Introduction to the Concept of Sustainability

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Sustainability did not play any role in development projects until the late 1980s. But a steady growing population, especially in the developing world, environmental worries like deforestation, land degradation (especially desertification), air pollution, toxic waste and ongoing scarcity of clean water and the absence of ground-breaking success in poverty reduction prominently placed it on the agenda of the United Nations.


In 1983 the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar invited Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to chair a World Commission on Environment and Development. The commission's report was finally presented in 1987 and established the concept of sustainable development.
Brundtland declared that only sustainable development could lead to the fulfillment of human needs with the protection of air, soil, water and all forms of life - from which, ultimately, planetary stability was inseparable. Therefore, for the first time poverty reduction was linked to environmentalism and vice versa. Also questions of ecological justice concerning the allocation of natural resources between the developed and the developing countries were addressed.

The findings of this report led to the first Earth Summit - the UN Conference on Environment and Development - at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and to the Agenda 21.

Today, more then 20 years after the release of the Brundtland Report, sustainable development is one of the key issues on the political agenda. But as the report indicates, arriving at a commonly accepted definition of sustainable development remains a challenge for all the actors in the development process.

Prominent Definitions

Oxford Dictionary

Sustainable (1) involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment;

(2) that can continue or be continued for a long time

Other Sources

1. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH:

(Declared in 2005 sustainable development to be the corporate guiding principle)

For the work of GTZ, sustainable development means:

  • supporting economic growth for more prosperity in partner countries
  • ensuring equal opportunities for rich and poor, North and South, women and men
  • utilizing natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations

2. Reinhard Stockmann: (Scholar)

A project in development cooperation is sustainable:

  • if there were built up adequate structures which enable the counterpart or beneficiary to successfully react on changing environmental conditions (problem solving capacity)
  • if there are planned and unplanned multiplier effects (Multiplikatorwirkungen), in a way that benefits spread to a wider population
  • if the project becomes a role model for others

3. Franz Nuscheler: (Scholar)

Nuscheler defines it as a:

  • permanent impact,
  • economic efficient/ productive,
  • social fair and
  • environmental compatible development (dauerhafte, wirtschaftlich leistungsfähige, sozial gerechte und umweltverträgliche Entwicklung).

4. The Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD-DAC)

defines sustainability as:

  • the continuation of benefits from a development intervention after major assistance has been completed,
  • the probability of continued long term benefits, and
  • the resilience to risks of the net benefit flows over time.” („Glossary of Key terms in Evaluation and Results Based Management“ OECD-DAC Working Group on Aid Effectiveness. 2002.)

Sustainability Indicators

To assess whether a current development path of a particular nation, or of the world at large, is consistent with the idea of sustainability, reliable indicators that measure the status quo are needed. Among others, the concept of the Ecological Footprint, as developed by Wackernagel and Rees 1996, or the much less clearly defined concept of the Carbon Footprint are two interesting ecological accounting tools to measure sustainability.

Sustainability & Climate Change

Project activities are often described, analyzed and compared in terms of their environmental impact as one important yardstick for sustainability. However, given the background of a globally changing climate, it is equally important to assess the sustainability of a project in terms of its vulnerability or resilience towards expected regional climate impacts. Climate proofing and adaptation activities in energy sector programmes therefore increasingly gain importance in development planning.

Further Information