Gro Harlem Brundtland

Our message is directed towards people, whose well-being is the ultimate goal of all environment and development policies. Unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of people young and old, we shall not be able to undertake the extensive social changes needed to correct the course of development.1

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland was born in Oslo, Norway, on 20 April 1939. At the age of 10 she moved with her family to the United States, where her father had been awarded a Rockefeller Scholarship. A few years later, the family moved to Egypt, where Gro Harlem's father served as an expert on rehabilitation for the United Nations. By profession, he was a doctor; a specialist in rehabilitation medicine. From childhood, Gro Harlem's career ambition was to follow in her father's footsteps. As a newly qualified doctor herself, and indeed a young mother, she won a scholarship to Harvard School of Public Health. There, her great interest in public health issues and environmental concerns, which were later to bring her fame in the international arena of global environmental thinking, was nurtured and developed as she worked alongside distinguished public health experts.

In 1965 Dr Brundtland returned to Norway, to commence a nine-year period of working in the Ministry of Health and other positions in the medical field in Oslo. At the Ministry she specialized in children's health issues, including breastfeeding, cancer prevention and other diseases. She also worked in the children's department of the National Hospital and Oslo City Hospital and became Director of Health Services for Oslo's school-age children.

Alongside this early career in medicine, Gro Brundtland pursued her other great interest in public life, namely party politics. As a 7-year-old child she had become enrolled in the children's section of the Norwegian Labour Movement and as an adult she worked her way up through the Labour Party hierarchy and represented her country in international political conferences. Her commitment both to the Labour Party and also to a vision of health which extends beyond the medical world to encompass environmental issues and human development were the motivational factors leading to a change of career. In 1974 Dr Brundtland was offered and accepted the post of Minister of the Environment. In 1981, at the age of 41, she was appointed Prime Minister of Norway. She is noted for being the first woman and the youngest person in the country to hold this post. She led her party to election victory three times, and was Head of Government for more than ten years.

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, medical doctor and Master of Public Health, thus spent ten years as eminent physician and scientist in the Norwegian public health system and more than 20 years in senior public office. It was during the 1980s, when Prime Minister, she gained international recognition for championing and promoting the principle of sustainable development. In 1983 the then United Nations Secretary General invited her to establish and chair the World Commission on

Environment and Development. This Commission, without doubt best known for developing the broad political concept of sustainable development and for promoting global dialogue on the concept, published its report Our Common Future, otherwise known as The Brundtland Report, in April 1987.

The recommendations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) led to the staging of the largest-ever gathering of heads of state and others with a concern for the global environment and sustainable living—the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Dr Brundtland stepped down from office as Prime Minister in 1996 and in 1998 she was nominated for and successful in being elected to the position of Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WCED, or Brundtland Commission, included individuals from twenty-two nations. Membership included six Commissioners from Europe (with three from Eastern Europe), five from Africa, five from Asia (including one from the Middle East), three from North America and three from South America. Its daunting task was to investigate the state of the world, to suggest ways into the twenty-first century that would allow the planet's rapidly growing population to meet its basic needs and to come up with a 'global agenda for change'. The Commission engaged in a great deal of empirical research and debate. The group, composed of ministers, scientists, diplomats and law makers, studied, debated and held public hearings on five continents over almost three years. The final Report, Our Common Future, consisting of almost 400 pages, includes a widely quoted definition of sustainable development, and promotes the view, perhaps for the first time in a globally promoted document, that conservation and development can co-exist.

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits—not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organisation on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth. The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable...A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes. Sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change.. .We do not pretend that the process is easy or straightforward. Painful choices have to be made. Thus, in the final analysis, sustainable development must rest on political will.2

Thus the Report identifies two key concepts that are tied to the process of sustainable management of the Earth's resources:

1 The basic needs of humanity—for food, clothing, shelter, and jobs— must be met. This involves, first of all, paying attention to the largely unmet needs of the world's poor, which should be given over-riding priority.

2 The limits to development are not absolute but are imposed by present states of technology and social organisation and by the impacts upon environmental resources and upon the biosphere's ability to absorb the effect of human activities. But technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth.3

It advanced the following list of critical objectives for sustainable development policies:

• Reviving economic growth

• Changing the quality of growth

• Meeting essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water, sanitation

• Ensuring a sustainable level of population

• Conserving and enhancing the resources base

• Reorienting technology and managing risk

• Merging environment and economics in decision-making processes

Our Common Future is subdivided into three main sections:

1 Common Concerns

• A Threatened Future

• Towards Sustainable Development

• The Role of the International Economy

2 Common Challenges

• Population and Human Resources

• Food Security: Sustaining the Potential

• Species and Ecosystems: Resources for Development

• Energy: Choices for Environment and Development

• Industry: Producing More With Less

• The Urban Challenge

3 Common Endeavours

• Managing the Commons

• Peace, Security, Development and the Environment

• Towards Common Action: Proposals for Institutional and Legal Change

The Report contains many specific recommendations for institutional and legal change. By way of summary, the Commission's main proposals fall within six priority areas:

Getting at the Sources International and regional organizations and national governments must start making bodies directly accountable for the environmental effects of their actions.

Dealing with the Effects Agencies formed to protect and restore the environment should be reinforced, especially the United Nations Environment Programme.

Assessing Global Risks The capacity to identify, assess and report on risks to the environment must be improved. This should not only be the responsibility of individual governments; a new independent coordinating body should be set up.

Making Informed Choices The public, NGOs, scientists and industry should all have the opportunity to participate in decision making.

Providing the Legal Means National and international law is being outpaced by events. Governments must fill the major gaps.

Investing in our Future The overall cost effectiveness in halting pollution has been shown over the last decade. But a commitment to sustainable development has large financial implications, and a new priority and focus must be taken up by financial institutions, aid agencies and governments. Developing countries need a strong infusion of financial support from international sources for environmental restoration, protection and improvement. Major lending agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the regional development banks should upgrade their environmental programmes.

The Brundtland Report concludes with a 'Call for Action' which asks the UN General Assembly to 'transform this report into a UN Programme of Action on Sustainable Development'. Sustainable development is seen not as a fixed state, but rather as a process of change in which each nation achieves its potential for development, whilst also improving the quality of the environmental resources upon which the development is based. Throughout, the Report argues that Sustainable development at a global level can be achieved only through major changes in the ways in which our planet is managed. Suggested changes include those in political systems, which allow effective citizen participation in decision-making processes; in economic systems, which lead to the ability to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis; in social systems, which provide solutions to tensions arising from our present form of development; in production systems, which respect the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development; in technological systems, which can search continuously for new solutions; in international systems, which foster Sustainable patterns of trade and finance; and in administrative systems, which promote flexibility and have the capacity for self-correction.

The Report of the WCED was ambitious, and based on a vast array of accumulated evidence and wisdom. One criticism made of it is that it set a very broad and complex agenda for change in the direction of achieving Sustainable development, without identifying the many and specific barriers that exist to achieving the intended goals. Mechanisms for achieving the end results appear as rather vague statements, lacking in precision or guidelines for translating them into specific actions.

More fundamental criticism attacks the Report's definition of development. The Commission's analysis is based on a certain conception of development, and thus of economic growth. Mishra, an Indian environmentalist, comments:

We should not assume that we can look for solutions to our problems within the framework of the current development pattern. It would be folly to think the Brundtland Commission can find solutions within the 'counter-productive framework' of governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, and so on. Because the present structures have given us the disease, is it then logical that they should also provide the cure? This seems to be the limitation of this Commission, because it itself stemmed from the current framework.4

By 'the current framework' is meant that dominant pattern of development today, based on Western culture. This has created a universal order: universal values, universal economics, universal science. Critics of this culture, including Shiva and Bandyopadhyay, emphasize its emphasis on private endeavour, interests and profits, and indeed its non-sustainability:

The ideology of the dominant pattern of development derives its driving force from a linear theory of progress, from a vision of historical evolution created in eighteenth and nineteenth century Western Europe and universalised throughout the world, especially in the post-war development decades. The linearity of history presupposed in this theory of progress, created an ideology of development that equated development with economic growth, economic growth with expansion of the market economy, modernity with consumerism, and non-market economics with backwardness. The diverse traditions of the world, with their distinctive technological, ecological, economic, political and cultural structures, were driven by this new ideology to converge into a homogeneous monolithic order modelled on the particular evolution of the west.5

According to this viewpoint, the dominant development paradigm disregards the true complexity and inter-relationships of all processes on Earth, a complexity encompassed in the Gaia Hypothesis, an alternative paradigm articulated and developed by James Lovelock (1979). For Lovelock, the entire range of living matter on Earth.. .could be regarded as a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs. This organism, of which human society is a part, but only one part, regulates her activities in a very complex and subtle way.6

This is a radically different view from that embodied in the 'dominant development paradigm', which sees the Earth and its resources merely as a place with raw materials to be used by its inhabitants. Proponents of the Gaia theory accept a concept of development that is based on restoring internal control, creating stability and peaceful co-operation.

Such a concept does not allow strong external influences. It will maximize 'stocks' (physical, intellectual, ecological) and will minimize the movement and export of things (in the form of goods, natural resources, capital and so on). Essentially, it runs contrary to the open market system. Sustainable development in this sense will demand solving the problem of domination in society elites...It is in this sense also a critique and action against the dominant paradigm of development. Sustainable development therefore means solving a conflict which is rooted deep in our images of the world and the organisation of our society The Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development does not contain any of this critique.7

Such criticisms fuelled important and far-reaching dialogue. Whatever views may be held on these fundamental issues, the fact remains that the Brundtland Commission successfully steered the world's thinking and debate on the formulation and re-orientation of policies relating to environment and development. Consideration of the environmental consequences of any action had been placed firmly on the agenda of governments, NGOs and international agencies alike.

By late 1989 the Report had been published in seventeen languages and had generated many other publications that provided commentaries on or developed aspects of its policy recommendations. A Centre for Our Common Future was established in Geneva as a focal point for the environmental activities of governments, multilateral institutions, scientific bodies, industry and NGOs.

Within the United Nations systems, the Brundtland Report inspired the planning of a major global Conference on Environment and Development to take place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, marking the twentieth anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment that had been held in Stockholm.

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, variously described as 'tough and efficient', 'energetic and committed' and 'a master survivor', continues on her life's pathway in a position where her undoubted talents as doctor, politician, activist and manager can come together in the shaping of global policy on health and the environment. In her acceptance speech for the World Health Assembly in 1998, she declared:

What is our Key mission? I see WHO's role as being the moral voice and technical leader in improving health of the people of the world. Ready and able to give advice on the key issues that can unleash development and alleviate suffering. I see our purpose to be combating disease and ill-health—promoting sustainable and equitable health systems in all countries.

The Director General herself possesses the vital combination of necessary skills, personality and motivation to be both powerful voice and effective leader.


1 Brundtland in the 'Foreword' to Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, p. xiv.

3 IIED/Earthscan, 1989.

4 la Court, Beyond Brundtland: Green Development in the 1990s, p. 13.

6 J.E.Lovelock, Gaia. A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

See also in this book

Lovelock, Shiva

Further reading

Court, la, Beyond Brundtland: Green Development in the 1990s, London: Zed Books, 1990.

Elliot, J.A., An Introduction to Sustainable Development: The Developing World,

London: Routledge, 1994. Goodland, R.J.A., Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development: Building on Brundtland, Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Starke, L., Signs of Hope: Working Towards Our Common Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Timberlake, L. and Holmberg, J., Defending the Future: A Guide to Sustainable

Development, London: Earthscan, 1991. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.


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