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‘Sustainable Development Must Start with People’

Thalif Deen

STOCKHOLM, Aug 24 2011 (IPS) - When world leaders meet in Brazil next June for a U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, the third since the landmark 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the question lingering in the minds of many is: what really is “sustainable development” in the context of a fast-changing world of growing poverty, hunger, pollution, political repression and social unrest?

For Sweden, one of the key donors of development aid to the world’s poorest countries, it means good governance, democracy, capacity building, human development and people’s power.

“My basic premise for global sustainability is a people-centred approach: sustainable development must consider the rights, needs and influence of everyone,” says Gunilla Carlsson, Sweden’s minister of international development cooperation and a member of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s High- Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

During a recent visit to Nairobi, the most populated city in East Africa with 3.5 million inhabitants, Carlsson discovered that for a single mother living in an informal settlement in the outskirts of the highly-congested city, sustainable development was about making her voice heard in the local community, having decent work, a good education for her children, improved infrastructure for water and sanitation and lit streets that will improve her security.

“One of my priorities on the (U.N.) Panel is how to utilise the great potential of young people to shape and promote sustainable development,” Carlsson told delegates at the annual Stockholm international water conference, currently underway in the Swedish capital.

“It is imperative to take their perspectives and innovative ideas into account in order to vitalise political processes, business development and sustainable development in society,” she pointed out. “Young people must be encouraged to use their entrepreneurial talents, and this could be achieved by improving their access to relevant forms of education and to financial services.”

Sweden’s current development agenda for sustainable cities in developing countries includes strong political support for democracy and measures to promote the participation of poor people and marginalised groups in the management of basic services, including water resources and sanitation.

At 1.03 percent of gross national income (GNI), Sweden boasts the world’s highest rate of official development assistance (ODA) to the world’s poorest nations, followed by Luxembourg (1.0 percent) and Denmark (0.83 percent).

The other Western donors who continue to exceed the U.N.’s target of 0.7 percent of GNI as development aid include Norway and the Netherlands, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The Swedish minister recounted one of her visits to Katwekera village in the Kibera slum in Kenya in 2005 – when it lacked basic water and sanitation services, with about 150 people sharing one latrine. “What the villagers did was to democratically elect leaders, who then took part in a capacity-building programme to enable them to effectively participate in planning, implementing and managing water and sanitation projects.”

Today, she said, “not only has the sanitation situation improved, but so has access to renewable cheap energy, thanks to the village bio-centre with toilets that generate biogas. Katwekera village shows that sustainable development must start with the people,” Carlsson declared.

For its part, Sweden has said it will support developing countries in the transition towards a green economy using its own experience of environmentally friendly technology and urban development.

“We aim to increase our programme of collaboration with the private sector to contribute to poverty reduction and improve the environmental impact,” Carlsson noted. “One example of a recently supported Swedish invention is a self-sanitising, biodegradable single-use bag for human waste called Peepoo, which is being sold by women with micro-enterprises in Kenya.”

The Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), which describes Kibera as the largest slum in Africa, points out that many inhabitants of the more than 200 slum settlements have limited access to safe water and sanitation. Kibera loses about 40 percent of the water it receives through leakage or dilapidated infrastructure.

In a report released last March, UNEP said that rapid urbanisation over the last five decades is changing Africa’s landscape and also generating formidable challenges for supplies of water and sanitation services.

Africa’s urban population without access to safe drinking water has increased from close to 30 million in 1990 to over 55 million. Over the same period, the number of people without reasonable sanitation services doubled to around 175 million.

“These are stark realities and sobering facts which need to be addressed as nations prepare for the landmark U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012,” says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

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