Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2011
Luis T. Gutiιrrez, Editor
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A sustainable development indicator for NGOs
and international organisations

David Lempert and Hue Nhu Nguyen
Diaspora Bridge Center
Lublin, Poland and Vientiane, Laos

Originally published in the International Journal of Sustainable Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2008

Abstract: The article offers an easy-to-use indicator for measuring whether NGOs, international organisations and government policies and projects meet the criteria for sustainable development that have been established by the Rio Declaration in 1992 and that are recognised by experts in the field. Use of this indicator reveals that most of the major actors in the field of development are actually failing to promote sustainable development and points to the specific areas where they need to improve in order to fulfil sustainability criteria. We also offer a sample test of the indicator using UNICEF as a case study.

Keywords: civil society; consumption; development policy; environmental asset accounting; Gross Domestic Product; GDP; governance; growth; indicator; Millennium Development Goals; Oxfam; Rio declaration; sustainable development; UNDP; World Bank.

1. Introduction

We live in an age where police are 'peace' officers, War Departments promote 'Defence', economic policies that destroy cultures are described as 'free trade' and villages and cities are bombed to 'save' them. So, perhaps it is not surprising that Oxfam is touting its business investments in Asia using International Finance Corporation money as a 'groundbreaking programme to eliminate poverty' (Oxfam Prosperity Initiative, 2006).[1] They are not the only organisations who have taken what was a clearly agreed international agenda on 'sustainable development', established in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and replaced it with an unsustainable corporate agenda of increased productivity and increased consumption. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the reality of non-profit funding and the fears that many countries in the world have today, that if they do not keep 'producing' they will be intimidated by other countries that do.

At the same time, many development agencies that specifically claim to be doing sustainable development and whose responsibility it is to look out for the interests of humanity and the planet like the UN system and its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) approach (and most environmental organisations, of course), are offering only partial solutions for sustainability, at best.

Oxfam's latest move is a good example of how money and national government policies corrupt sustainable development objectives and why it is important to get back to basics. Simple tests and measures can remind everyone what the goal of sustainable development really is, how it works and how false and self-serving approaches can be separated from the reality.

When practitioners in the development community, those who donate to them and those of us who are taxed to provide money for what we are told is 'sustainable development' are duped into turning 'stockholders' (financial investors) into 'stakeholders' and into supporting employment schemes that tend to exploit child labour and destroy the environment in order to 'lift millions of people out of poverty' in short-term fixes that are really just 'a more supportive environment for business' (Oxfam Prosperity Initiative, 2006), something has gone wrong. To understand why 'prosperity initiative' projects described as 'long-lasting targeted economic development and poverty solutions for millions' are just trickle-down economics in new bottles, one needs to have a ready checklist on what constitutes 'sustainability'. We offer one, with 9 points.

It is a guide that can be used by citizens of developed and developing countries to hold governments and actors in international development accountable. It is also a way for those in the development community and those who donate to them to make a more informed choice on where to put their resources.

2. Sustainability (and human) factors

Most development organisations that claim to be promoting 'sustainable development' seem to have lost sight of the objective, though it is easy to keep in mind. The principles established at a UN conference in 1992, sometimes referred to as the Rio de Janeiro principles, define the goal clearly.

According to Principle 8 of the Rio Declaration, sustainability is a long-term balance of consumption and production (United Nations, Rio Declaration, 1992). It has four simple variables: on the consumption side: population and per capita consumption; and on the production side: resources (a country's assets, including the environment) and productivity per unit of resources. They can be put into an equation that has to balance over time (for two generations or more, for planning purposes):

population x consumption = resources x productivity/resource

For a country (or culture) that wants to develop (increase per capita consumption or productivity, or both) and stay sustainable, the resources factor has to stay fixed. The planet's resources are, of course, fixed. The fundamental laws of physics are that 'matter cannot be created nor destroyed' (the Lomonosov-Lavoisier law) and that 'energy cannot be created nor destroyed' (the first law of Thermodynamics).

There are two other key conditions of sustainability that relate to this equation. One is that sustainability is considered in its own cultural context and preserves human cultural diversity. Killing off a population makes an area sustainable, but it is destruction, not development. Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration requires support for the 'identity, culture and interests' of both indigenous peoples and communities in the achievement of sustainable development (United Nations, Rio Declaration, 1992).

The other key, highlighted by Principle 4 of the Rio Declaration, is that there are no overall negative impacts on the globe; that resources are used in ways that protect the quality of the globe's resources, such as its rich diversity, and not only an economic value. Economic valuations can be subjective and crude judgments. Too often, a single international valuation for resources is set by those who have the greatest amount of technology and military power, and the value they set on resources of others does not reflect the actual role of resources in the sustainability of individual human cultures in their eco-systems, or of the planet.

3. The wrong focus

Unfortunately, while the principles are simple and not so difficult to measure or estimate, most projects tend to focus solely on productivity, or on short-term protections of resources. That is unsustainable. For example, 'anti-poverty' or 'economic equality' projects that do not control consumption or population at the same time, will ultimately be unsustainable and lead again to poverty. Higher consumption depletes resources. Anti-poverty projects can actually make populations worse off in the long run if they increase consumption but do not continue to increase productivity, or if they increase both, but at the expense of the resources (that are used up at a quicker pace than actually replenished or transformed).

Far too many anti-poverty projects today that focus on improving productivity or health by importing foreign technology are really just forms of 'relief' that do nothing to promote sustainability and essentially just postpone poverty in ways that are likely to increase future suffering when populations increase and there are more people facing crisis from an exhaustion of resources.

Too many projects continue to use colonial measures of development, looking only at Gross Domestic Product (GDP) gains, but not at actual per capita wealth gains that are sustainable (real, long-term benefits to each individual) and many other critics of development have focused on these measures as inappropriate, including a former head of the UNDP (Korten, 2007; Speth, 2008). It is easy to show GDP gains by selling off resources or by using a foreign technology, but this is the opposite of sustainability. And, if populations grow, individuals and their children can actually be worse off even when GDP measures suggest that they are on a trend that is making them better off. The development community knows this, but they still will not use a sustainable development measure and are focused only on what are really just short-term 'sales' figures.

Real development is long-term changes in thinking, culture and institutions that promote sustainability. Relief, by contrast, is a gift to treat 'poverty' symptoms for short- term distressed populations suffering from a natural disaster where there is no internal capacity. Too many development projects and approaches today fall in between and just treat 'poverty' symptoms and apply a 'relief' approach in a non-emergency situation. They also tend to promote dependency and erode local cultures. In short, they are unsustainable and funds are being misused.

4. An indicator to measure true sustainable development

To make it easier for organisations and contributors to tell the difference between sustainable and unsustainable approaches, we offer an indicator with five categories (and a total of nine simple questions) that even non-experts can quickly used as a litmus test of sustainability.

By asking these nine easy 'Yes or No' questions and then counting up the results, you can determine the relative sustainability of a project or intervention by the following scale:


All 9 points

Sustainable solution in line with Rio Declaration and International Human Rights Conventions

7–8 points

Sustainable or partly sustainable solution that may erode human cultural diversity

2–6 points

Partial solution

0–1.5 points

Unsustainable quick fix

4.1 Measures/sub-factors

Below, we show how you can apply the test to any project by asking the 9 questions and recording the scores. Most of the questions are clear cut 'Yes' (1 point) or 'No' (0 points), but in cases where there is a judgment call, you can opt for a 'Debatable' (0.5 points).

I Planning framework: Sustainable development requires following the planning equation above, plain and simple. Either the project has it or it does not and it either institutionalises it in the country or it does not.

Question 1.

The project uses the sustainability equation and tries to make predictions for the next 50 years (two generations, the minimum period for projecting human cultural sustainability)?


Yes – 1
No – 0

Question 2.

The project builds a sustainable government process to insure that some local governmental body uses the sustainability equation and enforces sustainable planning in public policy in a way that projects into the future and measures the four key factors in the equation?


Yes – 1
No – 0

II Consumption patterns: The consumption side of the equation and its two interrelated factors of population and per capita consumption are essential to sustainable development. A sustainable project has to do something with this side of the sustainability equation.

Question 3.

The project manages consumption so that per capita wealth (or increases in per capita wealth) is not eaten up by increased population or by wasteful spending that does not improve long-term per capita well-being (health, safety and lifespan)? (This can be done through population planning (e.g. postponed childbearing for women and reduced childbearing) and/or through more efficient household and community spending). It may require cultural changes and legal changes, since there is no guarantee that higher productivity will slow population growth or lead to more careful spending.


Yes – 1
No – 0

III Productivity impact (economics): The production side of the sustainability equation has two factors: assets (natural resources, which are fixed, and that have a particular 'economic' value for the communities that are dependent on them, as well as other kinds of 'capital' that are not fixed, such as human skills and different kinds of infrastructure) and productivity of the assets. Sustainability means that assets are not depleted and not turned into quick income gains. An asset is any resource and can be plants or animals, minerals, equipment or human ability. The measure of growth or wealth is not income, but is the building of assets (overall economic value). These scores are a bit harder to measure, since they require some understanding of business measures. Measuring assets as the indicator of how well a business is doing (and not production or sales) is what a business does with a balance sheet. Sustainability measures can use these types of business measures, too, and assets and productivity per assets are the correct ones. We suggest two measures with three categories.

Question 4.

The project results in no total loss of value of per capita assets (wealth) in the system? In other words, production does not consume assets, but either replenishes them or replaces them with an asset of equal value. Another way of saying it in business terminology is that if production and income increase, the sum total of resource inputs consumed following the increased production is replaced directly or replaced by something of equal production value. If you have oil or coal and sell or use it, you need to turn it into some other asset, like greater knowledge or productive machinery, or it is being 'consumed' in a way that is not sustainable.


Yes – 1
Debatable – 0.5
No – 0

Question 5.

The project results in long-term continuing productivity increases (not just a one-time technology transfer or investment) or stable per capita productivity? In other words, the project does not just introduce foreign technology on a one-time basis or provide an input that cannot continually be replaced or improved, but promotes continuing investment in research and spurs innovation and creativity that lead to productivity. Donating a factory or technology is not a continuing productivity increase, but building a research and development institute could be. Donating fish or fishing rods or building new irrigation systems are not sustainable improvements unless the donations are continually maintained from the income it generates and that income is stable 'forever'. If population and consumption increase, productivity also has to increase to keep pace, or fish stocks will be in danger of being depleted, as most of the world's fish stocks are today. This is why the development community's idea of 'teaching hungry people to fish' rather than 'giving them a fish' is already an outdated idea. Coffee growing or shrimp raising projects are usually unsustainable, since they take income for only a few years (and they also deplete assets). Dams that need to be rebuilt may or may not be sustainable (and may or may not build overall assets.)


Yes – 1
Debatable – 0.5
No – 0

IV Overall impact on global environment (the quality of assets that are protected): This category directly measures the impact of a project on biodiversity and global climate and other global environmental security concerns. It asks whether the project protects the planet or increases dangers to the planet (e.g. population, consumption) by asking two questions. The concerns can be divided into the ability to pay the costs humans cause to the environment and the ability to ensure the quality of the environment (something that cannot just be paid for, since changes and losses could be irreparable).

Question 6. The project 'internalises' the costs of any changes (of productivity and consumption) so that any harms to the global environment are paid for and fixed with money from any benefits generated by the project?


Yes – 1
No – 0

Question 7.

The project has no negative impact on the eco-system integrity or survival?


Yes, no negative impact – 1
Debated – 0.5
No, there is clear impact – 0

V Impact on global cultural diversity (human aspects of development): Sustainability is linked with culture. While a single global 'mono-culture' could, debatably, be sustainable, the key to human adaptability is diversity. We offer two measures of whether a project promotes the cultural survival of an endangered or threatened cultural group or just promotes homogeneity, dependency and loss of cultural diversity.

Question 8.

The project reflects the cultural integrity and special characteristics of each separate cultural group it affects (including positive system- preserving changes)?


Yes – 1
Debated (or multiple impacts on different groups) – 0.5
No – 0 (promotes a trade agenda in ways that replace the comparative advantages or traditional products and values that are essential to a culture).

Question 9.

The project helps reverse any legacy of colonialism and builds new self- sufficient communities rather than reinforcing dependency? Preparing areas to enter the New World Order in which they will be dependent is likely to threaten overall human sustainability. Propping up a dictatorship or an oppressive ruling class on grounds of 'not-interfering' with a culture is likely to actually be cultural destruction if the government system is a legacy of colonialism (the case for most governments in developing countries).


Yes – 1
Debated (or multiple impacts on different groups) – 0.5
No – 0 (promotes a trade agenda in ways that reduce sovereignty or self-reliance that are essential to a culture).

4.2 How some organisations do

After understanding how the test works, it is easy to apply to every new case in just a few minutes and with close agreement among any one using it. Below are some examples of how different organisations and projects score, from best to worst. In the inset box, we demonstrate how we apply the test step-by-step to one organisation, and we welcome readers to try the indicator, themselves, as well as to invite us to use it in other cases, perhaps in future issues of this journal.

Models of sustainability

  • Slow Cities Model. (A movement initially established in 1999 in Italy to celebrate the quality of life in small towns, now spread to some European and the US towns) – A slow city is not the 'only' model or necessarily the 'best' model for modern life, but it is sustainable – 9 points (or close to it).

  • Earthwatch/Worldwatch Institute/State of the World. This is an example of advocacy and publications rather than a specific development 'project', but this advice can be scored – 9 points (or close to it).

    Partial solutions

  • WWF, IUCN, FFI, Birdlife (or other environmental organisation), specific park or eco-tourism projects. The surprise here is that most environmental organisations do not really do sustainable development. The income generation components of many of these projects rely on foreign purchases or on funds that may not be sustainable. There is usually little attention to population or consumption changes in these projects (and often the goal is to increase consumption) and there is rarely adoption of a governmental sustainable development framework for the long-term.–4.5 points.

  • MDG approach of the UNDP. It is a bit sad that the UN system does not really follow the Rio Declaration and the MDG's do not really promote sustainable development, though they are claimed to do so.–4 points (two for environment, two for productivity).

    Projects that do well or poorly

    Standard development projects today may or may not do well depending on whether their set of inputs reflects the overall sustainability model. Now, their impact on sustainability is largely random (because most projects do not apply the kind of sustainable development test that we urge). For example:

  • Grameen Bank. (Community banking and small business/household loan investment) Model Alone – 1 point!

  • Grameen Bank model in the context of integrated planning and community empowerment. Anywhere from 1 to 9 points – A good application of this project does well because women postpone childbearing, investments are local consumption.


    These organisations claim to be doing much more than they really are and the test exposes them, quickly.

  • UNICEF. Two points (See chart below).

  • World Bank/IMF. One point – 0.5 in environment; 0.5 for productivity.

  • Oxfam's Prosperity Initiative and goal of economic equality. An Oxfam 'Productivity Initiative' that does not measure the impact of child labour being used to make bamboo export products – 1.5 points (debatable points on assets, sustained productivity and impact on the eco-system).

    Scoring of UNICEF on the 9 component questions of the indicator

    Preliminary information for assessment
    UNICEF's organisational mission (claim) according to UNICEF's founding charter
    "UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children's rights [and is] guided by the Convention on the Rights to the Child" (UN Legal Resolutions on UNICEF, 1946, 1950, 1953 and 1993). The convention includes Article 41, requiring that UNICEF and countries implementing the convention also adhere to 'international law in force'. (United Nations, CRC, 1989). This legally incorporates the principles of the Rio Declaration, and particularly Principle 4 of the Rio Declaration, that "environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it" (UN Rio Declaration, 1992)
    UNICEF's activities in practice (from its website)
    UNICEF's current focus, reflected in its global programmes, is: "For every child: health, education, equality, protection". There is no incorporation in its activities of the Rio Declaration. UNICEF's current programmes are in isolation of sustainable development and any kind of planning to protect future children and the resources and sustainability of their cultures that would incorporate the Rio Declaration, as required by the CRC. The CRC, itself, focuses its mission on 'every human being below the age of 18 years' (Article 1) with no mention of protection of future children or cultural continuity or resources other than teaching 'respect for the natural environment' to children (Article 29, (e)). UNICEF sees its mandate as the promotion of "The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential" (Article 29 (a) of the CRC)
    Overall analysis of UNICEF as a sustainable development actor
    The inducement of investing resources now in the 'full potential' of all existing children acts to contradict the requirements of sustainable development and protection of culture and environment, through overconsumption now and to avoidance of demographic and consumption planning
    Source of Information for Analysis: UNICEF Website.

    Question Indicator Scoring
    The organisation uses the sustainability equation?
    No, it does not.
    0 points
    The organisation builds a sustainable government process?
    No, it does not. The focus is only on meeting resource and protection needs of children alive today, not on any kind of future planning.
    0 points
    The organisation manages consumption so that per capita wealth is not eaten up by increased population? No, it does not. In fact, the UNICEF approach is likely to promote increasing population and consumption now, leading to increases in the number of poor children in the future.
    0 points
    The organisation protects the value of per capita assets (wealth) in the system? UNICEF does promote education and public use of national assets on education could increase 'human capital' if education is appropriate and not just warehousing children for exposure to State (or international) ideology. Spending on health may also be of benefit if the assets are used wisely. UNICEF does not promote sale of assets to foreigners, so there is no exploitation of resources. Whether UNICEF fulfils this mission properly is debatable,
    so we award 0.5 points
    5 The organisation's efforts result in long-term continuing productivity increases? For the same reasons as above, UNICEF could promote cultural development in ways that go beyond just putting children in elementary schools for rote learning and that promote innovation and development, but that is debatable.
    We award 0.5 points
    6 The organisation internalises the costs of any changes in productivity and consumption? No it does not. UNICEF promotes higher consumption but does not address any of the consequences.
    0 points
    7 The organisation has no negative impact on the eco-system integrity or survival? UNICEF does not specifically address the impact of children's consumption or population on eco-systems, nor does it link children's rights with their legal rights to eco-system integrity and survival as part of their rights to health and culture. The impact UNICEF has is thus debatable.
    We award 0.5 points
    8 The organisation reflects the cultural integrity and special characteristics of each separate cultural group it affects By law, UNICEF is supposed to protect cultures, but in reality it seems to promote State schools and urbanisation and homogenisation. However, in some projects, UNICEF promotes local languages and protects against discrimination, so its overall impact is debatable.
    We award 0.5 points
    9 The organisation helps reverse any legacy of colonialism and builds new self-sufficient communities No, it does not. UNICEF works as a partner with States and their governments and not directly as an advocate for individuals and cultures who are abused by their governments. It has no specific agenda for reversing colonialism and promoting self-sufficient communities.
    0 points
    Total 2 points


    Korten, D. (2007) The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

    Oxfam Prosperity Initiative Website. LINK.

    Speth, J.G. (2008) The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. LINK

    UNICEF Website. LINK

    United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992) Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. LINK

    United Nations Legal Resolutions on UNICEF; Resolution 57 (I) of December 11, 1946; Resolution 802–808 of October 6, 1953; Resolution 4–17 (V) of December 1, 1950; Resolution 48/162 of December 20, 1993.


    1 Oxfam's Prosperity Initiative website explains that this 'groundbreaking programme' was actually designed by the International Finance Corporation and the Mekong Project Development Facility, of the World Bank Group, in 2004, then renamed as an Oxfam project in 2006. The project is not only supported by three different Oxfams (Hong Kong, the US and the UK) and by continued IFC funding, but also supported by four government donors including AusAID (Australia), the Swiss, the Irish and SNV (the Netherlands). |back|

  • About the Authors: David Lempert, PhD, JD, MBA, ED (Hon) and Hue Nhu Nguyen, MS have worked for a combined total of 35 years in development.

    Dr. Lempert is an author of several books including, A Model Development Plan. He is an Anthropologist, Lawyer and Educator who has worked in more than 30 countries for the UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank, USAID, EC, WWF, IUCN and several other development organisations. He is the founder and C.E.O. of Unseen America Projects, Inc., leading the design of democraticexperiential/ clinical curricula, and has taught at several universities, including as a Fulbright Professor in Vietnam. Currently, he is promoting several new NGOs: a monitor of donors; an initiative to create a Red Book for Endangered Human Cultures; and Diaspora Bridge Centers in Eastern Europe.

    Hue Nhu Nguyen is an Environmental Policy Analyst who has worked for the UN, FFI and the Vietnamese government. She helped one of the biggest national parks of Vietnam in the Central Highlands of the country to set up a museum of local cultures and biodiversity to highlight the linkages between culture and environment, and to reaffirm cultural values in resource management and wildlife conservation. She has coordinated a project to protect the Cao Vit gibbon, one of the most endangered primates in the world, in a Northern province of Vietnam bordering China. She is also Co-authoring a multi-volume work of cultural-historical bicycle tours throughout Southeast Asia. Currently, she is researching the relationship between consumption, innovation and sustainability.

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