Natural Resource Management


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Commentary on sustainable development in Africa

Negotiate Tana River sugar project  

Written by Joe Ageyo  July 14, 2008:

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni are not the best of friends – that is the impression one gets when the two men are together. But they seem to share a philosophy that is sometimes referred to as ecoskepticism.

Museveni has often dismissed the idea of Sustainable Development as a Western construct, with  little relevance to underdeveloped Africa. He is often heard saying that development is like a pregnancy and can therefore not be said to be sustainable. His point seems to be that development is an absolute concept and so is either happening or is not happening. Really?

Raila seems to agree. When asked about the proposed Tana Delta sugar project, the PM gave what is now his signature response to controversial development projects – that “your daughter must not remain a virgin if you want to have grandchildren.”

This view on the face of it seems to suggest pragmatism at its very best and a deep desire to improve the lot of the poor residents of Tana River. Yet it flies in the face of modern-day development planning principles.

First, that all “development” is good and should take place at whatever cost and secondly, that development is the same thing as economic growth. The first view is based on the notion that the western countries “developed” using the same model they are now calling unsustainable. The logic is, therefore, that Africa should gun for economic growth now and worry about the environment later.

It is predicated on the idea that Africa’s greatest problem is material poverty and so the continent must strive to “develop” at whatever cost.The second assumption is even more misguided – the idea that economic growth is an end in itself.

If that were the case, then the world’s largest economy, the USA, would not be changing governments so regularly, on account of perceived economic mismanagement. If that were the case, the world’s fastest growing economy, China, would be receiving nothing but accolades from around the world.

Yet Americans still complain of economic difficulties and several world leaders have been toying with idea of boycotting the Olympics to protest China’s human rights record.

This is simply to say that any development that does not address the total needs of a person is not development at all. This is where the controversial concept called Sustainable Development comes in.

Granted, that terminology has as many definitions as there are scholars but the most widely accepted one has to do with ‘meeting today’s needs without jeopardising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.’

To that end many visionary development planners now think beyond economic growth. Sustainable Development addresses economic, social and ecological aspects.

That is to say that for development to be sustainable it must, of necessity, combine a robust economy with rich and resilient natural systems as well thriving human communities. So when some Ugandans complain about the Bujagali power project, President Museveni should not blast the World Bank and NGOs but ask himself whether provision of hydropower is necessarily more important that listening to what the people want.

What use is a multi-billion sugar project in Tana River if many of the local residents feel it is an intrusion?Granted, we all need a growing economy, we all want Vision 2030 realised even in 2010, but it is important to remember that there is life after 2030.

Many economists (not just environmentalists) are now warning that if Planet Earth was a business it would be in the red – we are simply drawing too much more from nature than it is able to replenish.

But there is now even an economic imperative for keeping a keen eye on the environment. In Tana River, leading conservationists, Nature Kenya, say the costs of the proposed project are underestimated and its potential benefits grossly overrated.

But even if it were to take off, there will be the big question of whether British consumers, for instance, who are so environmentally conscious will be willing to pay for ethanol produced under acrimonious circumstances, with possible irreversible damage to the environment.

Development must therefore be a negotiated concept where the government strives to find a place where the interests of all stakeholders meet, even if it does not guarantee the maximum economic benefit.

Ageyo is the NTV News Editor


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