Have current programmes and projects designed to promote sustainable development shown evidence of improving the quality of life for the broad majority of citizens in the South? This question was the focus of the debate during the European Science Foundation's annual N-AERUS Workshop, organized by United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and IREC-EPFL at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 3-6 May. Recognizing that cities and towns already house half of humanity and that they have an essential role in development in general, over 70 participants from developing countries and Europe reaffirmed the importance of questioning assumptions underlying common approaches to urban development problems and opportunities in the South.
The workshop concluded that the following areas figure prominently among those matters needing critical examination:
- The dominant model of development, economic globalization, which relies on and promotes the increasing mobility of finance capital, privatisation of public and social services, withdrawal of states from responsibility for safeguarding the public good, and the deepening influence of global corporations in governance at all levels, is largely inimical to genuine forms of sustainable development.
- The realization that approaches to development that may provide healthy and culturally rich lifestyles have been ignored or denigrated by researchers and institutions that subscribe to the dominant approach to development.
- The extent to which social and cultural diversity and differences of country, city, and community has been neglected in debates about the nature of sustainable development.
- The high degree of confusion surrounding the meaning of "sustainable development", which among other things, has resulted at times in some interpretations of sustainable development being imposed upon the poor in the South, either by southern elites or northern donors. This tends to limit rather than expand the approach to development.
- The urgent need to focus attention on lifestyles of the rich in the North as well as in the South in designing more balanced and realistic paths to sustainable urban development.
- The ways in which sustainable urban settlements depend primarily on the actors involved (community, government and business) and on institutions and democratic political systems that allow local actors to determine their own development process.
To carry out effective investigations, the workshop proposes that:
- Researchers recognize and identify explicitly the groups that are likely to be the main beneficiaries of the policies and actions supported by their research.
- Research be conceived, designed and carried out jointly by institutions of the South and North, and that the findings of such research be made available to those actors involved in efforts to build more democratic and humane cities.
- Researchers in the North forge better links with research networks in the South in order to increase the sensitivities of funding institutions in the North to the research priorities and capabilities of southern researchers and institutions.
- Researchers formulate much clearer theoretical frameworks to guide research on sustainable development in the urban context, and strive to achieve a balance between theoretical and conceptual understanding and research of immediate practical value, recognizing the validity of both.