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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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8 Feb. 2002 9 Feb. 2002 10 Feb. 2002 11 Feb. 2002
DSDS 2002: Plenary session 3, 9 February 2002

Governance structures and processes for sustainable development
Farooq Sobhan
President Bangladesh Enterprise

Governance Structures and Sustainable Development a Bangladesh Perspective
"Sustainable human development is pro-people, pro-jobs, and pro-nature. It gives the highest priority to poverty reduction, productive employment, social integration and environmental regeneration…" Human Development Report 1994.

We cannot talk about sustainable human development without addressing the problems of poverty and the environment, in particular, the social and environmental impact of uncurbed economic growth within developing nations. Approaches to poverty alleviation and environmental degradation, however, must in turn be addressed at the national, regional and international levels. At all three levels it is imperative to provide for effective structures of governance to ensure that sustainable human development takes place. This has been perhaps the single biggest challenge facing Bangladesh since the Rio summit, indeed this has been the single biggest challenge facing most developing countries in the world.

At the national level: Sound governance is essential to achieving sustainable human development. How may developing countries such as Bangladesh face the task of strengthening weak and inefficient economic, political and administrative systems in order to provide effective democratic structures of governance?

At the regional level: Economic and political co-operation must be achieved in order to benefit developing regions of the world where the poorest nations are often in competition or even in conflict with one another, or feel threatened economically/geo-politically by stronger neighbouring nations. Sharing of resources and common approaches to regional problems must be given priority for sustainable development solutions.

At the global level: Are international treaties/MEAs, and their ratification sufficient or efficient tools for global solutions to environmental degradation and persistent poverty? Is it in fact meaningful or productive to talk of a common global approach for all developing nations in achieving sustainable human development?  

Environmental/Social Impact of Economic Development in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the burden of population massively outweighs the availability of natural resources required to provide sustainable livelihoods. Land and water are the two most important resources of the country with over 80% of the population heavily dependent for their income and livelihood on agriculture and/or the rich bio-diversity of the river systems and coastal regions.

However, unrestrained and unsound economic development in rural areas,

e.g. harmful large-scale industry, badly designed infrastructure projects, mechanisation of agriculture, has led to widespread environmental degradation of and thus more pressure on natural resources in recent decades.

The shrimp industry (one of our top export commodities) covers 1% of total land area, 145,000 ha. 80% of this area has almost totally replaced food and cash crops where cultivation has encroached onto agricultural land, causing long-term salinity of soil and fresh-water bodies, and large-scale destruction of fragile ecosystems, in particular vast areas of mangrove forest and many indigenous aquatic species.

Modern agricultural practices, having replaced traditional sustainable farming methods, have also resulted in loss of bio-diversity and soil degradation due to monoculture of high-yield crop varieties and their need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Chemical and industrial pollutants are also responsible for contamination of surface and ground water resources, while the various depletions of agricultural land have in turn led to 50% of the country’s natural forest area being cleared in the past two decades in an attempt to provide more arable land.

Deforestation, industrial contamination of land and water, loss of bio-diversity, and the destruction of the Sundarbans, one of our most complex and valuable eco-systems providing natural coastal protection and valuable forest resources - much of the damage irreversible - has so far been the price of economic development.

Growing scarcity of land and other resources in rural areas, coupled with the fact that most industrial growth in Bangladesh has occurred in and around urban centres, has also led to a rapid and uncontrolled rise in urbanisation. Dhaka is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world at 6% per annum. In the past 15 years at least 3000 industrial units in the RMG sector (one of our top three export industries) have been established in Dhaka alone, employing close to 2 million people, the majority having migrated from rural areas.

Such concentrated rural-urban migration, together with the impact of continued unplanned urbanisation from public and private sector growth, exacerbates already existing problems of the urban environment and the urban poor:

Air pollution from industry and traffic emissions is blamed for 15000 premature deaths a year; while 80% of human waste of Dhaka city is dumped in the Buriganga as well as direct waste from about 2000 industrial units along 20km of riverbank. Inadequate shelter/water/sanitation and no access to basic health and social services for the urban poor results in low life expectancy and ill health

Lack of productive employment opportunities leads to disempowerment, risk of marginalisation and exploitation.

It is clear that rapid and unchallenged economic growth in the short-term has been detrimental to sustainable development in Bangladesh by contributing to aspects of rural and urban poverty and causing long-term environmental decline.

Existing Environmental Legislation

Despite this, Bangladesh does have a history of environmental legislation from as far back as the 19th century. More recent attempts at developing environmental legislation include:

  • Clearly defined environmental objectives incorporated in the Fourth Five Year Plan (1990-1995)
  • In 1992, Bangladesh adopted an environmental policy with broad objectives to address the problems of natural disasters, industrial pollution, deforestation and the particular challenges faced by the nation.
  • A more comprehensive Environmental Conservation Act was passed in 1995

However, while more than 100 laws have been enacted dealing directly or indirectly with the environment, the majority of these have remained unenforced due to the absence of an adequate regulatory framework and a lack of accountability on the part of the responsible public agencies. Furthermore, lack of general public awareness as to the need for, existence and scope of these laws have rendered them more generally ineffective. These institutional weaknesses have allowed industry to continue practices with no interest in environmental protection or pollution control.

Bangladesh is also a signatory to major environmental conventions, but the need to participate successfully in global trade and market structures, and fear of losing ground in economic competition with developed, and other developing, nations have prevented us from implementing these conventions at the national level.

Recent pressure from the international community and importing countries however has forced some export industries (shrimp and RMG) to address these issues. But while such negative incentives may work in the short term they do not contribute to effective long-term solutions for sustainable development.

Good Governance

It is obvious that legislation and policy alone - whether at the domestic or the international level - is not sufficient for developing countries to effectively address poverty and environmental degradation. Neither are the ideological concerns of the 'international community' or the richer industrialised nations.

Good governance is the essential and primary means for developing nations to achieve sustainable human development. The challenge for society is to provide conditions for the empowerment, participation, co-operation, equity, security and long-term sustainability for all people in society. This can only be achieved if the constituent components of governance - the mechanisms, institutions and processes - through which citizens articulate their interests and exercise their rights - are transparent and accountable. Only then can they combine to form effective democratic and forms of economic/political/administrative governance.

Limitations of Governance in Bangladesh

At present, Bangladesh lacks adequate sound environmental governance structures within the public sector (political and governmental institutions). Existing environmental governance mechanisms of the public sector: The Ministry of Environment and Forest - established to formulate appropriate plans and programs and to co-ordinate the activities for the protection and improvement of the environment, and The Department of Environment - the regulatory body responsible for enforcing environmental laws and rules. However, inadequate manpower and resources, the lack of any administrative or regulatory framework, in addition to a common lack of transparency, and accountability within the public sector in Bangladesh results in pervasive institutional weakness.

Though we have a democratic constitution and hold parliamentary elections at the national level, there are no democratic processes or representative systems at local government level. For example, the rural poor have no platform within the public sector to exercise their rights, or to voice objection to the detrimental practices of more powerful individuals such as industrialists, rich landowners, local masthaans or hoodlums. Thus entrepreneurs in the shrimp industry in Bangladesh forcibly and violently encroached upon land belonging to thousands of small marginal farmers with impunity, until civil society organisations began to mobilise and empower threatened farmers.

Thus we see that sound environmental governance is limited within the state/ public sector. However, because of the challenges posed by weak and unstable governance structures in the public sector, developing countries must also look to other important domains of governance that directly contribute to achieving sustainable human development. These are civil society (in particular Grassroots Organisations and NGOs) and the private sector.

Civil Society and the Private Sector

Civil society organisations have traditionally contributed to sound governance through their roles in providing resources, services and opportunities for human development in the areas of health, nutrition, education, and securing livelihoods for the poor and marginalised sections of society. Grassroots organisations in particular have provided solutions for sustainable development by creating empowerment for members through participatory structures and often focusing on appropriate technologies and traditional indigenous solutions to the problems of poverty and sustainable livelihoods. Civil society organisations also provide important checks on government power and the private sector. But they can also work in partnership with and strengthen the other two domains.

Though it may not be clear what role the private sector has to offer with respect to sound governance, it clearly has a crucial role to play in development.

Rather than exacerbate poverty and environmental degradation as we have so far seen, economic growth should be a means to sustainable human development rather than an end in itself. However, in developing countries industry and private enterprise must also be aided to allow them to compete successfully in the global market. As long as governments provide institutional regulatory frameworks to assist and protect the poor and the environment, the benefits of economic development can be sustainable.

The future outlook: facing the challenges of Globalisation

In 1995, UNDP asserted (Public Sector Management, Governance and Sustainable Human Development that the notion of sustainable human development, as well as the means to attain it (governance), should be subject to interpretation according to different national circumstances. The pragmatic concerns of human development in poor countries should outweigh the ideological (and other) preoccupations of richer industrialised countries.

While developed nations may have the economic stability, social infrastructure and shared interests to adopt common environmental or trade standards, developing nations are not in a position to operate under imposed restrictions while trying to achieve sustainable development solutions. For countries like Bangladesh, which is one of the 49 countries classified as Least Developed, trying to attract foreign direct investment and expanding its exports has proved to be a formidable challenge, particularly during the past year and specially after the tragic events of September 11,2001. There has been a 10% drop in exports, our reserves are precariously low and FDI is down to a trickle. If anything the situation in the other 48 LDCs is a lot worse.

What can and should the international community do about this growing and deepening crisis affecting not simply the poorest countries? A crisis which has had a greater impact on the poorest of the poor. A recent survey of the 3000 garment factories in Bangladesh has shown that 1300 factories have closed down and over 300,000 women have lost their jobs. Given the sweeping trade liberalisation in the country thousands of small and medium scale industries have closed down unable to face the competition from cheaper goods from India and China. Yet trade and environment policies are still being dictated by the economic interests of the rich and powerful countries.

Bangladesh and the Least Developed countries, in particular, those who are vulnerable to adverse climatic conditions, as well as those which are already facing an uphill task coping with the challenges of globalisation, need special attention and financial support in order to improve the governance structures within the country. A strong and effective public private partnership must be forged to guide and oversee the implementation of policies geared to ensuring sustainable development; firm action must be taken to arrest the further decline and degradation of the environment.

Donors must be persuaded to join hands with policy makers in changing the thrust of their aid policies so as to attract more foreign direct investment, promote human resource development and help in the critical task of improving both the quality of governance and governance structures which will support these efforts. Hopefully the Johannesburg Summit meeting will take some concrete measures to support the Least Developed countries, in particular those amongst them like Bangladesh which today face the most formidable challenges in following the path of sustainable human development given the critical environmental conditions in the country.

The need for regional co-operation in South Asia cannot be sufficiently stressed. The only path to sustainable human development in South Asia is through effective and comprehensive regional co-operation all sectors. We need to move rapidly towards the creation of a South Asian economic community; we need to develop our natural resources on a regional basis; environmental problems must be addressed collectively. We need to improve the existing mechanisms and structures for co-operation on a regional basis. Here too an effective partnership between governments, civil society and the private sector must be forged. This process should receive the full support and encouragement of the international community.