Sustainability Challenge

As human populations place ever-increasing amounts of stress on natural systems, the very existence of global life-sustaining resources is threatened. The pressures can come in many forms such as escalating atmospheric emissions, rapid population growth, and over consumption of natural resources. These pressures result in environmental and social epidemics including ozone layer depletion, climate change, food and freshwater scarcity, and widespread poverty, corruption, disease, and violence. Together these can be referred to as the global sustainability challenge. The global sustainability challenge has an effect on the entire world, but has a greater significance in developing nations because, by definition, their institutional and infrastructural capacities are even less equipped to effectively deal with complex and dynamic situations. Within the developing nations, a greater pressure is placed on poverty stricken rural populations who typically create subsistence from marginal agricultural or pastoral lands (UN 1995). Within this context misuse of natural resources, such as soil degradation, depletion of nutrients, and deforestation, contribute to extreme poverty. In addition to regional issues, this poor governance surrounding natural resource management leads to diminishing the carbon stock, biodiversity, and associated ecosystem services on the global level.

Global climate change is one result of the global sustainability challenge that places a significant impact on communities in the developing world. Although it is not the cause of the perpetual cycle of poverty that exists in many developing areas, it remains a critical issue for development with significant social and financial impacts. Because climate change can rapidly reverse tangible results of development that took decades to achieve, hard-earned gains of development need to be protected (World Bank 2007). Consistent flows of available resources play a key role in reducing poverty, as people rely on them for food, shelter, energy, and medicines (DFID 2008). This dependence combined with inadequate infrastructures and the threat of increasing environmental pressures such as flooding, landslides, and drought can place communities in developing countries in a state of crisis.

In addition to the growing environmental threat, people in the developing countries have witnessed a decline in political, social, economic, and environmental conditions within their communities (Valentine 1998). Many of the basic building blocks of society, such as government transparency, publicly accessible information, public involvement in decision-making processes, free-market economy, non-enforcement or existence of environmental laws, are limited or missing (Hecht 1999). It is difficult to point blame at a single cause of widespread poverty, however there is a broad consensus that bad governance and corruption in particular are progress inhibitors. Corruption generates structural economic, political, individual, and social repercussions that can cause or exacerbate situations of poverty (Eberlei and Führmann 2004).

Much of the developing world is in a state of crisis. However, as the Chinese language acknowledges, in a situation of crisis there may also be potential opportunity; crisis is made up of two characters, 危機 (wei ji), the first means “danger” and the second “opportunity” (Harsch 2009).

Bearing in mind the poverty-related dangers that persist for millions in the developing world, opportunities exist for the infrastructural development processes and operations to be established more attune with the balance of natural systems. This will assure that developing countries not follow the example set by developed countries, which have contributed significantly to the global sustainability challenge. These opportunities can provide enhancement of energy security; improvement of the local environment; promotion of more sustainable land use and agricultural practices; increase resilience to natural disasters; create carbon market revenues; and facilitation of the availability and use of clean technology (World Bank 2007).

Community Development in Developing Countries

As an effort to address development issues, associated with social and environmental degradation in developing countries, the international development assistance community started to implement development assistance programs. However, often these programs addressed development too narrowly and did not consider the broader context (Stiglitz 1998). Therefore, they were designed to react to the effects rather than the causes of the problems. This resulted in programs that where fragmented,

project-based, donor controlled and focused on short-term results (Dobie 2002). Moreover, when the international staff left, the local staff was often lacking the experience, confidence, or institutional capacity to take over. This created demand for additional projects and resulted in a cycle of dependency (Dobie 2002).

The growing debate on sustainability has lead to the emergence and evolution of many community development strategies. In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly referred to as Brundtland Commission, came forward with a definition of sustainability;

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Then in 1992 Agenda 21 built on the Brundtland definition and identified capacity building as an approach to achieve sustainability. According to the

United Nations, a country’s ability to follow a sustainable development path is determined largely by the capacity of citizens, institutions, as well as ecological and geographical environments (UNCED 1992). This led to an overall shift in the international development assistance community toward development strategies that focused on building the community’s capacity to meet their own needs and achieve sustainability (Dobie 2002).

The UNDP recognizes that “capacity building is a long-term, continuing process, in which all stakeholders participate (ministries, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, water user groups, professional associations, academics and others)” (UN 2006). Despite the emphasis the UN places on capacity development and environmental stewardship there are still arguments among the international development community on whether or not long-term processes should be considered for implementation (OECD 2005).

It is agreed upon that capacity development is an important aspect to lead communities in the developing world toward a more prosperous future. However, often the focus is on capacity building without considering a long-term holistic perspective (Domeisen and Sousa 2006). This limited understanding miscalculates the socio-ecological complexity that exists within a community and still leads to insufficient solutions regarding strategic sustainable development. By ignoring the complexity and uncertainty involved with long-term structural change across societal boundaries, inadequate knowledge is produced to solve problems surrounding socio-ecological sustainability (Voß 2003).

Strategic Sustainable Development

This limited understanding of the interrelated socio-ecological complexities remains high and affects the implementation of community development models. In response to this, sustainability practitioners have begun looking upstream to the root causes of the global issues and taking a holistic approach to create effective solutions led to a thorough-structured understanding of the sustainability challenge. This structured understanding was developed by an international group of scientists from an array of disciplines. The resulting outcome was the creation of a concrete, scientific based framework for planning and decision-making. The strategic framework is rigorous and very applicable for assessing complex situations that have the possibility of multiple outcomes. It divides the complexity into five separate, but interrelated, sections that make the situation more approachable. The framework has come to be known as The Natural Step Framework or the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) (Robèrt et al. 1997).

Framework for a Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD)

The FSSD is composed of 5 levels: System, Success, Strategic, Action, and Tools. In an effort to create a structured comprehension of complexity, each level analyzes certain parts of a given situation. Below are elaborations of the individual levels and an example of how they fit into the context of sustainable community development.


System Level


The system level identifies the context of relevant variables related to the situation. In the context of sustainable community development this refers to the individuals, existing within their community, as part of a larger society. This includes social laws, norms, values, and rules that allow for self-organization, diversity, and interdependence among individuals and communities. Society depends on the global biosphere including the ecological system defined by scientific laws and rules.


This helps to visualize the societal arrangement and clearly assess the interrelated complexity between the society and environment, by highlighting and creating a consciousness of the internal and external aspects.


Success Level


The success level identifies the desired goal. The goal of the FSSD is sustainability, as defined by the four Sustainability Principles explained below. In regards to sustainable community development, this is a community that is compliant with the set of conditions for socio-ecological sustainability (i.e. the four Sustainability Principles). The Sustainability Principles are as follows (Holmberg and Robèrt 2000; Ny et al. 2006):


“In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:


1)            concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust,


2)            concentrations of substances produced by society,


3)            degradation by physical means


and in that society,


4)            people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs (e.g. from the abuse of political, structural and economic power).”


These principles are unique because they encompass a scientifically agreed upon understanding of the world, they are necessary and sufficient to achieve sustainability, general to organize all activities relevant to sustainability, concrete to channel action and serve as directional aids in problem analysis and solutions, and non-overlapping or mutually exclusive in order to enable comprehension and structured assessment of the issue (Robèrt et al. 1997). Through a clear definition of sustainability, these principles allow for creativity within defined constraints, establish conditions for consensus, and help to build and guide a community vision.

Back casting is a collective participatory process which empowers and liberates people creating a genuine ownership. The sustainability constraints are yet adding further challenge for the people to unite their efforts on one shared vision of future. This shared vision of success energizes the propelling drivers of creativity through a dynamic creative tension. Therefore, it is the sustainability principles that stimulate creativity because it helps to at the larger scale of a problem and all of the overarching variables. This brings realization to all the possibilities that exist and helps to build consensus around solutions by providing clear limits that define success. This creative enhancement and basis for consensus lead to the establishment and guidance of a community vision. Back casting is more effective than solely relying on forecasting, which tends to introduce a more limited range of options, hence stifling creativity.


Strategic Level


The strategic level includes guidelines that assist with selecting actions. In relation to sustainable community development, this refers to planning procedures that help to estimate the effectiveness and prioritize proposed actions that lead a community toward a sustainable vision of success.


The main strategic guideline of the FSSD is back casting. Back casting is a planning procedure by which a successful future outcome is imagined and then actions are planned with this outcome in mind. In general back casting is especially effective when (Dreborg1996):


  • The issue being addressed is complex, such as considering all of the factors associated with the development of a community


  • There is a need for major change, which is the case in many developing nations regarding overarching mindsets


  • Dominant trends are part of the problem, for example oppression, corruption, and poor governance


  • When there is a need for a long time horizon


This strategy also provides a number of benefits to the planning and decision-making process such as (Robèrt et al. 2007):


  • Helping decision-makers highlight key aspects within the current planning operations that should be emphasized and developed further, through completion of a current reality assessment


  • Helping decision-makers recognize the possible solutions that can be strategic steps toward the goal, by creating a vision of the desired future


  • Helping decision-makers to identify measures that solve current problems without creating additional future problems, by knowing the current situation and having a clear vision of the desired future


  • Making it possible to connect short-term measures with the long-term vision, when used in conjunction with the prioritization questions listed below


Within this level, there are three basic prioritization questions that help to select actions that are aligned with the vision of a sustainable future. More questions can be added depending on the specifics of a given situation. The three basic questions are as follows (Holmberg and Robèrt 2000):


  • Does this action move the community in the right direction toward its vision of sustainability?


  • Does this action provide a flexible platform for further improvements in the community?


  • Does this action provide a return on the initial investment, in terms of capacity development, financial returns, or any other type of positive return?


Action Level


The action level includes the efforts necessary to achieve success. In sustainable community development this refers to every tangible activity helping to move the community toward success. Examples here could include educating the community about the sustainability challenge, providing training of trade skills, or implementing actual projects, such as a waste management system, within the community.


Tools Level


The tools level includes any indicators and monitoring procedures that help support the efforts of the other 4 levels. In terms of sustainable community development this refers any method or mechanism that measures the current community system, helps the community plan, or evaluates the progression of the community.

A tool unique to the FSSD, used in conjunction with the back casting strategy, is the ABCD tool. This is a step-by-step planning procedure that helps to create an awareness of the whole system (A-step), provide a current assessment of the situation (B-step), create a desired future vision (C-step), and help to prioritize proposed actions and create an implementation plan to reach that desired future vision (D-step). The D-step utilizes the three-prioritization questions listed above in the strategic level. These ensure that the proposed actions are helping the community reach their vision of success.

The FSSD is a framework that creates a structured understanding of complex situations and helps to lead planning and decision-making processes in the direction of sustainability. Strengths associated with the FSSD that help lead toward sustainability are providing a common language, through the Sustainability Principles, and helping to visualize a shared mental model of the situation, by creating an envisioned future and a current reality assessment. Creating a common language around a complex situation ensures every stakeholder has a similar understanding when issues are identified and solution are proposed. This shared understanding also leads to the development of better communication channels among stakeholders. Through establishment of a shared mental model the FSSD helps to build collective awareness of the existing situational variables, results in a single understanding of the situational context, and helps to establish clear-shared goals that help move an entity toward sustainability. As long as the system requirements are understood, a vision of success is created within the constraints of the Sustainability Principles, and back casting is used as a strategy for aligning actions with the vision, the innovative and creative possibilities are endless.

Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP)

An example of a community development model that uses the FSSD as a structure is the Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) developed by the Natural Step. ICSP model is a community development model that has evolved over 20 years of proven success in Canada, USA and some EU countries. It demonstrates the contrast between traditional and innovative approaches and helped to design a model especially tailored for developing countries. This model uses the FSSD to create an effective strategy aimed at moving communities in the developed world toward a sustainable future. The ICSP helps communities identify short, medium, and long-term goals, create a holistic plan, monitor progress, and provide guidance for sustainable development. It consists of 5 major phases including (Baxter and Purcell 2007):


  • Phase 1: Structuring the Planning Process


  • Phase 2: Creating a Shared Understanding of Sustainable Community Success


  • Phase 3: Determining and Analyzing Strategy Areas for Community Success


  • Phase 4: Identify Initiatives to Move from Current Reality to Success


  • Phase 5: Ongoing Monitoring and Implementation


Since the ICSP model was created to address communities in the developed world it operates under the assumption that adequately functional democratic governance and municipal structures exist. The ICSP is a strategy that helps align the vision and actions of established entities with the sustainability principles. However, in the context of many developing countries inflicted by corruption and bad governance, there are inadequate democratic structures and/or institutional capacities. In order to address the concern of not having adequate institutional and infrastructural structures, another innovative community development approach is necessary and is the focus of this research.

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