A Journal of Sustainable Human Development
Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2011|
Luis T. Gutiιrrez, Editor
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
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHORS
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.
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,
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
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
All 9 points|
Sustainable solution in line with Rio Declaration and International Human Rights Conventions
Sustainable or partly sustainable solution that may erode human cultural diversity
Unsustainable quick fix|
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.
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)?
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
The project has no negative impact on the eco-system integrity or survival?
Yes, no negative impact 1|
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.
The project reflects the cultural integrity and special characteristics of
each separate cultural group it affects (including positive system-
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).
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
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).
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
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 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)
practice (from its
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
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
Source of Information for Analysis: UNICEF
The organisation uses the sustainability equation?
No, it does not.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
We award 0.5 points
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
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.
Korten, D. (2007) The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. San Francisco, CA:
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.
Legal Resolutions on UNICEF; Resolution 57 (I) of December 11, 1946;
Resolution 802808 of October 6, 1953; Resolution 417 (V) of December 1, 1950;
Resolution 48/162 of December 20, 1993.
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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