2018 Barbara Ward Lecture: Gro Harlem Brundtland calls for people to speak out against simplistic politics of populism

Article, 15 June 2018

Brundtland highlighted worldwide change and the importance of tackling inequality as part of sustainable development.

Gro Harlem Brundtland's speech was followed by a question and answer session with the audience (Photo: Julius Honnor/Contentious)

The former Norway Prime Minister was delivering the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture in London. The lecture series is organised by IIED in honour of the institute’s founder Barbara Ward and celebrates outstanding women in development. 

Brundtland chaired the UN World Commission of Environment and Development which in 1987 produced the report, 'Our Common Future', a landmark document that has set the agenda for sustainable development to this day. 

Watch Gro Harlem Brundtland's speech on IIED’s YouTube channel
Brundtland outlined the social and ideological changes since 1987, including the fall of the Iron Curtain, the growing influence of feminism and campaigns for racial and sexual equality.

She said political leaders had come to understand the threat of climate change and the world now had a “critical window of opportunity” to decarbonise by 2050 in order to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Brundtland also highlighted changes to economic models and the world of work: “At the same time, globalisation has transformed economic models, supply chains, labour markets, industrial relations and migratory flows. 

"Millions of people worldwide now work in the so-called “gig economy”, facilitated by digital technology, while advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are fundamentally transforming everything from manufacturing and heavy industry to education and the service sector.”

Keeping pace with change – while securing a Common Future

She said it was important for people working for sustainable development to adapt to changes. She said: “Those of us who believe in sustainable development now need to ensure that our own models and approaches keep pace with these changing realities and remain relevant to younger generations.”

But Brundtland stressed the importance of continuity encapsulated by the title of her 1987 report 'Our Common Future'. 

She said: “From fighting terrorism to managing migration, from developing new methods of environmentally-sustainable economic growth to promoting tolerance in multi-cultural societies, we will only make progress if we act in concert with one another, not just in competition.”

Challenges for the UN

Brundtland, who has served on a wide array of United Nations bodies, said it was clear that the UN is “indispensable”. But she added that there was potential for reform, adding “being indispensable does not mean the UN should be immune from challenges, criticism or reform."

She said: “An institution created over seven decades ago must recognise and respond to shifts in power and wealth over that period, as well as the profound changes in technology and communications that have altered how we as citizens view and engage with public institutions.

“The challenge for the UN now is far greater than just trying to maintain peace and security among nations or containing superpower rivalry; it is to develop inclusive, fair and viable solutions to the economic, social, humanitarian and environmental problems facing the whole planet.”

Taking a stand against populism

Brundtland, who is now deputy chair of The Elders, an international non-governmental organisation that brings together senior public figures, recalled the optimism surrounding the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the dramatic changes in the global political climate since then. 

She said: “The continuing fallout from the financial crisis has led to a growing backlash against globalisation, and a resurgence of populist, protectionist and xenophobic politics.

“Much of the hope and unity we saw in Paris in 2015 has been replaced by fear and despondency – but also, I am glad to say, by a determination to protect our hard-won gains in the face of this new, crude and narrow political vision.”

She said: “The crude, simplistic and bigoted politics of populism are the complete antithesis of everything I have worked for in public life. They exert a malign influence on policy and discourse, consciously scorning the principles of solidarity and justice that lie at the heart of sustainable development. They also deliberately seek to intimidate and bully dissenting voices, particularly those of women and minorities, including via the cowardly cloak of anonymity provided by social media.”

Brundtland called on people to take a stand, saying: “This is why those of us who still believe in solidarity and justice cannot stay silent in these troubled and turbulent times, and must speak out!

We all have a responsibility to each other, to our community and to our planet.

“This is a basic democratic assessment which informs and underpins my belief in social democracy. But in fact, when we talk about climate and sustainable development, it transcends party politics and Left or Right. It is a matter of human survival.”

Engaging young people

Brundtland paid particular attention to the importance of getting young people involved. She said: “When young people ask me how they can make a difference in the face of such overwhelming global challenges, my answer is very simple: go out and vote! Take a stand! Engage!”

She said that engagement was important at all levels. She said: “Each of us, in our own way, needs to be prepared to take the helm in an appropriate and realistic way, from our local community to the national and international level. If we are prepared to do so, we will find that a chart exists to see us through the storm.”

Brundtland said the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were an alternative to many ideas fuelling populism. She said: “The SDGs are a riposte to the view that prosperity and security lies in putting one country “first” above others, or walling itself off from its neighbours, or indulging in misplaced nostalgia for a bygone age. 

"Instead of reducing international relations to business transactions and trade wars, the goals are significant achievements that show the power of multilateral diplomacy and states coming together in their collective self-interest.”

She said said the goals and efforts to achieve them were not static, but evolving instruments which needed to increase in momentum and ambition in order to be successful.

Brundtland said a lot of work on the SDGs was technical, but she emphasised the importance of continued political pressure to tackle the underlying issues: poverty, discrimination, conflict and inequality.

Inequality 'a scandal'

She said: “In fact, I believe that if we do not put inequality at the heart of the global development agenda, we are doomed to failure.  

“We need courage to confront the vested political, business and economic interests who seek to maintain our current unequal order, and grasp the opportunity that the move to a low carbon economy offers us to rectify current inequalities.”

She said current levels of inequality were “a scandal”, and called for a major transformation in economic policies. She said: “A wholesale paradigm shift is required in international economic and fiscal policy towards a holistic approach that values access to health, education and justice as drivers of a sustainable and green pattern of growth – and the voices of people most affected by inequality must be part of the debates to achieve this.”

The importance of the public sphere

Brundtland said the involvement of business was essential to solve global challenges – and the idea that the business sector was exempt from responsibility was a thing of the past. But she said the public sphere continued to be a critical space for setting the policy agenda and driving change. 

She said: "Public policies are needed to stimulate markets, remove barriers, level the playing field and establish clear objectives and targets for new, green industries and technologies.

"Public policies are also needed to ensure democratic accountability, respect for human rights and safeguarding the interests of vulnerable groups in society including women, minority groups and indigenous communities.”

In closing, Brundtland quoted the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Brundtland said: "If ever a sentence needed to be loudly proclaimed on every street corner, in every school classroom, workplace and public square, it is this one. It is a simple and powerful rejection of racism, hate speech, 'fake news' and the politics of division."

Brundtland's address was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by IIED director Andrew Norton and trustee chair Rebeca Grynspan. The event closed with an informal reception.

You can see a collection of photos from the event on IIED’s Flickr platform


The Barbara Ward Lecture series celebrates IIED's founder, Barbara Ward, a distinguished economist, journalist, and policy advisor who was among the earliest advocates of sustainable development. 

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