Worldwide crises need global solutions

A shepherd herds his flock of sheep as he passes one of India's landfills at Gazipur in New Delhi. Picture: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty
A shepherd herds his flock of sheep as he passes one of India's landfills at Gazipur in New Delhi. Picture: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty
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Mobilising action to develop the planet sustainably without winners and losers will require international co-operation on a huge scale, says May East

TODAY in UN circles we talk about the need to understand the convergence of multiple crises. With half the world’s growing population living in poverty, reserves of fresh water becoming increasingly scarce and climate change threatening to make large swathes of the planet unsuited for food production and habitation, some say the world is in a state of convulsion. This might seem an overreaction to some.

However, those of us working on the ground understand the urgency contained in such sentiments. It is precisely when the world is in extreme tension that steadfastness and goal-setting is most needed. At such times, problems are not solved by conventional methods, or by light-touch interventions. They require unprecedented coordination and cooperation at an international level.

In 1992, Agenda 21 was presented to the world as an attempt to re-evaluate and change how to meet human needs within environmental limits. One of the highlights of the Rio Earth Summit, it set out plans to tackle poverty, over-consumption and deterioration of land, air and water, while conserving habitats and their diversity, and was unanimously adopted by all 178 countries attending the Rio Summit.

Agenda 21 was followed in 2000 by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an ambitious 15-year road-map offering a vision of reduced poverty and hunger, better health and education, sustainable lifestyles and shared commitments. MDGs have shown that when there are objectives to guide the international community’s efforts towards a collective goal, it becomes easier for governments, institutions and stakeholders to work together to reach them.

Commitment to a sustainable future

Twenty years on from the Earth Summit, world leaders again met in Rio in 2012 to renew their commitment to a sustainable future, and to start work on a new set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs). Debates are taking place across the globe to set targets that mobilise action, energise people and re-orient governments on how to develop the planet without winners and losers.

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity, with governments, UN agencies and stakeholders working towards the new sustainable development framework. The intergovernmental Open Working Group tasked with proposing the set of SDGs has just met in New York to discuss how thematic areas such as health, employment and education could be addressed by the new goals framework. Previous working sessions examined the thematic issues of food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, desertification, land degradation and drought; and water and sanitation. Over the last few weeks the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel, Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the UN Global Compact have all published reports with their recommendations for new global goals to replace the MDGs when they expire at the end of 2015. So, the new thinking is under way.

It’s matched by action on the ground, from organisations like CIFAL Scotland, with financial support from the Scottish Government. Last month saw the launch of a three year programme by CIFAL to support vulnerable communities in the Khulna and Bagerhat districts of Southern Bangladesh at risk from the effects of climate change.

Goals that can be embraced by all peoples

Our funding and support will provide training for community leaders in sustainable development, support horticultural and organic vegetable production and canal fisheries projects, and build climate change-adapted homes across the target areas.

Even further afield, we’re working to support rubber tapper communities in the Purus National Forest in the heart of the Amazon to develop agroforestry projects. This traditional industry, which involves collecting latex from rubber trees, sustains communities across this vast region, but is at threat from the pressures of globalisation. But, of course, we need action at a global level. For change to happen three combined elements are required – need as driver, will to reach targets and skills to make them happen.

We need goals that are easily understood and can be embraced by all peoples so that we can make the transition from our existing wasteful way of life to a more sustainable pattern of production and consumption, as well as more joyful, meaningful and healthier lives.

The challenge is immense. Developing a set of goals that addresses the full complexity of our times and is acceptable to countries with sometimes conflicting agendas, and at very different stages of development, will not be easy.

The coming months will see concentrated efforts towards a united actionable framework that could inform a vision of a more sustainable human civilisation. It must be a vision simple enough to captivate the imagination but bold enough to ignite the collective will to re-make our human presence in the world.

• May East is CEO of CIFAL Scotland, a United Nations Institute for Training and Research sustainability centre based in Edinburgh


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