A paradigm shift: the only way out

A paradigm shift: the only way out

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By Alejandro Chanona

Efforts to implement sustainable development have failed mainly because the prevailing economic paradigm has not changed and unbridled capitalism is at odds with any sustainable model. It is the responsibility of the State to be the main promoter of sustainability, fostering a broad alliance with civil society and the business world to decisively promote a viable development model.

The difficulty in achieving the goals of development and human well-being lies in the failure of the dominant economic paradigm, which poses the problem of changing capitalism from within or from without. Our answer is that it must be from within. Recurring economic crises have revealed the weakness of the principles on which the neoliberal model is based. However, its principles continue to prevail as the only path to development.

In the last two decades the world economy has been hit by repeated crises with a common denominator: speculation in financial markets that leads to investments in speculative and high-risk instruments. In the long run, capital surpluses and lax regulations generated bubbles and an overheating of the economy that led to crises.

The gap between speech and actions

Since the publication of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) in 1987, the term “sustainable development” became a reference for the international community. Taking as a background the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and the Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Problems (Brandt Commission), the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “one that guarantees the needs of the present without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own needs ”.

The concept was promoted at the 1992 Earth Summit, with the adoption of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21. In these two documents, the signatory countries pledged to seek economic growth by adhering to guidelines for sustainable development. Later, within the UN Economic and Social Council, the Commission on Sustainable Development was established as the body in charge of monitoring the agreements.

The concept of sustainability explores the relationship between economic development, environmental quality and social equity. It includes a long-term perspective and a comprehensive approach to action, which recognizes the need for all people to participate in the process. According to the Brundtland Commission: “sustainable development is a dynamic process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the destination of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are made considering the needs of the future in addition to those of the present ”.

However, when taking stock of the advances of the paradigm, it is found that there is a wide distance between discourse and actions. The review of the documents emanating from the various United Nations Summits dedicated to development show that since the Rio Summit, the discourse in favor of sustainable development has been accompanied by notions such as human development and human security.

This does not mean that the notion has been strengthened and that it is a priority on international agendas. On the contrary, the promotion of this paradigm has suffered serious ups and downs as a result of various factors, ranging from the differences in perceptions between the North and the South regarding priorities and financing, to the reduction of the goals to the “minimum acceptable for all”. , until reaching the preeminence of the traditional security agenda after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in Washington and New York.

At the same time, developed countries have put aside the notion of "sustainable" to favor their economic growth and maintain the excessive consumption patterns of their population. While in developing countries, caring for the environment has not necessarily been a priority, and the logic of first seeking growth and then development has prevailed. Thus, despite the fact that within the framework of the United Nations, the States have expressed themselves in favor of sustainable development, there has not been the political will to carry out a comprehensive program that would allow it to be implemented throughout the planet.

On the other hand, the breadth, multidimensionality and scope in economic, social and environmental matters of the sustainable development paradigm are still far from being understood, both by the decision makers of the States, and by the population in general. Although the United Nations has insisted on the three pillars of the process and various NGOs are working to promote its multidimensional nature, the idea of ​​sustainability has been fundamentally associated with the protection of the environment. This approach has gained renewed momentum in recent years due to natural disasters, global warming and the challenges of the energy transition. Thus, for example, the issue of the green economy has been positioned within the priorities of the sustainable development agenda.

These circumstances must be understood within the framework of an international system that incorporated neoliberal postulates as a paradigm for development. According to this vision, electoral democracy and the freedom of the markets would bring with them the desired well-being; so the States had to withdraw from their functions and let market forces act. This model showed its limits very soon, hand in hand with the recurring economic crises and the widening of the social gaps that have put globalization in the face of a true ethical crisis.

From Rio to the Millennium Declaration: good intentions, poor results

The history of the movement in favor of sustainable development and placing the person at the center of development efforts dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, with the establishment of the Independent Commissions on International Affairs of the Development (Brandt Commission), Disarmament and Security Affairs (Palme Commission) and the aforementioned Brundtland Commission.

It would be in the first half of the 1990s when development issues acquired particular relevance, which was reflected in the series of Summits held and in the emergence of the concepts of human development and human security, intimately linked to the idea of ​​development. sustainable. The end of the Cold War allowed the expansion of the international agenda and the incorporation of so-called “new issues” that encompassed both the development and security agendas.

In reality, these were phenomena that had been there for decades, but the bipolar ideological contest had relegated them to the background. From the perspective of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the gap between the North and the South had deepened due to the paradigm that considered that economic growth would automatically bring more benefits to society and that privileged structural adjustment above the development issue. [1] In this way, the United Nations promoted a new development agenda that had the goal of tackling the great inequalities that were reflected, for example, in the humanitarian crises in Africa and the legacy of "the lost decade" in Latin America. The curious thing is that despite these criticisms, the neoliberal model was further strengthened, and it was within its framework that it was intended to promote the paradigm of sustainable development.

In 1990 the World Conference on Education for All and the Second Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries were held. That same year, with a group of specialists such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, UNDP proposed an alternative concept: the human development approach, which is defined as a process of broadening people's options and enhancing human capabilities. (the diversity of things that people can be or do in life) and freedoms, so that people can live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge and a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community and in the decisions that affect their lives. [2]

The concept of sustainable development took definitive momentum in 1992 with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. The Summit, attended by 108 Heads of State, resulted in the adoption of three general documents (the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and the Principles on Forests); the establishment of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development; and the signing of the Conventions on climate change, biological diversity and desertification.

The Rio Declaration includes 27 principles for actions related to sustainable development, which touched on such weighty issues as prevention policies, common but differentiated responsibilities and the principle that "whoever pollutes pays." Likewise, the inclusion for the first time of the principle of the right to development (Principle 3) meant the affirmation, for the first time, of this right in an international instrument approved by consensus. For their part, the 40 chapters of Agenda 21 provide a broad framework for action to achieve the transition to sustainable development and measure progress towards that goal [3].

It should be noted that one of the most important aspects of the Conference was the decision to promote a broad-based social movement in favor of this model. The Summit was designed to have an impact on international institutions, national and local governments, the private sector and organized civil society around the world. In this way, UNCED was the first international conference that allowed full access to a number of social organizations and contributed to the development of an independent summit. [4]

Following the trend of placing people as the axis of development, in its 1994 Human Development Report, the UN Development Program proposed a new vision of security that challenges the traditional perspective centered on States and its component military. Human security means freedom from the constant threats of hunger, disease, […] and repression [… and] protection against sudden and damaging disruptions in the pattern of our daily lives. [5] The concept is based on the logic of human development and encompasses economic, political, food, health, environmental, personal and community security.

That same year, the Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was held in Bridgetown, Barbados. It was the first conference to translate Agenda 21 into an action plan for a group of countries. The Barbados Program of Action (BPoA) and the Barbados Declaration established specific actions and measures to be carried out at the national, regional and international levels to support the sustainable development of SIDS. [6]

In this way, in the early 1990s a development movement emerged within the United Nations focused on the well-being and dignity of people. The community's interest in these issues was reflected in the holding of several international meetings dedicated to food (International Conference on Nutrition in 1992 and World Food Summit in 1996), human rights (World Conference on Human Rights in 1993), population (International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, and ICPD + 5 in 1999), housing (Second UN Conference on Human Settlements, or Habitat II, in 1996) and gender equality (Fourth World Conference on Woman in Beijing in 1995 and Beijing + 5 in 2000).

Among the highlights of the Declarations and Action Plans that emerged from these meetings are: a) the insistence on the importance of placing people at the center of the development process; b) the need to promote a comprehensive program to satisfy basic human needs; c) the commitment to reduce inequalities and facilitate sustainable lifestyles; and d) the promotion of environmental sustainability, especially in the summits on population and housing.

In this sense, for example, the Declaration emanating from the Copenhagen Summit on Social Development recognizes that: “economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development, which constitutes the framework of our efforts aimed at achieving a better quality of life for all people ”. [7]

In 1997, in compliance with the agreement reached at the Rio Summit, the special session of the UN General Assembly (Earth Summit + 5) was held in New York. [8] The goal was to assess progress since the Rio Summit and set priorities for the future. On the basis of reports prepared for the session, governments recognized that the global environment had continued to deteriorate, renewable resources were still being used at a clearly unsustainable rate, the number of people living in poverty had increased and the gaps between the rich and the poor had widened, both within and between countries.

Furthermore, the differences between North and South dominated the discussions. The commitments that donor countries made in Rio to increase official development assistance (ODA) and transfer environmentally sound technologies were not fulfilled. Rather, ODA had declined from an average of 0.34% of donor countries' GDP in 1991 to 0.27% in 1995. [9]

As a result of these divisions, the final document of the session (Plan for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21) included a minimum number of new commitments for action. Although no concrete financial commitments were made, the governments agreed to a general declaration stating that developed countries should comply with the commitments made in Rio in relation to ODA and that they should "intensify efforts" to reverse the downward trend observed since 1992. [10]

In the late 1990s, the ethical crisis of neoliberal economic globalization became more apparent. Increasing social inequalities, both between North and South and within countries, the weakening of the State as the guarantor of the common good and the repetition of economic crises became the new Leviathan.

Along with the crises came the social justice movements that argued that "another world is possible." Its first major public demonstrations took place in the city of Seattle, within the framework of the “Millennium Round” of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 1999. From that moment on, all the Summits that brought together the major world economic powers, as well as international financial institutions, became the target of the movement's demonstrations. Their presence at international summits, such as the one in Bangkok and the G-7 Summit in Okinawa in 2000, made the social justice movement known as a new actor on a new and complex international stage.

In 2000, the 189 nations gathered for the Millennium Summit made repeated statements on global inequality, poverty, health and nutrition. They also mentioned key issues such as UN reform, the fight against HIV / AIDS, education, environmental protection, international security, and specifically, wars between ethnic groups in Africa. The very final declaration of the Summit manifested the ethical crisis of international politics and the economy of the new millennium. According to the Millennium Declaration, world leaders would spare no effort to liberate humanity from war, extreme poverty, the threat of environmental disasters, and to promote democracy and the rule of law.

In theory, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and their 21 targets follow the logic of promoting human development. In effect, the goals were reduced to the “minimum acceptable for all”. This is the case of poverty reduction based on income, considering that a person is no longer poor if he lives on USD1.25 per day; or education, by limiting the goal to cover only primary education.

The seventh MDG is “to guarantee the sustainability of the environment”. However, incorporating the principles of sustainable development into national policies and programs, and reducing the loss of environmental resources (Target 7A) are commitments that had already been established at the 1992 Earth Summit. Likewise, Goal 7B, which among other things refers to the loss of biological diversity, deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions, did not define commitments on specific levels of reduction.

From Johannesburg to Rio + 20: between the War on Terrorism and environmental calamity

In 2001, the first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which brought together the global movement for social justice. It was an exercise in parallel to the forum "For a citizen construction of the world" in Paris. In both cases, the goal was to analyze the current situation and propose alternatives to the predominant forms. [11] Civil society has made a decisive contribution to promoting sustainable development. The exchange of ideas and knowledge allows us to join forces at the international level, while these movements encourage changes from the local level through direct work with people.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in Washington and New York marked the return of realpolitik to the international agenda. The fight against terrorism became the priority, not only of the United States, but of all international agendas, overshadowing the development agenda.

The world became polarized based on the George Bush administration's "are with me or against me" logic. The United States reconfigured its security and defense systems and, with the support of the United Nations, waged war against Afghanistan. In this way, the ethical crisis of neoliberal globalization was joined by the conjunctural crisis of security. [12]

A year later, the International Conference on Financing for Development was held in Monterrey, Mexico. The Monterrey Consensus urges developed countries to adopt concrete measures in order to channel 0.7% of their GDP as ODA to developing countries, and allocate between 0.15 and 0.20% of their GDP for the least developed countries; objectives that were reaffirmed at the Third United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries. The document did not set clear targets for the amount of resources that should be used to foster development through foreign direct investment and other private capital flows. [13]

For its part, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that progress in sustainable development during the 1990s had been disappointing. Poverty and social exclusion increased as did the degradation of the environment. For this reason, in addition to taking stock of the progress of Agenda 21, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio + 10) held in Johannesburg was conceived as a “summit focused on the implementation of measures”.

However, once again it was impossible to reach concrete agreements on new treaties or to renegotiate Agenda 21. Some goals were set, such as halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation services by 2012, and achieving a significant reduction in biodiversity loss by 2010. Meanwhile, issues related to ODA and technology transfer from North to South continued to generate great divisions between countries.

That year at the Group of Eight (G8) Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the world's most developed countries pledged to increase funding for ODA from $ 80 billion in 2004 to $ 130 billion (at constant 2004 prices) for 2010, equivalent to 0.36% of the combined gross national product.

The chiaroscuro became a constant in the meetings dedicated to development issues, while privileging the traditional security agenda together with problems of terrorism and international organized crime, especially due to the intensification of the war in Afghanistan and the disastrous war in Iraq. In this scenario the various crises of the system began to converge.

On the one hand, the ecological crisis began to be increasingly evident with the increase in natural disasters and conflicts over resources such as Darfur, all the product of global warming. In 2007, at the initiative of Great Britain, the United Nations Security Council discussed the matter, which acquired considerable importance because it was irretrievably associated with security problems at all levels. To this we must add the challenges of the energy transition - from the depletion of fossil fuels to the need to promote alternative fuels so as not to continue damaging the environment - and the food crisis, linked not only to access to food but also to its availability. quality and their prices, which worldwide increased considerably as of 2005.

Finally, we witness what is considered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929. The current crisis originated in the very center of capitalism with the mortgage bubble and the collapse of such iconic financial institutions as Lehman Brothers. Very soon the crisis spread throughout the world, as did its social repercussions. However, given that it originated directly in the center of the world economy, it generated an important reflection on the need to redefine the relationship between the state and the market, as well as to regulate the economy. Indeed, contrary to the economic crises of previous decades, this time the way out of the crisis and the responses to its challenges are found again in the State.

It should be noted that, in addition to putting the fulfillment of the Millennium Goals at risk by throwing millions of people around the world into poverty and unemployment, the economic crisis impacted the already wounded ODA figure. In 2009, the amount earmarked for ODA by the 23 members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee was USD120 billion, which means a nominal 2.2% drop compared to 2005. Consequently, the deficit for 2010 compared to Gleneagles' goal was $ 18 billion. Only five countries (Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden) have a ratio of ODA to gross national income that exceeds the UN aid target of 0.7%.


The lack of ethics in the international economy, particularly in financial markets, is also fueled by an absence of rules and regulations, which in turn drive speculation. The neoliberal model favors the search for easy and short-term gains. This situation is also at the root of the different economic crises, the unequal distribution of wealth and the increase in the number of people living in extreme poverty.

The prevailing socio-economic model in the world has reduced its vision of human development, which was undoubtedly richer in its beginnings since the Brundtland Report and the objectives of the Earth Summit. Today it has shrunk to a minimum that is closer to a moral excuse than to a true will to solve the problem.

Hence, progress on the sustainable development agenda has been gradual and limited. They depend directly on the political will of the States, not only to agree on agreements on objectives, resources and schedules, but also for their execution, evaluation and follow-up. Developed countries are betting on minimal goals and targets, while avoiding setting more concrete and ambitious goals, targets and commitments.

Economic growth and monetary stability do not by themselves equate to less poverty. As long as the structural problems of the inequitable distribution of income and wealth are not solved, it will be very difficult to make progress in the fight against hunger and reduce poverty, and the capacity to meet the Millennium Development Goals is reduced or any other. It should be pointed out that, in addition to the fact that it is essential to increase ODA, if we really want to reduce current inequalities, more precise indicators are needed to measure poverty in the world. The problem is that the entire monitoring and indicator system is part of the current economic growth paradigm and responds to its discourse.

The liberal community in which the current world has been inscribed, and its vision of the world economy, has generated a narrative in which people interpret their environment and give meaning to their particular and social living conditions. For this reason, it is important to modify this narrative that allows world leaders, heads of state or government, to reformulate their interpretation of reality and therefore, the way of designing and evaluating public policies.

For this reason, the paradigm shift must be accompanied by a renewed discursive-conceptual framework and the development of new indicators to measure social well-being. Any calculation of progress in development and social welfare must go beyond the methodology contained in an economic-monetarist version that reduces complex and multidimensional phenomena such as poverty to a narrow conceptual construction from which minimal indicators are derived. Therefore, the discussion on the definition of new development objectives that go beyond the categories of economic growth must continue. A new set of indicators of poverty and other problems is needed, which means a profound redefinition of international society, the State and humanity itself.

The current crisis through which the international system as a whole is going through opens the possibility of rethinking the relationship between the State and the market and the neoliberal paradigm that has prevailed for several decades. As the Brundtland Report noted at the time: "Ultimately, sustainable development will depend on the political will of governments that must make critical economic, environmental and social decisions."

Alexander Chanona - Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives - National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) -

Related Documents: paradigmas2012_esp.pdf


[1] United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “Origins of the Human Development approach”,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cfr United Nations, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: application and implementation Report of the Secretary-General, (E / CN.17 / 1997/8), Commission for Sustainable Development, Fifth Session, (April 7-25 of 1997).

[4] The summit provided full access to a wide range of non-governmental organizations and led to the development of an independent Earth Summit in a nearby location. Cf. Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz, “What is sustainable development ?, Goals, Indicators, Values ​​and Practice”, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, vol. 47, no 3, 2005.

[5] UNDP, "New dimensions of human security", Human Development Report, 1994.

[6] Both documents detailed fifteen priority areas for action: climate change and rising sea levels; natural and environmental disasters; management of waste, marine and coastal resources; sweet water; land resources; Energy; tourism; biodiversity; national institutions and administrative capacity; regional institutions and technical cooperation; transport and comunication; Science and Technology; human resources development; and implementation, monitoring and analysis. UNESCO, Intersectoral Platform for Small Island Developing States, From Barbados to Mauritius,….

[7] Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, adopted at the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 1995,….

[8] UN General Assembly, Plan for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, adopted at the special session of the General Assembly, Earth Summit + 5, (New York: September 19, 1997).

[9] Departamento de Información Pública de la ONU, Earth Summit Review Ends with Few Commitments (La Cumbre para la Tierra culmina con pocos compromisos), comunicado de prensa, (Nueva York: 27 de junio de 1997).

[10] Ídem

[11] A través del Foro Social Mundial el movimiento por la justicia social ha logrado definir las metas de su activismo traduciéndolo en “el modelo de una sociedad alternativa”, cuyos fundamentos son: el respeto por la dignidad de cada ser humano; la defensa del patrimonio común de la humanidad; la promoción de la democracia, la sustentabilidad ambiental, el ejercicio de la no violencia, el respeto por la identidad y la diversidad; el poner la economía al servicio de los seres humanos; la defensa del derecho a la cultura; la solidaridad entre los pueblos y las personas; y la creación de estructuras sociales que permitan a las personas vivir en condiciones de libertad, igualdad y fraternidad. “Carta de Principios del Foro Mundial Social” en Foro Social Mundial, (8 de junio de 2002),….

[12] Alejandro Chanona, “El sistema internacional: viejos dilemas y nuevos retos. La crisis de septiembre de Estados Unidos y su gran oportunidad”, en José Luis Valdés-Ugalde y Diego Valadés, comps., Globalidad y Conflicto. Estados Unidos y la crisis de septiembre, Editorial UNAM, CISAN, IIJ, (Ciudad de México, 2002), pp. 65-73.

[13] Organización de las Naciones Unidas, Proyecto de documento final de la Conferencia Internacional sobre Financiación para el Desarrollo, Conferencia Internacional sobre la Financiación para el Desarrollo, (Monterrey, México: 18-22 de marzo de 2002),…..

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