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Globalisation, Development and Sustainable Development are three related global processes. The relationships are complex and contextual. The language in which these processes are discussed is often normative but with conflicting goals, means and visions. The three processes have different levels of institutionalisation and operationalisation. The long term visionary aim of GLOBIS is to contribute to a reconciliation between these global processes and ultimately to identify synergies between them.


The scholarly literature on globalisation, its origin, dynamics, benefits or perils, now fills a medium-sized library, and comprises not only proponents and opponents of globalisation, but believers in globalisation as an on-going process from time-immemorial, outright deniers of the validity of the concept itself, as well as advocates of ‘post-globalisation’ as the correct attribute of our era (Rosenberg 2000; Ferguson 2005). In 1990 Anthony Giddens proposed that to cope with the reality of globalisation social science should shift its focus from the study of human societies to ‘time-space distanciation’ (Giddens 1990). The impression that time-space compression is a salient feature of our world is also acknowledged by others (Harvey 1989). In the words of Manuel Castells, the striking feature of the world we live in is that we are all experiencing ‘simultaneity in social relations’. (Castells 2000). This provides unprecedented scope and impact for the actions of one group of people (or nations) on the course of events in far-off parts of the world, for generations to come. The time and space nexus is thereby at the core of the problem.

Probing the origin and driving force of globalisation is undoubtedly a significant endeavour, but perhaps what we should take more note of in relation to globalisation is the fact that, as G. W. Brown (2008) recently reminds us, ‘there exists enough empirical knowledge to understand the major considerations that need to be addressed immediately’ (Brown 2008). G. W. Brown speaks of Normative Globalization, i.e. what we should make globalization to be. Our concern is to make globalisation work for sustainable development worldwide. Again, time and space are central.


Development defies simple definitions due to its long post-war history of ideology, theory and practice rooted in the Enlightenment and the ideas of the early nineteenth century. Methodologically, development implies both goals and means (Cowen and Shenton 1996). If goals are expressed in long-term aims and means are formulated in short-term policies then the aim of expanding people’s choices could be achieved through policies of increased participation. But context-bound conditions and conflicting interests are overlooked in such general definitions (Rist 1999). Modernisation and industrialisation are other goals and means of development but experiences of pollution and resource depletion (Angel and Rock 2005) imply that ‘modernity no longer seems so attractive in view of ecological problems’ (Pieterse 2001). In light of these and other contested views of development the relevance of the discourse may be questioned (Cornwall 2007).

Development is highly institutionalised at universities; in international conventions; via the influential Bretton Woods System and through official development assistance (ODA). Although development continuously mainstreams new issues into its domain, the common denominator, in idea and practice, is poverty alleviation aiming at poverty eradication (Burnell 2002). But instead of describing poverty theoretically as ‘getting by’, the daily practice to make ends meet, and ‘getting out’, the long term strategy of social mobility (Lister 2004), development visions are framed in simplified images or quantitative terms, such as reducing the number of people living under the poverty line (Millennium Development Goals); lifting people out of poverty (Fan and Hazell 2001); or encouraging people to make it to the first step of the development ladder (Sachs 2005). We argue that an ambition to build sustainable livelihoods (Ellis 2000), thereby addressing vulnerability and adaptation needs, serves the poorest in a more constructive way.

Development theory neglects the dynamics of the physical environment in which (socioeconomic) development is supposed to take place (Cowen and Shenton 1996; Pieterse 2001). Even when development theory highlights the fact that poverty and environment are intertwined, it often stops there, or resorts to sweeping statements on the need for efficient use of resources. It may even state that the topic of development and environment is highly controversial. (Meier 1995). With the assumption, thrown up by global climate change, of profound global, regional and local repercussions on natural resources and assets on which livelihoods of the poor are based (IPCC 2007b), it becomes a problem when the development discourse externalises negative impacts of resource exploitation and pollution. While the scientific community agrees that climate change will alter the conditions for production and consumption substantially, the development discourse lacks a systemic analysis of the Earth system and its social implications.

Development visions may lack an explicit focus on risks posed by increasing climate change impacts but construction projects often include them. In the planning and construction of long-lasting infrastructure, such as bridges, dams and roads, investors must consider climate variability and potential climate change relevant for the expected life span of the investment; a good example is the guidelines developed by the World Bank for screening their investments in climate sensitive sectors (van Aalst 2006). Many development ambitions and efforts, such as national and regional development strategies, could in our view learn from such thinking.

Mainstreaming as a process may not solve burning social, political and environmental issues. The continued loss of biodiversity (Mace et al. 2005) and the lingering absence of gender equality (Moser 2005) are conspicuous examples. Mainstreaming may create conflicting goals, loss of political edge and methodological problems resulting from an overloading of the discourse. As examples, sustainable development is more complex than the ‘greening’ of development projects, while gender inequalities are more complex than the often simplified ‘gendering’ of development projects (Kabeer 2005).

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development as a political and scientific agenda emerged with the Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987 (WCED 1987). The concept has evoked many meanings and aroused much political and academic debate since then. While many criticise sustainable development for its promise to ‘square the circle’ (Dryzek 1997; Sachs 1999) – to identify a new development model that will both further growth and an ecologically sustainable and more just world order – it has also been welcomed as a generative metaphor around which conflicting environmental and economic interests can meet (Hajer 1995; Fisher and Hajer 1997).

Although contested, the variety of definitions for sustainable development proposed over the past decades seems to converge around concerns for peace, justice, development and the environment (Kates et al. 2005). If sustainable development is the process, sustainability is the goal. In contrast, sustainable development (SD), as paradigm and transition process, strives to deal with both temporal and nature-society complexities. As we see it, SD offers at least three advantages over the development discourse. First, SD theorises the Earth system per se as well as short and long term dynamics and relations to society; secondly, in consequence of severe and partly unavoidable future impacts of climate change SD involves future generations and societies; and thirdly, SD appeals to all countries to embark on a sustainability transition, whereas development appeals only to developing countries. These core aspects of SD are undertheorised by development theory, absent from development practice but compatible with transition theory.

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