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Our Insights 17 Mar 2015

Postcards From…SustainAbility’s Recent Travels

By Frances Buckingham

The SustainAbility team, around the world!

In the spirit of Radar’s spring issue, The Place of Sustainability, we feature some of the recent travels of the SustainAbility team. They bring us a first-hand view of Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Indonesia and India and a snapshot of some of the issues that currently define these diverse countries.

Bhutan, Denise Delaney
The Kingdom of Bhutan – or the Land of the Thunder Dragon – is sandwiched between China and Nepal with a population of three-quarters of a million people. Bhutan intrigues. There are no traffic lights. There is effectively no advertising. You will not find the outlet of a single, large multi-national company. The pursuit of happiness is the country’s greatest export.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) measures and supports Bhutanese society across nine domains, and builds on its original four pillars of happiness: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance. Whether or not GNH will prove an effective alternative to GDP or other measures, what one of the GNH co-authors, Karma Ura, says of GNH resonated quite strongly with me:

“First, one must be able to imagine the society you would like to have. This is the pre-requisite for the development of any indicators. If you do not do this, you will end up reinforcing the present predicament in another guise. GNH then is about imagining the future and the course of appropriate development and then taking the path to that imagined future.”

What could be worse for sustainable development and our shared future if we “end up reinforcing the present predicament in another guise”?

Sri Lanka, Rida Bilgrami
The experience of visiting a country in the process of rebuilding itself after decades of civil war and a natural disaster felt remarkably familiar and yet novel. Familiar because being Pakistani, I could relate to how society evolves during and after a conflict and is in turn shaped by it. Novel because I was visiting after a gap of several years since spending the summer of 2006 in Sri Lanka working with tsunami-affected communities who were rebuilding their economic livelihoods through micro-credit loans.

As someone who was born and grew up in South Asia, despite its imperfections, I’ve marvelled at this small island’s ability to outperform its regional neighbours on social development indicators, particularly education and health. While the country continues to grapple with post-conflict reconciliation, the change in government is likely to herald a new wave of reform and forge a new identity for the country on the global stage.

Brazil, Michael Harvey
For many Brazil is very much the land of sun, fun, awe-inspiring geography, and a culture so laid back you can’t help but find it endearing. For others the beauty and vibrancy of this rapidly “emerging economy” is marred by a number of equally visible challenges.

Despite having been one of the darlings of global economy for the last decade and weathering the financial crisis, GDP growth has recently stalled and commentators are in little doubt that Brazil is in dire need of a new way to kick-start the economy. Moreover, the continued existence of favelas – slums that spill over the hills and buttress up against some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods – highlight the almost crippling inequality that still exists in the country despite its relative economic success and numerous efforts to address it.

The combination of these challenges, among others, means that Brazil is increasingly a nation of contradictions – rich in resources with an economy that is stalling, playgrounds of the rich and famous set against a backdrop of inequality, and laid back citizens increasingly vocal with their dissatisfaction.

The sense of dissatisfaction with the country’s progress came to a head in an incident of civil unrest that I witnessed on the last day of my visit, as a violent protest erupted on the streets of São Paulo for the first time since the World Cup last year. The protests were another sign of the increasingly strong feeling that Brazil, a country with so much potential, has yet has to deliver on its promise.

India, Rob Cameron
Experiential learning is attracting a great deal of attention with some excellent academic perspectives recently published. But the point is that it is just that – experiential. So what happens when you get a mixed group comprising folk as varied as dancers, artists, musicians, private equity CEOs, global consulting leaders and NGO activists to name but a few, to gather in the heart of Rajasthan to think, talk, explore and, above all, experience something different?

From experiencing through a lesson in sufi dancing how disconnected the mind can be from the body to spending 24 hours in Bera, a rural forest subsistence community, my time with the Leaders’ Quest Pow Wow 2014 presented a profound opportunity to rethink what matters most and to see the world around me afresh.

The point about being in such places is, of course, what one learns from the communities one visits, but it also opens up a conversational space with fellow travellers that is distinct and special.

Indonesia, Aimee Watson
From the urban sprawl of Jakarta to the remote wilderness of Raja Ampat, there is a sense that the world’s most populous Muslim country is at a “critically important crossroads.”

This archipelago of over 17,000 islands sits within the tropical Pacific waters of the ‘Coral Triangle’ and is the second most biodiverse country in the world. On land it remains Asia’s most extensive standing rainforest, home to Sumatran tigers, Orangutans and Komodo dragons. And the rich marine ecosystem is host to six out of seven species of turtles, whale sharks, oceanic and reef manta rays, 2000 species of reef fish and over 600 species of coral.

Yet Indonesia is developing at a staggering pace and the social challenges and environmental threats this poses are sizeable: 68 out of 250 million are vulnerable to falling below the poverty line, inequality is rising rapidly, obesity incidence has risen dramatically, and corruption is rife. The short-term focus to earn more brings the rich heritage into serious danger: 95% of coral reefs are under serious threat, illegal and overfishing continues, and deforestation driven by the global demand for palm oil means all forests could be lost by 2056.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, epitomises the stark tension between the opportunity and risk that development brings. Until a couple of years ago there were only four homestays and a handful of eco-resorts spattered across the 1,500 islands that lie in these pristine waters. This year there are over 30 and the waters are already littered with the packaging of snack food and cigarette butts. Fish caught on the house reef are inedible as their stomachs full of plastic.

Indonesia has never been so hopeful of change for the better. New president and ‘man of the people’ Joko Widodo brings with him a refreshingly progressive outlook and goals for reform that focus on prioritising education, health and transport, reducing waste, and tacking a zero tolerance approach to corruption. Political engagement and awareness has grown and with it an appetite for more collective action. Translating this into reality at the local level, and with it, bringing visible ‘unity’ to the undeniable ‘diversity,’ lies at the core of what successful development means to the country.

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