One of the biggest questions in Sustainable Development is ‘whose responsibility is sustainability?’. Questions overuse of natural capital and ecology are inherently political, as the fields are rooted in historic colonialism and modernity. Over-exploited areas such as India, Africa and the Middle East were used as political puppets from which to drain natural resources, and are now used by large corporations as dumping grounds to avoid costly environmental regulations. Since the late 70s, debates around how over-exploited countries can grow their economy in a sustainable way have raised questions about responsibility, historical accountability, and effective financial and ecological management. National and International organisations (NGOs, IGOs) have tried various financial incentives and schemes to promote sustainable development in its most literal terms for developing countries. 

Developing countries can be defined by their GDP, however other metrics can also be used. Countries with a GDP under $25,000 per capita include Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, for example, but many still consider areas of Asia, the Middle East and Africa to be ‘developing’ due to political solidarity movements against western hegemony, technology capabilities and social issues such as poverty. 

A Brief History

Until the Rio Conference in 1992, there was a clear North/South divide in development, also called Annex 1 and Annex 2 countries. Annex 1 (western, first world) took responsibility for acting first and enabling cooperation through knowledge exchange, technology transfer, and aid. However, though this drew up a clear hierarchy in regard to those with power taking responsibility for using it, it still upheld the same hegemonic system since Annex 2 countries passively received. Annex 1 countries continued to innovate, create, and lead. However, in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the divisions and the needed use of natural resources to build economies in Annex 2 countries was reflected, where the US and EU were told to collectively reduce their emissions by 15 percent, and hundreds of billions of dollars were committed to ensuring appropriate governance structures, technology development and funding. One scheme, ‘Debt for Nature’ involved ‘the purchase of a developing countries debt at a discounted value and calling the debt in return for environment-related action’, which on the surface seems like a good economic incentive. However, due to the aforementioned issues of said countries being passive receivers, its practice didn’t live up to expectations since there was little established process, knowledge, opportunity and instruments for independent innovation and sustainable practices.

What is the Issue?

The fundamental debate is whether it is fair to ask developing countries, many of whose issues have stemmed from imperial exploitation, to grow economically as a country on an increasingly global stage, without using, consuming and selling the main resources western countries used to gain their wealth andl power. There are still ideas and perceptions rooted in civilising mission mindsets that developing countries are not modern, are riddled with disease and poverty, and need to be saved. India is a classic example of this, with pictures of grand palaces and colourful scenes of culture overlooking large areas of slums with dirty water, food scarcity and crime. Yet it is emerging as one of the top five global economies. 

With many corporations looking for a more environmentally sustainable supply chain, much more produce and innovation is being pressed to happen locally. It could be that we’re looking at a de-globalisation of supply, to reduce the environmental degradation which comes as an impact of intense global trade. This would, however, cripple many developing countries’ economies since trade of products and natural resources to western countries that overconsume it is what helps build their economies. 

Cobbinah argues that poverty and urbanisation are essential to achieving sustainable development, and yet the richest 1 percent emit double the CO2 emissions of the collective poorest half of the population. We then reach the question of trade-offs: Should developing countries sacrifice growing economies for sustainable progress that will likely bypass them, since extreme poverty would be a result of that sacrifice, and environmental degradation is strongly associated with this? Countries in South and East Asia that have reduced their poverty levels have seen an emissions increase in over 200 percent. We know that overpopulation is a major sustainable development challenge in the coming years, and poverty’s relationship to this is all political, environmental and economic. Another question of a trade-off is raised here to what the world may be fighting for: our current or our future generations?

What Could the World Look Like?

Economists and social scientists have considered what the world would have looked like if the great industrialisation period never happened. This same picture may be applied to what the world would look like if developing countries become global powers in an environmentally friendly way. A recent UN press release noted that the ‘South-South Cooperation shows developing countries leading the way’ in addressing immediate impacts of food insecurity and extreme poverty due to Covid 19. However, through a lens of political ecology, there is more than battle for the resources at play. The US and UK are still tightly gripping onto their previous empire and tensions between rising global powers such as China, India and the EU have already been met with the tension between themselves. 

Historical roots in colonialism is still relevant today, as much of the wests’ economic power has rested on exploitation, slavery, free labour, and deep rooted established wealth and class boundaries. Will and should developing countries be free to make the same sacrifices and mistakes in order to share the world stage? Or should they remain a smaller power if it means more environmentally and socially compatible practices with a growing economy?