At the Rio+20 conference on sustainability leaders from around the world will meet against a backdrop of momentous international change. The world as we see it today looks considerably different to that of a few years ago.
Three-quarters of the world’s poverty is now concentrated in middle-income countries such as India, Brazil, Ghana and China. A significant proportion of the rest is in fragile, conflict-affected states. The global financial crisis, the consequences of globalisation, the impact of the Arab spring, food crises, the rise of new economic powers, massive projected population growth and climate change all pose profound challenges but also opportunities.
In the 21st century it cannot be right that millions still die each year from easily preventable malnutrition and disease. The shocking truth is that even in the face of the exceptional effort of the international community to mitigate the effects of famine, in the Sahel region alone 300,000 children die from malnutrition-related causes every year and that is outside of so called ‘crisis’ years. With the global population forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2044 the question of how to ensure sustainable access to vital resources, such as food, water and energy is one of the great challenges we face. With Africa planned to double in population, Asia and the Americas to grow by 25% and Europe hardly predicted to grow at all, what will this mean for the global distribution of resources? In a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations in February, Ban Ki-moon identified sustainable development as his top priority stating that “ours is a world of looming challenges and increasingly limited resources.” It is our job as politicians to recognise this challenge, and to rise to it.
Resource Security in the 21st Century
There is no doubt that globally, resource scarcity is one of our most significant challenges.
In the face of limited resources the world has to adapt to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of resources at a time of scarcity and massive population growth. The challenge for politicians, as Ed Miliband has consistently said, is how to achieve fairness in tough times. Meeting our aspirations for a fairer more equal global society will require recognising and adapting to the limits of global resource. The interlinking strands of food, water, land and energy security sit at the heart of this intensely complex sustainable development agenda. But it is clear that increasing sustainability is crucial to resolving the tragic levels of poverty and insecurity facing the world.
Food is a very clear example of this, we cannot have food security without sustainability, we need both. One of the most devastating manifestations of the challenge we face can be seen in recurring food crises. In 2011 the severe famine in the Horn of Africa claimed thousands of lives. Those who did survive did so on the on the most basic of supplies, with over 13 million people affected. But this human cost is too often obscured by statistics. The statistics allow us to think in the abstract, hiding the reality of the daily struggle. The reality is the women I met in Chad who were forced to beat ant hills with sticks each day in order to dig out single grains that the ants many have collected and stored. This is the human reality of famine and food insecurity.
In the 21st Century it cannot be right that the world is plagued by preventable food crises. It is estimated that worldwide 1 billion people continue live in absolute poverty; this is equivalent to 15% of the global population.
As a result, food is now firmly on the political agenda, the G20 held its first agriculture ministers meeting last June and as we move towards the end date for the Millennium Development Goals, 2015, food will remain a central concern.
Building resilience means tackling the structural causes of food crises, addressing the effects of speculation on food prices, agricultural diversification, action to tackle and mitigate the impact of climate change and greater investment in agricultural practices and sustainable livelihoods in the developing world.
The solution to global food shortages is not only producing more food. Nor is it only investing in smallholder farmers or even increasing food aid or social protection and safety nets. Only an integrated approach targeted to the needs of individual countries will help the international community build the resilience we need to avoid future food crises.
We must remember that sustainability isn’t just environmental. It is social and economic. This means developing a system of global social justice and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources. The UN’s high level panel on Global Sustainability put the challenge succinctly “sustainable development is not a destination, but a dynamic process of adaptation, learning and action.”
If any action is to be successful it is vital that the international community fully understands the underlying structural causes of resource insecurity. Whilst there is a complex matrix of interlinking factors which affect the supply of basic human resources, there are a number of issues which the Rio+20 conference in June 2012 must seek to begin to address. I want to focus on five in particular.
1. Climate Change. We now have an increasingly unpredictable climate resulting in drier soil and less frequent rains making it much harder to grow crops. Action to tackle and mitigate against climate change must be taken at an international level with countries following through on their pledges.
2. The impact of biofuels. In 2011 a high profile World Bank report on biofuels raised serious concerns that biofuel expansion could lead to increased food prices, land grabs and wouldn’t significantly help to reduce carbon emissions. In light of this new evidence it is important that policy makers re-examine national biofuel targets and press for more research into their impact.
3. Land insecurity. With many people in the developing world facing serious resource challenges it is vital that they are empowered to invest in their local community and facilities. A significant barrier to this is with families who do not own their land therefore don’t invest in it and have no security about their future. Without land security and rights communities are prevented from investing in their surroundings and agricultural practices and therefore from building themselves out of poverty.
4. Rising food prices. It is clear that the effects of volatile global food prices, bad harvests, population growth and food speculation are being felt around the globe. Higher food prices can be painful in UK, however in the developing world these can be deadly, representing up to 80% of a family’s expenditure.
5. Agricultural innovation. Bill Gates’ 2012 Annual Letter identified this as one of the key barriers to building both sustainable food supplies and economic growth. Innovation as well as investment in small scale farmers allows scaling up of production, environmentally sympathetic agricultural practices and wealth generation. This is especially important given that women make up 70% of the agricultural workforce in Africa.
Need a new global development covenant
All of these factors demonstrate that business as usual is not sustainable. These and the other global challenges we face will require an ambitious and coordinated international partnership between donors, developing countries, private sector, NGOs, multilateral institutions and diaspora communities. A new covenant for development is needed which replaces a paternalistic relationship between developing and developed countries with a tripartite, dynamic network bringing together developed, developing and middle income countries.
Given the backdrop of global change which I set out earlier, it is clear that in the future any development paradigm will need to reflect this change; offering a holistic approach to address the new challenges we face. Whilst the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 have been effective tools for rallying support and encouraging a clear focus on outcomes, it is fair to say their siloed nature has at times hindered an inclusive approach.
Sustainability cannot be a bolt on; it needs to be at the foundation of any development framework otherwise all we will achieve is short term and hollow progress. We must look at broader issues around sustainability and inequality recognising that there is no simple one size fits all solution to poverty eradication and that blanket absolute targets may not be the best solution. However this must be tempered by an appreciation that an overly complex and inflexible system would undoubtedly also be doomed to failure.
Any post 2015 framework would have to include a focus on drivers of growth, building governance, trade, climate change, social protection, support for civil society, innovative finance, transparent and fair taxation and the role of global targets. This is a debate which will rage in coming years. For Labour it is essential any new compact must focus on achieving social justice, equality and human rights.
What does this mean for the present Government?
The next three years need to see significant change in the international community’s approach to international development. The complex and interconnected nature of resource scarcity means that political leadership is absolutely vital. Not only to deliver an optimistic vision for the future but to focus and catalyse international action towards solutions.
Not since the creation of the MDGs has the development community been at such an important crossroads. At previous summits the British Government has led the way bringing international partners to the table to pursue a visionary and progressive agenda. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown personally championed debt relief and progress on the MDGs; however we have not seen that kind of commitment from David Cameron and George Osborne thus far. While we should support the Government in their commitment to honour Labour’s promise to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on international development, it is clear that they lack a vision for the future beyond aid and view charity and paternalism, not social justice and human rights, as being the key drivers of their development agenda.
Labour established the Department for International Development (DfID) not simply to provide aid but also to play a key role in shaping global development policy. Today, it is more important than ever that the Government supports DfID to fulfil this leadership role. Making the UK’s voice heard in the multilateral organisations we support, in the UN bodies and specifically in Europe. This last point is especially important, the Government cannot let its sceptical approach to Europe undermine or jeopardise the UK’s role in the development institutions of the EU.
The Rio+20 meeting in June offers an opportunity to move the resource security argument forward. Rio should be the next step along the road to a sustainable future; focusing on key principles and a commitment to build sustainable policies which recognise the long term nature of the interlinked environmental, social and economic challenges. This commitment must not only be agreed by donor countries but also actively engage low and middle income countries, securing their support for any outcomes. Any process which does not have the needs of developing countries at its heart will be deemed a failure.
Labour should be rightly proud of our record on international development. It is no exaggeration to say that without the leadership of the Labour Government many of the goals we chase today would be a lot further away. Our shared values of social justice, equality and fairness mean that international development will never be a brand decontamination exercise as it is for the Conservatives; instead it is an issue which sits at our party’s core.
In opposition Labour will continue to focus on meeting our obligations to the developing world both in pressing for progress towards the MDG targets and creating an ambitious, sustainable and inspirational vision for Government.
Rt Hon Ivan Lewis MP is Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.