Rebeca Grynspan: “Sustainable and Inclusive Development: Why it matters”

Dec 14, 2012

Lecture by Rebeca Grynspan
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
And UNDP Associate Administrator
The University of Ningbo
“Sustainable and Inclusive Development: Why it matters”
Friday, 14 December 2012, Ningbo, China

I am pleased to join you today at the University of Ningbo.

Although this is my third visit to China as Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it is my first time here in Zhejiang province. 

On this visit, I’ve sought to meet with local leaders as well as youth, and to witness development efforts at the provincial level. So coming to the Ningbo University is really an honor.  I have had many jobs in my life, and I have enjoyed all of them, but I started as a professor and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, in my country, and I have never forgotten how much I loved it; I have always considered a privilige to teach and to be in touch with the new generations, so we don't forget the value of new ideas and innovation in thinking be it social sciences or basic sciences, engineering or technology. 

Indeed, I flew to Ningbo yesterday from Yunnan, where I visited  projects that UNDP is supporting and discussed with our local counterparts the importance of sustainable development at the local level, the important role that local knowledge and leadership can play and the good practices that have been developed in other communities and places throughout the globe.  

It is, after-all, the people in communities and cities, such as Ningbo, the ones that will be able to build a sustainable future, and who have in so many ways helped China grow economically – offering the world an impressive example of how to reduce poverty and improve the lives and prospects of millions.  It is also in cities like this one that steps will need to be taken to address the threats to progress and wellbeing, which often grow along with the economy – such as pollution, environmental degradation, and inequality.

These threats and the other remaining development challenges we are still facing, is the focus of my lecture today:  why it matters that we pursue development which is inclusive and sustainable. I will argue that how we develop is the central question for our times, and that the quality of growth matters – not just the rate.

For young people, this discussion is particularly urgent and relevant; it is fundamentally about whether leaders and development actors, today, are making decisions to enable you to achieve a prosperous future, tomorrow.

And it is a discussion at the core of the mandate of the organization I represent. In pursuing people-centered human development, UNDP’s mission is to help countries establish the systems and implement the policies which enable all people to live a life they value, both in this generation and in those to come.

First, let me quickly take stock of the current state of development progress.

State of global development

In 2000, world leaders from over 170 countries, meeting at the United Nations, adopted the Millennium Declaration which set out ambitious global goals for development. Called the Millennium Development Goals, they laid out specific objectives and targets the world agreed to achieve by 2015.

There were 8 development goals that included: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; Achieve universal primary education; Promote gender equality and empower women; Reduce child mortality; Improve maternal health; Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; Ensure environmental sustainability; and Develop a global partnership for development.

As we approach the target date of 2015, we must celebrate the good news: in 2010,  global poverty rate at $1.25 a day fell to less than half the 1990 rate of 47%; 89% of the world’s population was using improved water sources, up from 76% in 1990. The world has also achieved parity in primary education between girls and boys, with the ratio between the enrolment rate of girls and that of boys grew from 91 in 1999 to 97 for all developing regions. 

With lower rates of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis; and improvements in the conditions faced by the urban poor, millions of people around the world have escaped extreme poverty are able to pursue a better future for themselves, their families, and communities.  

Asia’s and in particular China’s achievement in reducing poverty and achieving the MDGs has been particularly impressive:

  • The absolute number of poor people living on $1.25 a day in Asia declined from 1.7 billion in 1981 to 753 million in 2008;
  • The poverty reduction performance of China is even more striking. Here the rate of extreme poverty dropped from 60 per cent in 1990 to 16 per cent in 2005, and fell further to 13 per cent in 2008; and,
  • China and India alone also recorded almost half of global progress on water, with the number of people using improved drinking water increasing by 457 million and 522 million, respectively in these two countries, between 1990 and 2010.

No doubt the impressive growth rates China maintained over the last three decades created much of the opportunity which led to this transformation.  Economic growth is a necessary and important part of what it means to achieve human development.

We should not, however, be deceived that growth alone is enough.

Asia’s dynamic economic performance has benefited many hundreds of millions of people, but it has also brought new challenges and old challenges remain to be tackled – including inequality, environmental degradation, and geographic, ethnic, and gender disparities.

Aggregate and average figures of progress disguise the inconvenient truth:  many of the seven billion people on our planet live in highly unequal societies where extreme poverty persists. Growth alone does not guarantee that the benefits of growth get to all citizens. We still have a long way to go to empower women and girls, ethnic or linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, people living with HIV, and other disadvantaged groups. 

For example, during the last two decades, inequality of income, as captured by the Gini coefficient, increased in 11 countries in Asia, including China despite a dramatic reduction of poverty.  That is why the 12th 5 year plan places “building a harmonious society”, that is, a “basically well-off’ middle-class oriented society, at the top of  its policy agenda. In particular, the 12th Five-year Plan has explicitly stated bucking the trend of widening income gap in the society as a key focus of the government during the 12th Five-year Plan period.

We also know that communities today must struggle to ensure progress made to date is not threatened by shocks, whether related to extreme climate variability, economic volatility like the one we have been experimenting with the financial and economic crisis of the developed countries, or food and fuel price spikes like the ones we have suffered in 2007 and 2008.

Sadly, over the past decade, more than 200 million people annually have been affected by extreme weather and climate-related disasters. 

Achieving sustainable and inclusive development  

The question therefore which I raised in the title, why it matters to pursue sustainable and inclusive development, rather than economic growth alone, has a simple answer: we have no alternative.

The truth is that economic growth and human dev elopment cannot be sustained if the ecosystems on which we all depend are irreparably damaged. This was firmly established in the projections of the Human Development Report of 2011 which showed that, globally, the effects of environmental degradation and rising inequality threaten to undermine hard won human development gains of the last forty years – especially in the poorest regions. 

The International Energy Agency has warned that we may be fast approaching a tipping point concerning climate change, that is an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450 parts per million, which correlates to a dangerous global temperature increase of about 2 degree Celsius that is irreversible.  Inaction will be catastrophic. There is therefore no other choice but to formulate and implement an integrated and renewed agenda for sustainable and inclusive development.

This was recognized by world leaders at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, whose outcome document “The Future we Want,” highlights how environmental protection and economic development are linked, and gives equal emphasis to the social dimension of sustainable development.

But let me also break this down into three simplified, but distinct arguments for why this is the case – an economic one, a security one, and a moral one.

  • From an economic perspective, sustainability matters because development which draws heavily on finite natural resources, and depletes them, can only generate a high growth rate in the short term, but is inadequate for the long-term.

Years of rapid growth take a toll on the countries and the world's natural resources, specifically water, land, biodiversity and forests, besides climate change. Research has shown that the economic costs of poor environment-related health outcomes in many developing countries represent an annual loss of around 2 to 4 per cent of GDP. In China, for example environmental degradation and resource depletion could represent an estimated loss of 10 per cent of GDP over the past decade an average of 1% of GDP per year.

From an economic perspective, inclusiveness also matters because it allows countries to expand the number of people who participate productively in the economy, as well as the number who benefit from its growth.  Indeed, the 2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report estimated that if countries such as India or Malaysia reached the same level of women’s labour market participation as in the United States (over 70 per cent) – their GDP would be boosted by 4.2 per cent and 2.9 per cent annually, respectively.    

  • But inclusiveness also matters from a security perspective, economic development with very high growth rates that benefits only some people and leaves behind others creates inequalities that can pose risks for stability and threaten social cohesion.

Indeed, inclusiveness and sustainability matters not just for robust growth, but also for resilient societies.  Where people feel they have an equal chance to prosper and contribute to their communities, and that their future is not threatened, they are more likely to be constructive and valued members of society. But also if we grow in a more sustainable manner and adapt better, with more social networks and better technologies and science, we will be better equipped to face natural disasters challenges, avoid hurting the environment even further and stop feeding ecosystems and natural resources degradation that bring more disasters and higher costs in human lives and in material losses.  It is very sad to see families and communities that have been rebuilt many times and yet again they have to start from zero because they are hit once again.

  • Finally, there is a moral argument to be made. If striving for equity and fairness are shared principles which define our humanity, then pursuing sustainable and equitable development is essential both from an inter- and an intra- generational perspective.  The policy choices we make today can impact the distribution of well-being for today’s citizens of North and South, men and women, as well as the well-being of future generations.  

For people living in developing countries the impact of climate change and environmental degradation can be particularly catastrophic – threatening lives and livelihoods – not to mention the mere existence of small island developing states.  According to the World Health Organization, 24 per cent of the overall burden of disease worldwide and 23 per cent of all deaths can be prevented through environmental interventions, especially improvements in water, sanitation, hygiene and indoor and urban air quality. Nearly 2 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to indoor air pollution from household solid fuel use.

We have a moral obligation to limit the harm we inflict and to leave the planet as healthy as we found it, if not more, for future generations. 

Of course, the challenges involved with tackling climate change and more broadly pursuing sustainable and inclusive development may seem insurmountable; but it isn't and proven solutions and strategies do exist. 

Moving from why to how

UNDP supports countries to identify and implement the policies which can help them make this shift – not just in how they grow their economies, but also more generally, in how they develop their societies and maintain natural resources and become more inclusive.  We have named these ‘triple win’ policies because they have the potential to simultaneously advance economic, social, and environmental goals, and enable us to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. 

Many of these solutions and strategies originate from countries in the South, which are using innovative approaches to expand economic opportunity while simultaneously promoting social inclusion and environmental protection.  I will highlight a few in my remarks to follow, and can discuss more in the question and answer period.

Energy policy provides a strong example to illustrate the potential of ‘triple wins’ – and is a critical focus area as more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to human use of energy.

At Rio+20, member states expressed their “determination to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality,” noting the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative.  By expanding sustainable energy for all, we advance all three pillars of sustainable development simultaneously:

  • the economic, by creating jobs and livelihoods and stimulating the economy;
  • the social, by lessening the burden of domestic chores on women, and bringing benefits for health status, education, and enabling economic empowerment; and,
  • the environmental, by reducing the reliance on traditional biomass for cooling and heating, reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

China has recognized the opportunity this presents, and has developed policies that set rigorous targets for energy efficiency and energy conservation. In its 12th Five Year Plan, the Chinese government set the target of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP generated by 16 per cent over the period of 2011-2015.  In October this year, the 2nd white paper on energy policy emphasized the development of renewable energy, as well as clean fossil fuels, as critical to China’s path towards a low carbon economy.

China has committed to increasing its use of hydro, nuclear, wind and solar power, in addition to tidal and wave energy. And indeed, China is now the second largest producer of wind power in the world and the biggest exporter of photo-voltaic solar panels. Its renewable energy sector alone employs 1.5 million people.

Just last month, UNDP was involved in the China International Green Innovative Products & Technologies Show that was held in Guangzhou. The event acted as an important platform to showcase world leading green technologies, products and services from China and abroad. It also served as part of the efforts to implement China’s energy conservation and emission reduction agenda under the 12th Five-year plan and promote efforts to meet environmental and energy efficiency targets.

Beyond the energy sector, building an inclusive development model calls for paying specific attention to excluded groups who face discrimination in employment, housing, and services and striving for a more equitable distribution of well-being.

Over recent years, new approaches have proved successful in many regions, including Latin America, where I am from. For example, the conditional cash transfer programmes implemented in Brazil, Mexico and have reduced both poverty and inequality, and achieved significant human development impact with considerable effects on school attendance, health checks, the likelihood to seek medical help among children under 6, and the use of contraceptives among women of childbearing age, etc.

The Chinese government has identified the reversal of the widening income gap as a top national priority in the 12th Five Year Plan, and aims to ensure full pension coverage over 450 million rural residents, and pension coverage of 807 million in total by 2015. Also, China has set the target of achieving universal social welfare coverage for urban and rural residents by 2020, which is projected to reach over 1.38 billion.


What UNDP has learned from working in over 177 countries and territories, is that achieving inclusive and sustainable development will take concerted efforts from all of us. Policy makers at the national and local levels, as well as all stakeholders including the private sector, social organizations and citizens, including students, must mobilize themselves and treat issues of sustainability and equity as a top priority. 

And it will require us to rethink the way we measure development progress and evaluate success.  I understand that here in China the value of finding measures that go beyond simply economic growth has been a topic of very lively debate.  Some of you may have read “Farewell to GDP Worship,” written by current Vice Minister of Commerce, Mr. Li Jinzao, which advocates for a more comprehensive system,  incorporating environmental and social progress, to better track sustainable development.  Similarly at UNDP, we are currently examining how our Human Development Index can better reflect issues of environmental sustainability, in order to support evidence-based policy-making in this area.

Finally, and most critically, international co-operation and support can help bring innovative solutions and policies, like the ones I have discussed today, as well as new technologies, to the countries and regions that need them most.  We live in an unavoidably interconnected world, where the geography and geometry of co-operation space has changed. We don’t have a simple donor/recipient dynamic anymore, or countries that give while others receive.  We have countries that do both at the same time, and many developing countries have or are establishing their own co-operation agencies. 

Relevant experiences, policies, technologies and investments can go from the North to the South, from the South to the North and from the South to the South / in a linear, triangular and quadrangular way.  UNDP is proud to support this flow of knowledge and expertise, and I look to all of you too, to do your part.

As citizens, and in your future professional careers after you graduate, you will have many opportunities to get involved in the issues I have mentioned today, and make a contribution to a better future.  It is this sum of such individual contributions which eventually makes a difference.

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