By Samantha L. Plesser, Esq.
In October 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a pilot campaign for the “Institutional Strengthening of Educating for Sustainable Consumption (ESC)-Advancing ESC Policy and Implementing Strategies.” UNEP believed they could educate developing nations about the importance of sustainability, termed “Education for Sustainable Consumption” (ESC). Through this education initiative, third-world citizens would make “lifestyle choices” based on sustainability measures, “consume better and more responsibly,” and their local governments would “engage in creative new solutions” and “engage in policy debates” about the environment.
Indonesia, a country torn apart by the 2004 tsunami, was the test case for the UNEP program, launched in 2011. Although no one questioned the noble intentions of UNEP’s attempt to introduce sustainability into developing nations, choosing Indonesia as their test case was anything but an intelligent choice. Given Indonesia’s myriad economic and social issues, environmentalism was not a priority for the Indonesian people. And worse yet, it threatened their very livelihood.
A general concept note published by UNEP on the ESC program emphasized a four-pronged approach in how they were to introduce sustainability to developing nations. The first factor was to review and analyze the local and national framework of the existing government. The second facilitated the creation of a roundtable discussion on matters of sustainability initiatives. The third focused on the development and distribution of national guidelines and recommendations concerning ESC. The final prong included continuous monitoring of sustainability progress. UNEP also recruited NGOs on the local and national levels to help implement sustainable policies.
Despite Indonesia’s clear need for public health reform, government accountability measures and economic assistance, UNEP proceeded with its original plan of a program based on sustainability education. On the UNEP website outlining the project and what it hoped to accomplish, UNEP discussed some tailored programs, but specifically emphasized education for the Indonesia people on the importance of sustainable initiatives including teaching children, government, and citizens about the need to stop overconsumption of natural resources, implementing sustainability into the economy, and refraining from pollution. However, they did not give any workable alternatives to Indonesians regarding what to do should they choose a sustainable life style instead of a life style based around their main export, timber.
Darwina Widjajanti, the project coordinator, stated in a white paper published in 2012 that if the Indonesian people could simply be educated about the importance of a sustainable culture, UNEP would be able to integrate ESC into Indonesian culture. UNEP’s policies included “decouple[ing] economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation, or doing more and better with less” and “reforming government polices…”
The UNEP program in Indonesia was completed in 2013, and UNEP’s deemed it a success. Yet, at the completion of the program, critics began to speak out against the way the program was run, if UNEP should have attempted it in Indonesia in the first instance, and whether or not there was hope for a sustainable culture in Indonesia at all. Critics, including the World Bank and notable economists, stated that there was simply no way that a program based on educating a developing nation on sustainability would be able to last in the long-term and further, that it was implemented at the wrong time in the country’s economic life and perhaps, in the wrong country.
Furthermore, at the UN Sustainability Conference Open Working Group in December 2013, Akan Rakhmetullin, the Deputy Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan, representing China, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia, stated that although sustainability is important to developing countries in Asia, “environmental, economic and social challenges are most critical.”
Nidhi Srinivas, an associate professor of Nonprofit Management at The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, when questioned about the UNEP project, stated he was skeptical about how it was executed, even though clearly UNEP meant well. UNEP simply did not understand the correct policies and procedures needed to help Indonesia’s economy and its people.
First and foremost, Srinivas stated UNEP should not have directed their efforts to aid Indonesia, a third-world nation devastated by the tsunami and hindered by huge class differentiation, through a program focused on sustainability. Additionally, because timber is a main export in Indonesia, an attempt by UNEP to promote an effort to decrease deforestation, the backbone of the Indonesian economy and what most of the poorer class of the Indonesian people required to survive, is not feasible.
In March 2013, Oxford Policy Management presented a similar argument. They, too, concluded that although the UNEP project was a valiant effort, it simply was not designed to last. In 2010, 30 million people depended on timber for their livelihood. At the time, the Indonesian government had not made any centralized regulations on deforestation, nor did they have any ability to enforce laws regarding on limiting deforestation.
Additionally, public education spending in Indonesia is at all-time low. It is 20 percent lower than what is mandated under Indonesian law, and the quality of education is dismal. Similarly, health spending in Indonesia is only 2.4 percent of the GDP, which is lower than the OECD average (9.6 percent) and the BRICS economies, (6.3 percent).
Finally, even though national poverty rates have decreased from 2002 to 2011, dropping from 18 percent to 13 percent from 2002 to 2011, almost half of the population lives on less than $2 a day and economic growth has clearly only benefitted the rich and middle class.
Although nobody doubts that UNEP’s intent was noble, as Dr. Milton Friedman said, “There’s nothing that does so much harm as good intentions.”
Samantha L. Plessser, Esq. is a former corporate attornery and current editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of JesseyJay]