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Collection:
INTERAMER
Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

Development as a Process and Sustainability

So long as development is approached exclusively as a “product” and compared to physical works, to economic growth or to a greater ability to intervene in the dynamics of ecosystems while evading the long-term consequences of this intervention, it is impossible to speak of sustainability. At decision-making levels, therefore, we must envision development as a process.

One of the main theoretical and practical problems regarding the process approach, is the lack of indicators allowing the assessment of progress in the short, medium, and long-term. Overwhelmed by the “product” approach, we have developed a great capacity to measure physical results and material products, without appreciating the dimensions of their historical context. We struggle to understand a given situation at a given moment, without comprehending either past circumstances or future potential. We try to force patterns of knowledge into simple, linear cause-effect relationships, avoiding analysis of multicausal and interacting causes.

If sustainable development is a dynamic process within the human community, however, we urgently require qualitative and quantitative indicators that allow us to assess the impact of specific decisions in terms of either promoting or endangering conditions that make a rewarding life possible on Earth.

Recognizing this need, the United Nations has proposed sustainable development methodologies and indicators that take into account social, environmental and institutional issues.9 These approaches must still be interrelated in such a way as to allow a holographic vision of development. Unfortunately, qualitative multidimensional indicators of this process do not exist and cannot, therefore, be relied upon as everyday tools by those responsible for planning, executing and evaluating development.

Moreover, in the so-called Third World, indicators and parameters that allow measurement of development on the basis of endogenous reality and perspectives are lacking. Consequently, comparison to other realities in other latitudes, other ecosystems, other ethnicities, cultures, economies and histories are habitual. Latin American and Caribbean societies are then described as underdeveloped not because they confront their own image, but rather because they see themselves in relation to other societies, which consider themselves (and whom the Third World considers) “developed”.

Further, in an era characterized by the rapidly increasing globalization of production and trade, it no longer makes sense to define development in comparative national terms based primarily on economic indicators. These indicators do not respond only to the internal dynamics of single countries, but instead reveal the complex effects of international markets, political conditions, and corporate decision-making.

We can move away from this comparative development paradigm when we can say that we are “sustainable” or “unsustainable” (or perhaps “undersustainable”) countries, as a result of an assessment of a society’s endogenous ability to reproduce its culture and its ecology. Relevant measurements of this ability might include:
  • harmonious coexistence of communities with their ecological environment;
  • legitimacy of both institutions and political leaders;
  • management capability at the community level and effectiveness of democratic institutions;
  • respect for human rights and food security;
  • creativity and vitality of national imaginaries.10
Challenge for the Future
  • To understand development as a complex and potentially contradictory process which, if inadequately oriented in terms of sustainability, may mobilize economic and social forces that generate new risks, categorically reduce quality of life and cause environmental damage.
  • To discover and apply new criteria for defining development, indicators to plan it, execute it and measure it in the multidimensional terms of sustainability.