Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland – a master class in the politics of change

IIED welcomed one of the world’s most distinguished figures in development at the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture. IIED director Andrew Norton reflects on Dr Brundtland’s speech and highlights a vital message for those working in sustainable development.

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26 June 2018

Andrew Norton is director of IIED

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland delivering the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture (Photo: Julius Honnor/Contentious for IIED)

The world of international development practice can sometimes feel a sterile and technocratic space. Many institutions are cautious about or restricted from participating in political debate. Hopes and goals can get bogged down when specifying a bewildering range of 'outcome indicators' – many of which seem to be a long way from the daily realities they are designed to measure. Individuals and communities can disappear from view – and so too, sometimes, does the practice of politics. 

You could not get a better antidote to the technocratic perspective of development than the lecture given by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland last week for IIED’s 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture. I think everyone in the audience felt that it was a privilege to be there and I recommend you take the time to watch and listen if you haven’t already done so.

Dr Brundtland was Norway’s Minister of the Environment for the Labour Party in the 1970s, before serving three terms as Prime Minister in the 80s and 90s. She served as Director-General of the World Health Organisation from 1998 to 2003. Her influence on sustainable development is immense. She led the World Commission on Environment and Development between 1983-87, when it delivered its landmark report ‘Our Common Future’. That report shaped our vision and understanding of sustainable development in ways that led directly to the structure and content of the Sustainable Development Goals. Today she is deputy chair of The Elders, the group of independent former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 who work for peace, justice and human rights worldwide.

There is so much you could say about Dr Brundtland.

But I want to focus here on what struck me most about her talk – the instincts and perceptions of a politician who has driven change on a global scale.  

Three things stood out: the risks of what she called ‘the crude, simplistic and bigoted politics of populism’; the imperative of global solidarity and multilateralism; and – above all – the need for engagement and action from all of us.

Dr Brundtland observed that a series of shocks have disrupted the progress we had hoped to make following on from the landmark agreements of 2015 – the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. She mentioned Brexit, and of course the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and his “myopic and misguided” announced intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. 

Beyond these events the malaise goes much further, including disturbing currents of change in many parts of the European Union. She spoke of the bullying of dissenting voices – particularly women and minorities – on social media.

Dr Brundtland observed that the roots of this upsurge in xenophobic and authoritarian voices lie in the failure of conventional politics to either prevent or respond to the social impacts of the financial crash of 2008. She made a passionate case for social democracy’s fundamental values – but at the same time implied that the dominant political current in Europe has failed to meet the challenges of social change and rising inequality – whether from crisis or from technological disruption and the changing world of work.

But the rise of this new kind of politics – founded on a misguided interpretation of national interest – has highlighted the importance of global solidarity and how much the world needs a strong and principled multilateral system. 

Without the United Nations we would not have got either the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement – both vital instruments for human progress on a fragile planet. Dr Brundtland emphasised that these new global governance agreements are not static, but "organic and evolving" instruments."

The most powerful message in Dr Brundtland's wide-ranging lecture was about the importance of active citizenship and engagement. Policy “changes only when the politics of taking action changes, and that happens when citizens get involved”, she said. She emphasised that in the face of the current political threats evident in so many countries, this is ‘no time to be silent’ – and urged everyone to ‘go out and vote.’  

To bridge public action and political leadership Dr Brundtland emphasised the importance of public debate and awareness. She cited Norway's success in introducing measures that incentivised a huge shift from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles - arguing that these measures could not have been introduced without public support. That support was generated by actively promoting public awareness of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

In short, we need active citizens and activist political leaders. Policy communities and activists need, above all, to speak powerfully to young men and women, and nurture their engagement.

Gro Harlem Brundtland has shown deep political engagement throughout her career. She understood instinctively the need to take the message of sustainable development beyond ministries of the environment and their supporters in civil society. ‘Our Common Future’ was pitched carefully to appeal to presidents, parliaments and ministries of finance.  

To tackle the great challenges such as inequality and climate change, finance needs to shift to poorer countries and poorer people – a critical and deeply political task.

As for achieving sustainable development, as Dr Brundtland said: “if we do not put inequality at the heart of the global agenda we are doomed to fail”.

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