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Environmentally Sustainable Development in the Developing World


Industrialised or ‘Western’ countries generally have a higher standard of living than ‘less developed’ or ‘Third World’ countries. In the West people generally have access to employment, clean water, electricity, refrigeration, heating, food, clothing, housing, schools, hospitals, medicines, computers, communications, libraries, roads, transport, machinery and manufacturing. In the process they consume more resources.

In the very poorest countries of the Third World, most people live without access to these things and rely on what they can grow, hunt or gather. They may acquire other goods if they have surplus produce to sell. They are disadvantaged by a lack of roads, railways, telecommunications and power supply and so may be unable to reach the limited number of hospitals or schools. Many of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

There are also a group of countries that have some infrastructure, literacy and health services but still have large numbers of their population living at subsistence level and without access to these services. This group of emergent or transitional economies includes Thailand, Indonesia and other countries in South-East Asia and Latin America.

What is ‘development’?

In the West, ‘development’ refers to economic and technological progress that is based on industrialisation. This progress includes advances in transport, roads and railways, education, health care, technology and communications. The impact upon the natural environment, social structures and culture has been immense - vast amounts of land have been cleared for agricultural or industrial use and the use of fossil fuels has soared along with industrial production. This has contributed to numerous environmental problems including the pollution of the air, production of greenhouse gases, global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. It has also brought social and cultural disruption.

When this type of development is transferred to the Third World, the economic benefits have been limited to a few. Sometimes the technologies involved were inappropriate; the know-how involved remained in the West and not transferred to the host country, or the technology was too costly for the host country to maintain.

The answer is sustainable development. This was defined by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. In other words, growth and development must take place within the limits of ecological systems without major social and cultural disruption, and use technology that can be maintained locally. Ideally, the social, cultural, environmental and technological factors should be in balance.

From the environmental point of view, the local ecosystem should be able to support industries without damage from pollutants and waste. The natural resources of a country or area should be used carefully and not over-exploited and depleted. Industries should also be efficient in their use of energy.

History of development

The rise of ‘the West’

Globalisation is not a new phenomenon but began with the colonisations by Western powers in the 16th century. It was accelerated by faster transport and communications developed in the late 19th century. With further technological advances in the last fifty years, there has been closer economic integration, not only with the formation of the European Community and other trade blocs, but with Western multinational corporations establishing sources of supply wherever the prices are lowest, or the labour is cheapest. National boundaries are now less important.

The colonies were used as a source of raw materials at low prices. In many cases, traditional industries together with local skills and knowledge were swept aside. Newly-independent countries were often left with not enough income to either create capital for investment in development, or to pay for goods imported from the West. Today, many of these countries provide low-priced commodities and manufactured goods for Western markets.


Causes of Unsustainable Development

Effects of Western Development




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