15 August 2002

Later this month, thousands of government officials and representatives of NGOs will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, to participate in the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

In Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty? , a new book edited by Julian Morris, seventeen experts from five continents argue that true ‘sustainable development’ must be about empowering people, especially the poor, and show that many of the policies being proposed for the Johannesburg Summit would be unsustainable.

“True sustainable development”, the book’s editor Julian Morris argues, “involves decentralisation of ownership and control — empowering individuals and communities, so that they are able to take charge of their own lives.

The main reason for poverty and unsustainable development in Africa, Asia and South America is oppression by incompetent, violent and corrupt governments, and a lack of property rights and the rule of law.”

“The simple truth is that development has been more sustainable in countries that are now rich than in countries that remain poor; indeed, the wealth of a country is a good proxy for its sustainability. That is because the key to sustainable development is the combination of strong institutions, especially property rights, the rule of law, and freedom of contract, and good governance, which entails both decentralized democracy and freedom of speech. These are present in ample quantities in rich countries, but are less common in poor countries.”

Ironically, many of the policies being proposed at Johannesburg would be more likely to perpetuate poverty than to promote progress:

  • Increased foreign “aid” for the governments of poor countries, whilst well intentioned, would reduce the accountability of governments to their citizens, encouraging corruption and undermining incentives to reform.
  • Increased global control of resources – from elephants to energy – would undermine the ability of people to manage their own lives and would therefore be unsustainable.
  • Ratification of international agreements that would enable trade restrictions to be imposed on ‘environmental’ grounds would most likely be harmful both economically and environmentally.

The book shows that the best thing that could come out of Johannesburg would be an agreement to reduce the extent to which governments in rich countries try to impose their will on the governments of poor countries, whether through aid agencies or environmental treaties.