Road to RIO: Sustainable Development as Freedom in the Arab Region | Kishan Khoday

09 May 2012

Road to RIO: Sustainable development as freedom in the Arab region | Kishan Khoday

Chants of freedom have reverberated across the Arab region calling for more transparent, accountable and participatory governance, action against corruption and human rights abuses and policy reforms to create an innovative, employment-generating economy.

The systemic transition underway is compelling countries across the region to craft new social compacts to usher a new era of inclusive and equitable development. In that context, the history of unsustainable and inequitable use of natural resources —land, water, energy and minerals— will likely emerge as a focus for reform.

Control over the environment has for decades been central to state legitimacy and power in this region, shaping the nature of autocratic and centralized systems of governance, and rentier economies, and influencing how sovereignty and statecraft function. The social compact in many countries has been defined by a balance between the state control over natural wealth and provision of social development results.

But development is about more than charity, it is also about justice and accountability.

The vulnerability of food, water and energy resources brings serious risks to sustaining development in the long-term and brings risks to achieving a more inclusive and sustainable model of development in the post-revolution era.

With much of the region’s poor heavily reliant on rural livelihoods such as agriculture and fisheries, ecosystem goods and services like arable land, adequate water and a stable climate have stood at the base of many of the region’s human development results.

The Arab region holds the world’s lowest levels of per capita freshwater availability, the highest levels of food import dependency of any region, and is experiencing declining energy reserves alongside rising risks from climate change, which are expected to further aggravate the situation.

Food security for example played an exacerbating role in the emergence of protest movements in 2011, while water security has been a significant cause of social grievances in the Arab region for many years.

Energy also has critical links to prospects for transformational change in the region.  While oil export revenues have served as a foundation for human development gains in many countries, local energy use has risen dramatically in recent times as countries sought to boost employment opportunities through industrial growth, creating a drain on oil reserves.

As a result, many in the region now seek to expand energy efficiency and renewable energy to reduce the energy intensity of local growth and save scarce resources for future export revenues. The focus on clean energy options also holds benefits for the poor, in a region where 40% of the poor lack sustainable access to energy.

Two main issues are critical as we move towards and beyond the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Summit this June and its two pillars – institutional frameworks for sustainable development and the green economy.

First, sustainability of natural resources and the environment is about more than conservation and green technology; it also needs social empowerment and enhanced freedom of opportunity.

Beyond issues of efficiency and consumption, sustainability also includes increased accountability and freedom from the inequities that often result from systems of resource exploitation and disproportionate impacts of ecological change on the poor, as was largely reinforced by dominant forms of political economy and governance in the Arab region.

Recent years have seen a global rise of rights-based approaches and civil society movements for environmental justice—an ideal of fairness in vindicating rights and punishing wrongs related to environmental impacts on the poor and vulnerable in society.  While Arab communities turn to systems of rights and rule of law to address historic grievances, they confront the fact that in many ways systems of justice have been complicit in creating these very problems.

A need exists to expand the role of civil society and the judiciary in pursuing rights based approaches to environmental sustainability. Courts in particular can serve as a check and balance against the majoritarian forces of the legislature and executive, which have often sought to exploit resources at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

Second, as demand for solutions to food, water and energy challenges grow; the market for green economy solutions has surged globally, with potential for the Arab region to benefit from such innovations and play a larger role in their further development and application.

Capitalizing on the green economy concept requires new policies, strategies and regulatory frameworks that incentivize and promote green solutions, investment and technology as the region seeks to regenerate a more inclusive and sustainable growth trajectory. This would help prevent future resource vulnerabilities, and generate a high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

The spirit of transformational change in the region is a rare opportunity to engage these issues within broader discussions on the need for a new development paradigm, and measures for governance reform and economic renewal. By mainstreaming issues of natural resources and environment into such processes, countries can strengthen resilience of the natural asset base on which the poor in particular depend.

Unless new development paradigms arise and trends of resource scarcity and ecological change are addressed, basic freedoms and human security could remain in jeopardy in the post-revolution era.

Emerging reforms in the region can integrate new institutional frameworks for sustainable development and green economy to reorient the region’s political economy away from reproducing conditions of exclusion and resource scarcity towards preventing social and ecological crises from emerging.

The future we want is not only greener, it is also more inclusive, fair and just.

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