Back 02.02.2012

A Time for ‘Thought Leadership’ on Sustainable Development

My favourite definition of sustainable development is “living on the Earth as if we intended to stay”. This neatly implies that we need a kind of development that benefits everyone both now and in the future. As such, it must be equitable and effective but also friendly to the ecosystems and biodiversity that give us food and water, security and satisfaction.

Finland has been pushing sustainable development ever since the first Rio Conference in 1992, the meeting that launched Agenda 21 and the UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity. In doing so, the Finns have gained unique experience in putting sustainable development together with the nuts and bolts of effective aid, at all levels from communities to international forums.

Finland’s Foreign Ministry has meanwhile been commissioning independent evaluations of the country’s diverse aid programmes. These ask questions like: is what we do effective, efficient, equitable, sustainable? Does it help relieve poverty, if so how, if not why not? What can we learn from our successes and failures? How can we do it better? This level of bravery and introspection is rare among countries in the international aid community, where little is ever studied or measured, and weaknesses seldom admitted to.

There is another special feature of Finnish aid too, which is that values such as gender equity and social inclusion, good governance, local participation and responsibility are consistently used to help create locally-popular and sustainable activities. Combined with a characteristic persistence in the face of adversity (sisu, in Finnish), and confidence with high and appropriate technology, these features make Finnish aid if not perfect, at least an inspiration for others.

Because of all this, Finland is seen as an effective aid donor, and one that has the potential to guide other countries towards delivering better aid programmes. An outcome is that Finnish groups and individuals often end up influencing international processes that are aimed at particularly knotty problems. There are many examples, ranging from the charity DEMO Finland doing such good work in war-torn Nepal that an evaluation described it as “one of the least costly peacekeeping efforts one can imagine”, to the Finnish diplomats that are so effective at building consensus that other donors routinely co-opt them into chairing aid coordination committees.

Other Finnish stakeholders can and do participate at other levels, and there is a tradition that the President in particular should encourage and enable difficult global challenges to be addressed by all concerned parties. President Halonen has been particularly interested, for example, in the central issue of how to achieve sustainable development against the background of deepening challenges to our collective prosperity – climate change, biodiversity loss, collapsing ecosystems and water crises. Thus Finland has been an active participant in preparing for a new Rio conference, 20 years after the first, to decide what to do in the face of all the things that have not yet been achieved.

But what has all this to do with next week’s Presidential election? The answer is that there will be many who will look to Finland’s next president to provide inspiration and leadership in the coming efforts to achieve sustainability. Whoever that president is, they have the opportunity to use Finland’s accumulated knowledge to offer ‘thought leadership’ to the world; they have the right to do so as a result of Finland’s consistent efforts in the past; and they have the duty to do so at a time of unprecedented global emergency.

As a foreigner from the UK, I hope that the public discussion leading up to the election will not neglect the crucial role that the new president will have in promoting sustainable development. I also hope that the successful candidate will possess the knowledge and confidence to help guide us all where we need to go.

Dr Julian Caldecott is Director of Creatura Ltd and a Senior Adviser to the Gaia Group. He has led four evaluations of Finnish aid: on sustainability in 2010, and on the country programmes with Nepal, Nicaragua and Tanzania in 2011. All are published by and available from Development Evaluation (EVA-11), Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (

An edited version of the opinion was published in Finnish by Helsingin Sanomat under the title ‘Presidenttiehdokkaiden pitäisi keskustella myös kestävästä kehityksestä’, 1 Feb 2012.