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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Relating Techniques to Purpose

A common error of advocates for impact analysis and technological assessment is to treat them as though they were panaceas for rational decisionmaking. The techniques cannot determine what policies should be pursued; they can, however, reveal the probable consequences of policy decisions and their implementation. Used strategically, they can greatly assist the development of sustainable development policies.

The El Dorado of many policymakers today is a technological substitute for personal decisions which, however rational, are certain to be impolitic, will be opposed by influential forces, and may be politically difficult to defend. Impact analysis and technology assessment hold promise of being ostensibly neutral technologies, but they may be managed to justify preferred choices, or may be ignored without offense to politically powerful constituents. These undesirable options, however, may be negated by organized public opinion sufficiently focused and activated to insist upon the integrity of the analytic procedures and, of equal importance, to clarify the objectives toward which they are deployed.

But to be effective, opinion requires an institutional framework through which it may be expressed. The legitimacy and strength of an institutional arrangement depends upon its agreed upon purpose. For international arrangements formal agreements are needed. The Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States led to the establishment of the International Joint Commission, and agreements between Mexico and the United States have been the charter for the International Boundary and Water Commission. It might appear obvious that international cooperation agreements, to be effective, require implementing institutions with appropriate authority. But governments sometimes only provide the semblance of cooperative action—the means to action being evaded. Thus political authorities may claim a responsiveness that they have not, in fact, honored.

There is little substantive benefit to be gained from perfecting analytic techniques, training analysts, or establishing institutional arrangements for monitoring and reporting of trends, until and unless the objectives of policy have been seriously agreed upon. The ambiguity and lack of specificity in much, perhaps most, of the literature on environment and sustainable development indicates that the actual conditions of nations today and their prospects for change have received insufficient attention. Among American states the great difference in size, resources, expertise, and environmental awareness presents a formidable challenge to the design of cooperative institutions with the capability of effective action. But more important to the prospect for hemispheric cooperation is the extent of common purpose—of comparability or similarity of environmental and economic values.