It was a very informative experience for me to have attended the 7Th World Association for Sustainable Development Conference in Bahrain this week. First, I had the privilege of speaking about a paper I had written with university colleagues with the guidance of a dear professor. It was also intellectually invigorating to chat with some of the top minds in the field and listen to their views concerning economic development. In the context of the conference, of course, the focus was sustainable development, which the UN World Commission on Environment and Development define in 1983 as
Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
In other words, sustainable development can be likened to not killing the goose that produces the golden egg, to borrow a Stephen Covey parable. Covey, in a personal context, speaks of maintaining the balance between production and production capacity, but I believe this conceptual tool also applies to economies on the micro-level. In order to be able to produce, on a national level, a country must converse its means of production. Destroying the environment in the process and ruining the population’s quality of life doesn’t count as preserving resources, of course. But we must get to the juicy bit: are countries in the Middle East development sustainably?
First things first: oil. Is there any sustainability in oil? As far I can tell, it’s siphoned out, processed, processed some more, burned in motors, and then turns into dangerous gases. And the stuff that’s been siphoned out can never be recovered, so that eventually even the biggest wells in the world are going to run out. Already some of them in the Gulf are becoming so exhausted that it’s getting progressively less economical to exploit them. In other words, there are needs that are satisfied by oil, but there aren’t limits on how much the environment is exploited. But is the world looking for alternative sources of energy? We hear on the news about such attempts, but as far as I can see there still hasn’t been any serious attempt to find a replacement for oil. Perhaps the alternative are still not cost-effective enough, the technology still hasn’t been developed, or we still haven’t started losing our hair to acid rain. But eventually, I believe, we will be shocked into waking up from our oil-induced stupid and we’re going to have to find an alternative source of energy, and find it fast.
Are countries in the region doing anything about human resources? Obviously, any kind of development, let alone the sustainable kind, cannot be had without well-trained, highly-qualified people to do the job. These people will also presumably cherish and promote the right kind of culture required for a country (or company, or even NGO for that matter) to development and compete in the modern economic atmosphere. From where I stand, few Middle Eastern countries seem to have coherent plans to fix the problems of man power. In some countries, there are great universities and sharp minds, but these are lost to the occidentally migrating brain-drain. Unfortunately, most universities are unable to support a robust research ethic, both for financial and cultural reasons. In some Gulf counries, instead of training local young people who can carry the economy into the next stage, organizations are importing foreign labor in frightening proportions. Many governments have even given up sending students on scholarships to Western universities, again citing money shortages, although this pretext doesn’t seem to apply to other affairs of the state, like armaments (A professor of mine at college used to say: “We only learned in Britain. Before, we knew nothing.)
What about the environment? In the Middle East, it’s being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. In some cases, it’s taken on symbolic proportions; in Jordan for example, the very river that the country was named after, the river Jordan, has been reduced to a trickle through environment neglect (Israel is also heavily implicated in this.) The Arab Gulf after the wars of the 80s and the 90s suffered indescribable horrors, mostly through Saddam’s dumping of Kuwait raw oil directly in the sea. Many animals in the region have already disappeared or are on their way thither. Traditional delicacies like fish and shrimp are becoming scarce. In one country in the region, raw sewage is being dumped into a bay well-known for its shrimp and flamingos. Even the dolphins are suffering.
The lesson from the WASD conference is clear: if you want development, you can’t burn your boats. The days of wide-spread pollution for the sake of rapid growth are over. Even China is sobering up. The question, in this context, is: can the Middle East catch up? Or will it add environment decay and chronically sluggish development to its list of perennial woes? Whatever decision-makers in the region do, they should try not to strange the goose that lays the golden eggs.