Sustainable Development: A Matter of Definition

The concept of sustainable development has a long history in scientific thought. As early as 1749 the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in his Oeconomia naturae linked economy to nature in a way that resembles many of the concepts of sustainable development. His economic program focused on the need to make efficient use of existing resources rather than pursue military expeditions as a means of economic survival. Over 200 years later in Our Common Future the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987) gave international prominence to sustainable development and defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Our Common Journey, a report of the U.S. National Research Council (NRC, 1999), added a temporal dimension, defining sustainable development as “the reconciliation of society’s developmental goals with its environmental limits over the long term.” These definitions reflect the growing need to provide an ethical framework for integrating developmental and environmental goals. Sustainable development is therefore a set of guiding principles whose implementation is reflected in a variety of action programs, of which Agenda 21 is the most prominent.

  1. existing levels of local expertise and technology, and ongoing efforts in geospatial capacity building5;

  2. a range of questions relating to the practical application of new and existing spatial data (e.g., required resolution, challenges of integrating layers of environmental and social data, and baseline data against which future change can be measured);

  3. the role of decision-support systems in the application of these data; and

  4. options for making efforts sustainable beyond 2002.

The geographic foundation for Agenda 21 in Africa involves a wide array of geographic data, tools, and perspectives (including social, environmental, and economic data; maps and models; and the analysis of pattern and processes, place, and scale). This study was undertaken in support of the U.S. Geographic Information for Sustainable Development Alliance, which focuses on the uses of Earth observation data and GIS to address Agenda 21 issues. In this context the report emphasizes fundamental data types that are needed in many applications and ways of increasing accessibility to these data in Africa. An assessment of the potential applications of the full range of geographic data, tools, and concepts for natural resource management and development in Africa would also be valuable.


Chapter 40 in Agenda 21, “Information6 for DecisionMaking,” stresses the need for more and different types of data to be collected at all scales to track the status and trends of Earth’s ecosystems, natural resources, pollution, and socioeconomic variables. Chapter 40 concludes that “the gap in the availability, quality, coherence, standardization and accessibility of data between the developed7 and the developing world has been increasing, seriously impairing the capacities of countries to make informed decisions concerning environment and development.”8

Five years after the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in a 1997 assessment of the state of data supporting decision-making on each of Agenda 21 action items (UN, 1997), most of the nine responding African governments9 described their existing databases as “poor” or containing “some good data but many gaps.” Ten years after UNCED, the work of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which presses for greater awareness of the significance of geographic information in socioeconomic development among African governments and other sectors10 (ECA, 2001), illustrates that much remains to be achieved in applying geographic information to sustainable development.

Geographic data are obtained from ground-based (in situ) measurements or from remote-sensing systems. These data are of little practical value in sustainable development decision-making if they cannot be analyzed in conjunction with development data, such as economic or health data, that are geographically referenced11 (Jensen, 2000). Data that de-


Capacity is the ability to undertake certain activities, solve problems and achieve objectives (Fukuda-Parr et al., 2002) such as interpreting a map (an example of human capacity), possessing a computer (organizational capacity), or sharing data (societal capacity). Capacity is built by enhancing these abilities.


Information is data that humans assimilate and evaluate to solve a problem or make a decision (EIS-Africa, 2001).


Developed countries are those with “high” gross national income (World Bank, 2002). Developing countries are those with “low” or “medium” gross national income. The committee adopted these terms in the report.


Development includes at least four related concepts (Dernbach, 2002): peace and security, economic development, social development, and national governance that secures peace and development.


Algeria, Benin, Egypt, Gabon, Malawi, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe

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