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Development and environment: Who is responsible?

Najib Saab, Issue 232-233, July-August 2017

The League of Arab States (LAS) did well when it recently established a special unit for Sustainable Development. Until that time, sustainable development was within the responsibilities of the Environment Unit, which also manages the secretariat of the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for the Environment (CAMRE).

Because sustainable development is not limited to the environment but also covers social and economic issues, LAS had previously established the Joint Committee for Environment and Development in the Arab Region (JCEDAR), in cooperation with the Economic Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The aim was to attract ministries of economy, finance, social affairs and planning, together with the environment, to coordinate common development policies. However, the role and tasks of this committee remained ambiguous, and participation from ministries other than the environment remained weak or non-existent, as it was viewed as part of CAMRE. So its work remained within the context of meetings, declarations and statements, and was not translated into policies and programs at the national level.

The new department for sustainable development may enhance the role of the League of Arab States in this area at the regional level. But its success is linked to its ability to play a powerful coordinating role between the different ministries on one hand, and within the system of the League of Arab States on the other. This requires the department to demonstrate that it can provide added value to the current state of affairs.

Coordination between the various departments within the Arab League system is weak so far. This was made obvious recently, when the new sustainable development department was not invited to a joint regional meeting to discuss the Arab contribution to the High-level World Political Forum on Sustainable Development, to be held this month in New York. It's true that this preparatory meeting, organized by LAS Environment Unit (which formerly included Sustainable Development) in the Arab League in cooperation with ESCWA and UNEP, was aimed at proposing the environmental aspects to be included in the Arab paper to the summit. However, this does not justify the absence of the specialized unit on sustainable development, whose task is supposedly to coordinate.

It is essential that environmental matters remain independent within the sustainable development system, which combines environmental, social and economic dimensions. But it is also necessary to absorb the transformation that took place in recent years, which has made the environment part of an integrated system. "Green economy" may be the most practical manifestations of this transformation, by achieving development with a balanced investment in resources that will ensure its continuity, while at the same time creating social prosperity, namely, equitable production, distribution and job creation.

Some use "sustainable development" as a cover to abolish the environment and go back to the practices of open-ended development, which drains natural resources without restriction, seeking greater profits; and worse, hiding behind the argument of securing a better life for the poor.

What we should always remember is that the environment has been the basis for the development of the concept of sustainable development, and must remain its foundation. Faced with the claims that environmental protection hinders economic growth and social development, environmentalists have argued that development can only continue with a balanced treatment of natural resources, because depleting them makes development lose its most important asset. Protection of the environment and the rational use of resources are the basis for development, if it is to sustain.

Managing sustainable development in the League of Arab States is not an easy task. The new unit must deal with the fragmentation of the outlook on the environment and development on one hand, and the retreat of joint Arab action on the other. We hope that this administration will meet the challenges by providing an effective framework for joint action and achieve the coordination required within the departments of the League of Arab States and among its countries. And most importantly, not fall into the game of conflict of power among different units.


Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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