations can obtain from ecosystems.”

— Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Wellbeing: Synthesis, p. 1. IDRC: L. Guénette IDRC: Y. Beaulieu