Bankok (Thailand) Post, November 19, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "Sustainability presupposes the simultaneous application of three fundamental principles: the precautionary principle, adopting a preventive rather than remedial approach; the principle of solidarity between all peoples of the world and between the present generations and those to come; and the principle of people participation in decision-making."]

By Ioan Voicu

Sustainability is a hot and controversial topic. We are not living in times of real sustainable development. More than one-fourth of humankind suffers from chronic poverty. Hunger, military conflicts, terrorism, human-rights abuses, environmental degradation and climate change, natural disasters and pandemics all threaten human dignity and the very survival of mankind.

The Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) concluded by consensus that development is sustainable only if future generations inherit a quality of environment at least equal to that inherited by their predecessors. It presupposes the simultaneous application of three fundamental principles: the precautionary principle, adopting a preventive rather than remedial approach; the principle of solidarity between all peoples of the world and between the present generations and those to come; and the principle of people participation in decision-making.

While still an ambiguous concept, sustainability is recognised as a way of life that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This generous objective cannot be implemented without adequate education.

Therefore, the period from 2005-2014 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), for which Unesco is the lead agency. ESD is a vision of education that seeks to empower people to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. There are four major thrusts: improving basic education; reorienting existing education to address sustainable development; developing public understanding and awareness; and providing training for all sectors of society, including business, industry, and governments. There are different stakeholders in this complex process: governments and intergovernmental bodies, mass media, civil society and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and formal education institutions. A primary objective of the UN Decade of ESD is to facilitate the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Three pillars

Sustainable development is an omnibus concept that attempts to bridge the divide between economic growth and environmental protection, while taking into account other issues traditionally associated with development. Unfortunately, it is often misinterpreted as focusing exclusively on environmental aspects. In reality, it encompasses three areas: economic, environmental and social. The UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to these areas as "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars" of sustainable development. However, more clarifications are needed.

A scientific conference will be convened in Germany in May 2007 to deal with all areas which are important for sustainable development. The catalogue of issues includes energy, water, soil, air, biodiversity, natural and man-made resources, agriculture, forests, health, climate and global change, production and consumption, environmental technologies, transport, buildings, regional and urban development, cultural heritage, employment, economic, social and cultural changes and change agents, as well as indicators.

Promoting sustainability is building the future. The originality of the process is that the foundations and the walls have to be constructed at the same time. All states have to accept this specificity and assimilate the truth that real change is the only productive response to the global crisis of sustainability. Using the tools of multilateral diplomacy, the Group of 77 (in fact, 131 countries , including Thailand) and China called again on developed countries at the current 61st session of the UN General Assembly to cooperate with countries of the South in research and development, in order to facilitate the transfer of appropriate and advanced technology, in particular environmentally sound technology. From this perspective, the work programme must exhibit not only predictability, but flexibility, to reflect the true nature of the relationships between issues and relevant means of implementation. It should highlight the various responsibilities of the different actors and their levels of involvement in the implementation process. While the primary focus remains at the national level, it must be recalled that the Johannesburg Declaration and the Plan of Implementation adopted in 2002 by the World Summit on Sustainable Development emphasized clear commitments to multilateralism and the need for strong support from the entire international community.

For instance, the serious problems posed by natural disasters are of crucial importance to all 192 UN Member States, and in particular to developing countries. The adverse consequences on the affected populations are long lasting. It is, therefore, important to examine the measures that need to be taken to improve the capacity of affected nations to respond to disasters and to increase the assistance provided to them.

The Kyoto Protocol, which imposes in its first phase emissions reduction targets on more than 30 industrialised countries, has in fact not been ratified by all large developed nations. Countries of the North have to step up their efforts to ensure its effective implementation. A stronger commitment to the requirements of the protocol is a major objective to be promoted by educators the world over.

A visionary approach

The current debates in Thailand about "sufficiency economy" are topical, inspiring and instructive from the educational perspective. The presentation of the United Nations Development Programmes Inaugural Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne is indicative of the importance of His Majesty's philosophy to the entire world.

In presenting the award, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "His Majesty's sufficiency economy philosophy _ emphasising moderation, responsible consumption, and resilience to external shocks _ is of great relevance to communities everywhere during these times of rapid globalisation. The philosophy's middle path approach strongly reinforces the United Nations' own advocacy of a people-centred and sustainable path towards human development. His Majesty's development agenda and visionary thinking are an inspiration to his subjects, and to people everywhere."

Kofi Annan also emphasised that His Majesty's visionary thinking has helped shape the global development dialogue.

The opinions expressed in Thailand show that the application of sufficiency economy is not fixed, but flexible, to allow it to respond to globalisation. But whatever the application, knowledge and morality must be present. Sufficiency means having enough, being reasonable and having the capacity to withstand internal and external changes. The sufficiency economy is not directed against the liberal market economy. On the contrary, it is meant to help it to work more effectively by ensuring that its mechanisms are not distorted, but are honest and transparent. In its practical manifestations, sufficiency economy has three components: moderation; wisdom or insight; and the need for built-in resilience against potential internal and external risks.

Education comes energetically into the picture, as the art of making people ethical and to broaden the basis for an enlightened opinion and responsible conduct. All members of society need to develop their commitment to the importance of knowledge, integrity and honesty, and to conduct their lives in conformity with the fundamental values of perseverance, toleration and wisdom, so that the country has the capacity to cope with the rapid and widespread transformations.

In Thai commentaries on the matter it is correctly emphasised that sufficiency economy is an offshoot of Buddhist philosophy rather than a new paradigm based on economic equations or theory. But it is also cogently acknowledged that its application to market economy is similar to the UN concept of building a sustainable economy, which should give tangibility to the values of solidarity and respect for nature. The main idea is to add quality to the whole development process and include into it better risk management and good governance.

The irreversible process of globalisation must be successfully faced at the universal level. To that end, all parties, including developing countries, should emerge stronger and be able to avoid marginalisation and reach win-win situations in their collective struggle for sustainable progress and prosperity. This is an imperative task which no country can ignore today, during an era of planetary vulnerabilities, discontinuities and perplexities.

Dr Ioan Voicu is Visiting Professor at Assumption University of Thailand in Bangkok.

Copyright Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2006