Human development and responsible guardianship of our planet must go hand in hand

The recently published UNDP Human Development Report shows that we’ve come a long way in recognising the damage we’re doing to the planet and how intricately connected natural resource use and poverty are. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and poor living conditions, making it clear that we don’t have time to waste in addressing the double challenge of environmental and social injustice. We now have an opportunity to change things for the better – if only we seize this opportunity together, writes Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

United Nations Development Programme (2020) ‘Human Development Report 2020. The next frontier. Human Development and the Anthropocene’. United Nations Development Programme. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr_2020_overview_english.pdf.

We are ruining the planet. This is the simple, yet scary message that the latest edition of the Human Development Report conveys. The 2020 UNDP Human Development Report titled ‘‘The Next Frontier” was launched in the Netherlands on 12 February 2021 through an online event organised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and SDG Nederland.

During this event, in my keynote speech I stressed that we are in fact destroying the natural resources on which we depend – be it water, soil or a stable climate. We are entering the sixth mass extinction of species. We are using the atmosphere of this planet as the global sewer for greenhouse gases. And in a period of about 150 years, without intending to do so, we as humankind managed to change the properties of an entire planet’s atmosphere. That is quite an accomplishment for a bunch of fur-free apes.

In so doing, we are not only ruining our own future here in the Netherlands, but more importantly, we are losing the prospect of a life in dignity for the many poor and vulnerable communities worldwide that we have promised a better future. They are least responsible, and least capable of dealing with the impact, and yet this is where we are.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated multidimensional inequalities within and between countries that existed prior to the pandemic. But what the report truly shows is that inequalities and environmental degradation are not separate issues. We cannot eradicate poverty if we do not at the same time address the accelerating degradation of natural resources on which we all depend, but poor people even more so. Natural resources like forests, freshwater and fertile soils are often called ‘the only wealth poor people have’. They are essential for their survival.

Yet it is in no small part our production and consumption patterns, particularly from developed economies, that degrade and destroy such resources. Protecting the environment and combatting climate change is not a luxury. It’s not icing on the human development cake. Environmental degradation and poverty are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin and they exacerbate each other. Together they are a truly toxic combination. If we do not change the way we use our planet, we will never be able to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And meeting these is essential for just, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no-one behind.

When you look at climate statistics, you might feel like pulling a duvet over your head and going back to sleep. Nevertheless, I am still optimistic. There is hope, and I will tell you why:

  1. What is evident now was not so evident ten years ago

In 2012, I was involved in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Around that time, the link between environmental degradation and poverty eradication was not recognised. Development experts considered the environment a separate realm. ‘Real’ development – to them – was working on health, education and malnutrition. Countries from the Global South thought that anything ‘green’ was an aid conditionality or a luxury – something you would do after development projects were completed. The environment was seen as a Western agenda.

In less than ten years, a broader understanding has developed that you cannot achieve human development without looking at durable usage of a country’s natural resources. This paradigm shift in thinking happened in a very short time span, which gives me hope for the future.

  1. We are starting to take universality seriously

Development used to be seen as a foreign policy objective, as something you ‘do and deliver elsewhere’. We have come to realise that with global challenges such as water shortages, climate change or soil erosion, none of these challenges can be dealt with through development cooperation alone. In a globally connected world, we are linked through supply chains and terrorism, through climate change and communicable diseases, through the Internet and information systems and through migration and global media. We thus need a whole-of-government approach, because our global environmental footprint impacts people well beyond our borders, our trade policies may impede or enhance people’s ability to achieve a life of dignity, etcetera. And even more so, we need a whole-of-society approach. This means including the private sector, science communities, civil society organisations, and so on, in a holistic effort to bring about global sustainable development.

Solving these issues will require looking at our policies through the lens of policy coherence for sustainable development. Our actions here in the Netherlands as part of the Global North have an impact elsewhere. This realisation will hopefully speed up and accelerate an integrated pathway towards global sustainable development.

All proposals for law in the Netherlands are subject to an SDG test. But research shows that all developed countries can still do (much) better in achieving policy coherence.

  1. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity for change

The COVID-19 pandemic has set back human development tremendously. Decades of progress have been undone by the lockdowns globally, but especially in developing economies where shock resilience is low. Job losses, especially in the informal sector, have led to a steep increase in (extreme) poverty and malnutrition. Children are unable to go to school, and digital education is still a dream for too many. Too many girls will lose the opportunity to proper schooling – as they are married off early or fall in the hands of sex traffickers. Gender-based violence is on the increase. And it’s important to realise that this crisis in fact originated in environmental degradation, zoonotic diseases and rapid biodiversity loss.

Still … it may also be the best opportunity we ever had to address the planetary (or climate/environmental) crisis. Never before in the history of mankind has the public sector globally poured in this much money in relief and recovery programs to combat the impact of COVID-19. Never ‘waste a good crisis’, the old adage goes. If we use these resources well, we can keep global warming within the 1.5˚C limit (compared to pre-industrial levels), as well as the SDGs within reach.

The alternative is simply too horrifying to contemplate. If we do it wrong – if we return to the old, wasteful and polluting economy – the planet and mankind will suffer the consequences. Not just for the next 10 years, but possibly for the next 10,000 years.

Thus, the message of the Human Development Report that we must act now to combat both poverty and environmental degradation is crucial to keep the dream of a life in dignity for all humankind alive. The realisation of that dream depends on all of us.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Ms. Kitty van der Heijden is Director General for International Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her responsibilities include development cooperation policy, implementation and funding. Central themes are gender, sustainable economic development, and climate policies.

Between 2014 and 2019, Ms. Van der Heijden has served as Vice President and Director Africa and Europe at the World Resources Institute in Washington. She served as the Dutch Ambassador for Sustainable Development from 2010 until 2013 and as Ambassador for the Millennium Development Goals in 2009. Before that she held several other policy and managerial positions at both the United Nations and Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Other positions Ms. van der Heijden has served in include a position as non-executive member of the board at Unilever NL (2014-2019), and Advisory Board positions at ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ at Utrecht University (2018-2019), the Global Commission on Business and SDGS (2016-2017), SIM4NEXUS (2015-2019) and Global ‘Planetary Security’ Conference (2015-2018). She was awarded the Viet Nam Presidential Medal of Friendship in 2009 and the Dutch National ‘Green Ribbon’ of Honor in 2013.

Ms. Van der Heijden (56) holds an MSc degree in Economics from the Erasmus University Rotterdam. She enjoys family time, nature walks and kick-boxing.

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