Third World faces challenges As development prospects get new dimensions

Sunday, April 19, 2009
The concept of development has long been contested and argued over as various interests of the different stakeholders collide, in the pursuit of their varying objectives.

Various alternatives have been postulated in attempt to replace old paradigms, to right the flaws associated with those paradigms. One important paradigm shift saw the emergence of sustainable development; a concept and a theory that has gained momentum and priority on the recent development agenda. However, though it has been of recent given much attention and thought as the most effective means to attain lasting and meaningful development that would serve not only the existing generation but also generations to come, sustainable development has been faced with lots of obstacles and challenges. These challenges and obstacles are nowhere more eminent than in the third world countries.

 In this write up I wish to highlight the natural and the unnatural obstacles of Third World sustainable development prospects. It aims at explaining some of the barriers in third world environment preservation for sustainable development. First, what do we understand from the term sustainable development and how has it gained momentum? According to the definition of the Brundtland Commission, a United Nations agency responsible for the environment; sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs (Uma K. and M. Martin, 2002).

However, one cannot discuss sustainable development without dilating more on the environmental perspective. This is because the idea emanated from the environmental realm. As a result of the increasing environmental threats disrupting the then existing paradigms, serious considerations were made regarding the importance of environment in the development parlance. The emissions of gasses into atmosphere mainly from industries caused global warming.

This devastating impact of the industrial advancement mainly in the west has been phenomenal and evoked an alarming global concern and question, regarding the credibility of industrialization as the perfect development model.

The mainstreaming of sustainable development in the development discourse could be interpreted as a victory for the opponents of post-war modernisation theory; the same way it could be a displacement of much the same struggle to a different terrain upon which the meaning of sustainable development is disputed between the dominant neo- liberalists and the holders of the different alternative perspectives. Each tends to define it according to their diverging interests.

While sustainable development may seem to be the perfect development model and the hottest on development agenda, its application and implementation remains elusive to Third World countries and seems to have an unattainable objective for them.

Natural obstacles

1. Population
One significant and critical obstacle to Third World sustainable development prospect is the growing population that continues to exponentially rise. While it could be argued that population could be positive in a development process, I am with the strong conviction that the population factor in Third World countries is to a large extent, hamper developmental efforts in general and sustainable development in particular. Nevertheless, you would come across theorists who would focus on the bright side of population in development parlance.

The fact remains that the increasing third world population results to widespread deforestation, causing declining land productivity and destruction of habitats. The ultimate result of this is the extinction of useful plants and animal species and generally, environmental degradation. Moreover, the growing trend of rural-urban migration resulting to urban-congested population leads to many hazards like urban sanitation problems, crime, mob violence, unpredictable cycles of urban industrial labour market and more importantly, mass epidemics; example cholera. The capacity of Third World countries to control their population and specifically, rural urban migration is limited. Needless to say that time has come to revive Malthusianist policies so as to contain the demographic boom.

2. Poverty
Probably linked to population problem is poverty. It is obvious that most if not all the third world countries are poor; hence the name third world. They cannot meet the cost of technological innovations needed to remedy the environmental threats caused by their activities, as well as other development resources that need to be taken care of. What is more certain is that the problem of the increasing third world population is not that their level of consumption is high but because they are poor.

Their poverty is what compels them to exploit the very resources that they depend on for survival. The capacity for waste to be transformed into harmless forms requires technological innovation, which most third world countries are lacking.

3. The general livelihood
The Third World livelihood in relation to the environment is somehow paradoxical. The perfect example is the case of the rural poor who is both an agent and a victim of environmental destruction. Because of their poverty, they depend solely and wholly on environmental resources for their daily survival.

In this case they serve as agents of depletion of environment resources. They are victims because they stand to suffer most when those environmental resources are depleted. This explains the situation of the Third World countries, which depend largely on primary production for the growth of their economies. As such, they remain plunged into a vicious circle that cannot allow them to remedy to their situation.

Artificial challenges

1. Colonialism
The colonial political economy was such that few Metropolitan governments were prepared to bear the financial cost of colonial administration. It was therefore necessary to organise the productive capacity of the areas concerned so as to generate sufficient income to sustain the administration and military presence that maintained the European control in most Third world countries. There was that need to integrate the colonies in the international economy (Mark Wuyts et al, poverty and development 1990s). Within the international division of labour, colonies were made to produce commodities for export, from extractive industries and tropical agriculture.

Peasants were encouraged to grow particular crops for sale and export. Their dependence on cash crop production and primary raw material production specifically has ended up like a trap in the present capitalist system. The effect of dependence on the part of third world countries in the primary products could be vivid in making distinction between primary commodity production and secondary or manufacturing production as economic activity. Complex manufacturing which forms its products from a combination of different raw materials, offers more flexibility of resource use than primary commodity production. For instance, copper piping can be used in place of plastic or steel.

On the other hand, the composition of primary commodity production is fixed and therefore, so are the environment resources used to make it. The devastating colonial capitalist intervention has broken the third world wings for any prospect of economic viability in the international scene and has served as an instrument of neo-colonialism. This colonial tie has dampened the spirit of third world sustainable development prospects condemning them to the exploitation of the environment as the only alternative.

2. Environmental economics
The dominant neo liberal perspective of environmental economics is significant in highlighting third world environmental challenges. The central concern of environmental economics is that the price of environmental services should reflect their scarcity. It is obvious that this accepted global formula for environmental sustainability has, like most neo liberalist capitalist models, marginalized the third world countries, which are mostly powerless. As with all neoclassical economics, the approach assumes that competitive market will tend towards equilibrium when allocation is optimal. It deals with aggregate demand and does not address the distribution of that demand (Umar K, Martin M, 2002). The extremely unequal distribution of purchasing power internationally, especially between the third world countries and the developed first world is enormous and has serious implication for the operation of environmental management.

Furthermore, on technology transfer, the challenge is also enormous. The problem is with the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over climate –friendly technology. IPR confers monopoly rights and serves as a barrier for introducing or upgrading technology by private industry or public-sector agencies in developing countries, or simply curb affordable access on account of high prices. The lower the cost and the greater the ability of private or public enterprises in developing countries to make use of new climate friendly technology, the faster would be their ability to switch to the new emission stabilization and development pathway. It is obvious that a full protection of the Intellectual Property Rights in relation to climate friendly technology would be a barrier to technology transfer.

3. The excessive third world debt burden
It has been harder on the part of the third world to prioritize environmental protection as a result of decades-long unfair debt burdens by so called international institutions. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, through their harsh Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) have opened up economies rapidly, in socially, politically, environmentally and economically destructive ways, while requiring a prioritisation on debt repayment and cutbacks on health, education and other important social services.

They have encouraged concentration on producing just a few cash crops and other commodities primarily for export as previously mentioned; using environmentally damaging ‘industrial agriculture’, which reduces biodiversity, requiring costly inputs such as environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilizers.

4. Taking culture aside and getting culture wrong
The nature of cultural sustainability has been elusive to most Third World countries. The fact that the West has presented itself as the normative development model upon which the Third World should look for their own development, meant disregarding cultural values and norms on the part of the third world, that looked or appeared incompatible with the development formulas given by the West.

The idea and concept of development has ever been masked in a western outfit, so that whoever wants to develop must have to become like the west – a development that has been framed with western culture. This development project of the west is dated back to the colonial expansion and imperialism era of the western colonialists, with their objective of ‘civilizing’ the colonies most of which were the third world countries.

Today, the third world countries follow the West like as Fanon puts it ,  cited in ‘Poverty and Development 1990’, "a colossal mass." The third world depends on the West for handouts with regard to their development at the expense of their cultural orientations. Cultural sustainability calls for the adoption of development formulas that are compatible with one’s cultural environment for appropriate development.

Sustainable Development is a much loaded and buoyant phrase that, like the story of the blind people who were assigned the task of identifying the most important part of the elephant, each identified the part identical to their belief and orientation or interest. Like any development paradigm, its interpretation is highly contested, based on diverging interests.

It is therefore obvious that the operation and attainment of sustainable development, from the aforementioned obstacles, are quite challenging and hard to achieve for third world countries, because of the deeply entrenched domestic and global barriers that ever remained insurmountable. With the present international power politics and economic colonization of the third world countries by the West, the Third World countries are compelled to resort to the exploitation of the environment, as well as abandoning their own traditional and cultural practices for the earning of  ‘Western favour or merit point

Madiba Sillah studied English Language and Development Studies at the University of The Gambia and works as a proofreader with the Daily Observer.
Author: by Madiba Sillah