Posted March 1996
See also: Environment Specials
Cutting across the three elements of sustainable development are issues which often determine how effective development interventions will be. These factors include:
If SARD is seen primarily as a management challenge and not simply a technological or financial one, then the emphasis in indicator development should be on measuring the effectiveness of decentralization, setting unambiguous objectives accompanied by performance standards and involving stakeholders. This is quite different from the rather static "state" indicators which are often employed.
An approach being tried in Tanzania (Table 1, below) through a regional GEF project, focuses on biological diversity and has developed a classification system and set of institutional indicators.
|Management||Coordination mechanisms, Performance incentives, Levels of hierarchy|
|Finance||Resources dedicated to biodiversity - Control over allocation|
|Trained personnel||Training profile - Skills upgrading|
|Information||Exchange mechanisms - Monitoring and evaluation|
|Acceptability||Participating mechanisms - Decentralization|
|Accountability||Performance standards - Evaluation|
|Timeframe||Short-term - Long-term|
|Level||National, District - Village, Community, Eco-zone|
|Actors||International, National - Ministry, District, Village|
Goals and objectives are established (or the existing ones modified) that, at least nominally, are based on exploiting comparative advantage both within and between countries. This means that, ceteris paribus, a country or district with its unique endowment of natural and man-made capital is able to produce a product more cheaply locally than it can import it. The converse is also true - the same country or district may find it cheaper to import a product than to produce it locally.
In determining comparative advantage, the natural resources base and its agro-ecological potential are critical but often underappreciated factors in determining the costs of production and productivity (yield/ha). Such values are usually considered only indirectly in the policy-making or planning processes or not at all. Thus, a framework is needed that accommodates the full range of social, environmental and economic factors that enter the sustainability nexus.
The most widely accepted framework at present is referred to as pressure/state/response (Table 2) which was developed in the 1970s and is well suited to addressing the chain (filiere) of events that lead to environmental impacts.
|SOIL EROSION||Hillside farming||Declining yield||Terracing,|
|QUALITY WATER||Agro-industrial processing||Fish die-off||Water treatment,|
|Livestock grazing||Soil erosion||Stock rotation, de-stocking revegetation|
Pressure refers to the driving forces that create environmental impacts. They could include hillside farming, agro-industrial processing, livestock grazing, forest harvesting, etc. State refers to the condition(s) that prevail when a pressure exists. This could be for example declining yields, fish die-off or soil erosion, etc. Response refers to the mitigation action(s) and levers that could be applied to reduce or eliminate the impacts.To avoid an overload of information, indicators must be "issue driven". Failure to do this results in the generation of too much information and lack of focus on the underlying forces that created the problem. At first glance this point seems obvious yet in much indicator work the demand for data is quite heavy. PSR is well adapted to an issues oriented approach but is weaker when planning is required and a broader range of information is required, much of which is not issue-oriented (Table 3).
|- land use change|
- land condition change
|- annual roundwood|
- forest growing
- forest area*
- wood as percentage
- forest area by
natural forest area
and plantation area
|- deforestation rate*|
- reforestation rate*
- forest harvesting
- managed forest
- protected forest
area as % of
total forest area
- drought frequency*
- national annual
per sq. km. in dryland*
- greenleaf biomass
- population living below
|- welfare of|
- assessment of
and sustainable use
of natural resources
in mountain areas
|- use of pesticides|
- use of fertilizers
|- arable land per capita|
- irrigated area
as % of arable land
- area affected by
- agricultural research
- agricultural education
- energy source mix
in rural households
- energy use
- energy source mix
All Kinds of Seas
and Coastal Areas
|- catches of|
- ratio of current
to that at MSY
- ratio of current
rate to that at MSY
- ratio of current
to that at MSY
- ratio of current
biomass to that
under virgin conditions
- algae index
- discharges of oil
into coastal waters
- releases of N and P
to coastal waters
|- participation in|
A shortcoming of the PSR vis-à-vis sustainability indicators and analysis is its inability to address the multiple dimensions of sustainability. If SARD is about better management and making trade-offs between economic, social and environmental objectives and the PSR is accepted as the default analytical framework, then it must be complemented by a component that allows the user to identify linkages between the driving forces.
Recent work by the World Resources Institute provides additional evidence that agricultural policy is usually biased against resource conservation and sustainable practices. However, when the costs of deterioration in the natural resource base from inappropriate land use is calculated in farm income, resource conservation practices compete economically and financially with those that maximize income over the short and medium-terms; the longer the time period, the more cost-effective are sustainability practices.
If governments use this information to make better policy choices, to identify failures and to make adjustments, the sector would be able (theoretically) to allocate resources more efficiently, increase profits margins and, keeping constant factors such as population, produce indefinitely.
The Human Development Index (HDI), produced by UNDP is one attempt (and perhaps the most ambitious) to reflect an array of social and economic concerns in a single index. It combines per capita GDP with indicators of adult literacy and life expectancy to generate a weighted index of "essential" living standards.
However, essential living standards will vary among between countries and regions. How should questions of equity, freedom, health, food security be reflected in a modified HDI? And, how should they be weighted?
Policy failures, from the point of view of sustainable development, arise when instruments inadvertently lead to misuse of natural resources. Whereas a government objective may be to increase production of a commodity, such as soya or coffee or cotton in order to generate foreign exchange, and the policy instrument used is favourable credit terms or price guarantees, an unforseen result may be increased soil erosion, mining of soil nutrients, misuse of pesticides or fertilizers, or a variety of negative impacts that represent long-term costs to the government and, especially, to the producer.
These externalities or indirect costs are seldom calculated or even identified in policy analysis and planning even though they may create direct costs to the agriculture sector and reduce the GDP of a country. As a general rule indirect costs and externalities should be included in economic planning and analysis to the extent that the benefits obtained be equal or exceed the costs of obtaining them. Thus the ability to accurately value such costs and benefits looms large in the economic component of sustainability analysis.
1. Policy relevance - to ensure the indicators address issues of primary concern to a country or district and receive the highest priority. In some cases policy-makers may already share concern about an aspect of sustainability (e.g. land degradation) and be ready to use indicator information for addressing the issue; in other cases (e.g. biodiversity) it may seem unclear what is needed and thus indicators will have to be used in a way to raise awareness and promote action.
2. Predictability - to allow a forward looking perspective that can promote planning and decisions on issues before they become too severe. Anticipatory decision-making is at least as important to sustainable agriculture as is recognition of existing problems.
3. Measurability - to allow planners and analysts the means to assess how the indicator was derived, either qualitatively or quantitatively, and decide how it can best be applied in the planning and decision-making process. Given the limited information on environmental conditions in many countries, qualitative measures such as rapid appraisals, informal surveys, and opinion polls have an important role to play. They can be useful in policy-making despite a bias for traditional statistical measures.
For example, land degradation could arise from unemployment, insecure land tenure, food insecurity, population pressure, cropping practices or other factors. In most cases it will be a combination of factors and each country must identify the key ones for their situation. This paper emphasises the role of indicators in promoting sustainable development at the national and sub-national levels, but some groups are calling for indicators to monitor progress in implementing the Agenda 21 at the global level. They are interested in issues such as biological diversity, climate change, international waters, toxic chemicals etc.
The Scientific Committee on Protection of the Environment (SCOPE) has devised a sustainability matrix (below) comprised of "a series of well known and internationally accepted indices for economic and social factors"; augmented by environmental indices. Clearly, many OECD countries would recognize the elements, but would it be in the interests of, for example Tanzania or Peru or Papua New Guinea to be included in such a matrix? If not for global, then for regional purposes? Would the SCOPE measures be the appropriate ones, for example, in the East African region? Would it make any difference?
|Source index||Unemployment index||Economic growth|
|Sink index||Poverty index||Saving rate|
|Life support index||Shelter index||Balance of payments|
|Human impact index||Human capital index||National debt|
For reporting above the national level, groups such as the CSD would prefer a small number of indicators. For example to monitor progress in agriculture 4-8 indicators are foreseen. However, there are many ways to measure soil erosion, land degradation and other factors. The individual measures cannot always be added together to arrive at a globally or regionally meaningful number.
Notwithstanding the risks in using aggregated indicators, there are also risks in using too many individual indicators. One is the failure to demonstrate a clear trend or condition. A large selection of indicators can also lead some decision-makers to select one that supports their particular view. It can also cause confusion in sorting out what is considered the most relevant information. This can stop or delay the decision-making process and reinforce bureaucratic inertia.
Despite scientific uncertainty, the use of thresholds which provide a range of allowable degradation under specified conditions could be important tools for planning and monitoring sustainability performance. For example, most agro-ecological zones have information available on soil type, climate, topography and land suitability for various crops. When an erosion rate is known, experts familiar with the region can estimate whether the erosion rate is sustainable under a given cropping regime. Based on past experience, training, and intuition, such rule of thumb estimates constitute expert systems that, if organized systematically, could be used by planners and analysts.
Once planners, policy-makers and land users agree on the issues to measure, criteria for a threshold table can be established for social and economic aspects based on cost effectiveness factors such as time, expense and level of detail involved. In many cases, rule-of-thumb measures are a practical way to begin. Two important elements in such a process are: a) the use of participatory mechanisms, and b) to state clearly the criteria used in calculating an indicator.
These aspects are an important means of promoting transparency and dialogue in the planning process. If a person or group knows the assumptions and methods used in developing an indicator, even if they disagree with the method or the result, an open and flexible process can become the basis for dialogue and adjustment.
In most cases no single indicator would determine sustainability or unsustainability. However, a series of indicators that collectively exceed the threshold levels should be sufficient cause to investigate data quality, conduct a rapid survey of the area involved, consult knowledgable experts, or all of the above.
1. Development of sustainability indicators must be closely tied to the development of national and sub-national information systems for agricultural planning and programming.
2. Initially, the emphasis should be on improving national and regional capacity with regard to data collection and information collection; barring this, global indicators will have little meaning.
3. Aggregation of existing data to derive global indicators would likely lead inefficient allocation and resources and misunderstanding of local forces and influences that underlie unsustainable development practices. However such exercises might be usefully be carried out on a regional basis (e.g. Africa, Asia, Latin America) or among countries with a number of common characteristics (e.g. OECD, small island states).
4. Thresholds and targets are useful means of allowing countries to compare their performance, for example in controlling soil erosion, against internationally accepted norms based on local natural resource endowments and land use practices.
5. Basic data and information regarding production potential and supporting capacity should be organized based on agro-ecological zone and overlaid with national or district boundaries.
6. Interactions between the environmental, social and economic components of sustainability need considerable field research to better understand how they affect each other and the driving forces that need to be measured.
7. Human and institutional capacity to manage the development process through participatory and transparent approaches is fundamental to sustainable agriculture. Indicators to monitor these dimensions are essential but extremely difficult to collect; more emphasis is needed in this area.
8. An important goal that indicators can help achieve in developing countries is greater participation and transparency in the planning and programming process in countries. Without this, even the best data and analysis will not lead to sustainable development as it was conceived at UNCED.