Sustainable Development Speaker's Forum

Yesterday I went to a public lecture at the ANU on sustainable development. The speakers included Bob McMullan MP, the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance and Professor Stephen Howes, formerly of the World Bank and previously Chief Economist of AusAID.

Bob McMullin talked about what is being doing to achieve the Millennium goals. One of the points that he kept coming back to, which I think is important to take into our framework for unravelling complexity is to keep taking stock of what it is that you have achieved and balance that against that which still needs work. When dealing with very large and complex problems it is often easy to be overwhelmed by their enormity and loose sight of the end point.

All the speakers highlighted the need to engage in constructive development rather than cheque book diplomacy. There was also exploration of the need to balance the growing necessity of sustainability against the desire for rapid economic development in poorer countries. They explored the value in engaging local knowledge and empowering small communities in appropriate ways.

One of the points raised by the second speaker, Stephen Howes, really brought home some of the concepts from the 'Our Sea of Islands' Panel. The speaker showed pictures of climate change offices on pacific islands that were just empty buildings with a sign, or perhaps just one bookcase filled with never-touched recommendations from far away universities and think-tanks. It showed how inappropriate 'western' methodologies can be for the diverse cultures that are all linked in to the system of global society.

Another key point was to be wary of the tendency to romanticise 'traditional knowledge' of other cultures. The speaker warned that because something is being done by local people and has been done that way for a long time it doesn't necessarily have best value. Diverse cultures are all entitled to adapt to best practice rather than be forced to remain in false-romantic primitivism. I think this warning needs to be especially heeded in Australian Indigenous affairs and closing the gap.