Let’s get started with the fundamentals: What is sustainable development, and what does sustainability mean in a humanitarian context? The most widely-cited definition of sustainable development comes from the Brundtland Report, which was published by the United Nations in 1987. It defines the concept as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, sustainable development means thinking about how our actions affect the environment, people and human activities all around the world, both today and in the future. Building on this concept, the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals in the year 2000.
Fifteen years later, a conference known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals related to climate change, water resources, sustainable production, consumption patterns and other factors. Although these goals were initially designed for countries to strive for, many private companies and international organizations also consider them a guide for their own sustainability initiatives. At this point, we must not think about sustainable development simply as a goal to be reached. It must also be thought of as a balance to be maintained in order to respect our planet’s limits. With this in mind, sustainable development rests on
three pillars: economic efficiency, social equity and environmental preservation. As you can see on the screen, in our sustainable development plan, we should strive to find the best balance between our financial resources, our social responsibilities and the need to protect the environment. Of course, that is easier said than done. Let me use a very simple example to illustrate how complex this balance can be. Let’s look at consumption. In our European cities, we can find many shops that sell “fast fashion” at rock-bottom prices, and we all know what this involves.
When you buy a t-shirt or jeans at such a low price, it usually means that the people making them work under harsh and unethical labour conditions, and the factories may well be damaging the environment. This is a clear case where the economic advantage goes against social and environmental considerations. But the truth is that many of us still buy these products, right? The point is that in every decision, a balance must be struck between the three dimensions. Indeed, the objective of sustainable development is to meet the needs of all humanity while ensuring that working conditions are conducive to peace and social cohesion and that nature is able to replenish itself.
This means living sustainably, in fair societies, on a planet capable of sustaining life. The mandate of organizations such as the ICRC does not explicitly mention protecting the environment or even working toward sustainable development. So, you may ask, does a humanitarian organization really need to think about sustainable development? After all, humanitarian actions are often short-term interventions that are focused on saving lives and alleviating human suffering in crisis situations – such as conflict zones, in the case of the ICRC. Humanitarian aid is a priority that is meant to be based on the needs of the beneficiaries and delivered rapidly, impartially and independently of any political objectives.
That is all true, but the ICRC still believes that sustainability is fully relevant to humanitarian action.
First of all, our work is not always short term in nature. In many conflicts and violent situations, we stay in countries over a long period of time – in some cases several decades. We are increasingly confronted with protracted conflicts, so our outlook goes far beyond the short term. What’s more, every organization has a duty to manage the negative consequences of its work. For example, at the ICRC we have always taken the environment into account in our assistance activities. Would it make sense to treat people in hospital without taking care of the contaminated waste that is generated? Should we distribute crops that are invasive species in the countries in question?
Should we build latrines near a source of drinking water for a village given the risk of spreading waterborne diseases? No, of course not. But it goes beyond that. These days, our actions have implications around the world. If we purchase clothing for beneficiaries without regard for the clothing production practices, the good we do for one group of people may be negated by the harm we do, such as to those who produced the clothing under unfair working conditions or to the villages downstream of a highly polluting clothing factory.
What we have learned over the past eight years of integrating sustainability into our activities is that these efforts actually improve the quality of our programmes. We end up providing better services to our beneficiaries, we take better care of the environment and we even reduce our operating costs. And beyond this, we consider sustainable development as a moral duty in several respects. It is a moral duty toward our donors, because it means we are managing our financial and environmental resources better. It is a moral duty toward our employees, because they are committed to our mandate and devote their energy to this organization.
And it is a moral duty toward the general public, because the Red Cross and Red Crescent name should be synonymous with integrity and sustainability. In the next video, we’ll discuss the sustainability framework of the ICRC and the initiatives that are included under that umbrella. Stay tuned!