Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 20:06
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Institutions    Topic: Governance

There is increasing awarenes of the importance of good governance to all aspects of sustainable development. But while this is considered in legal, economic and social frameworks, the ethical dimension of governance is too often ignored. It is the responsibility of government to rule with equity and justice, with special attention to the needs of the poor. It may seem evident that political leaders should not enrich themselves at the expense of the public, but this still seems to be the rule rather than the exception in many countries.

Changing the present situation will take time. The political world cannot instantaneously evolve from the depths of corruption to the heights of rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must make daily efforts so that the government and the people progress. It will take pure intentions and justice on the part of political leaders, the wisdom and consummate skill and statecraft of the governing authorities, and the determination and unstinted efforts of the people to bring about the necessary far-reaching reforms and to achieve the prosperity of government and people alike ( 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 1882).

Because sustainability requires management and decision-making at many geographic scales, it requires multi-level governance, with institutions at each level adapted to the requirements at that level, and due respect to the principle of subsidiarity that responsibility should be placed at the lowest possible level close to the site of the problem.

However, since the ultimate limits to sustainability are global, a significant level of global governance will be essential. The unity of the human race implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth should consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system. The result would be a world federal system, ruling the whole earth, exercising authority over its vast resources, and bent on the exploitation of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet (Shoghi Effendi, 1938). Only such a system would be able to guarantee an equitable sharing of the efforts and benefits of sustainability long into the future.

Within that framework, national governments would still have primary responsibility over issues of sustainability within their territories, but they will have to become much better at this than most are today. For example, the importance of good national governance for business performance on sustainability issues was demonstrated in a recent survey of world business leaders by the World Economic Forum (Dahl, 2004). The leaders indicated that good laws and regulations, while important, were not sufficient. Inefficient or irregular enforcement and corruption allowed businesses to escape from their responsibilities, putting companies that wanted to improve their performance are at a competitive disadvantage. The lack of progress at national level rebounded to affect their international competitiveness.

Some of the qualities required for good governance include:
- Trust (both politicians and business leaders are among the least trusted categories of the population)
- A collaborative spirit between business, government and other stakeholders
- Laws and regulations that are clear and enforced fairly
- Confidence that taxes will be spent effectively in the common interest
- Adherence to international agreements
Countries that rated highest in these areas were also the most economically competitive at the international level. On the other hand, countries whose governments were politically averse to environmental controls in order to favour the business sector were relatively less competitive than those that give environmental protection and sustainable development a high priority.

Finally, more responsibility for sustainable action needs to be devolved to the sub-national and local (municipal) levels. It is here that people are most aware of environmental and social problems, and that there is the best chance to educate the public and change behaviour. Many local governments have already started with a local Agenda 21 or similar sustainability planning process.


'Abdu'l-Bahá. 1882. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Revised English edition, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, 1957.

Dahl, Arthur. 2004. The competitive edge in environmental responsibility, p. 103-110. In Michael E. Porter, Klaus Schwab, Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Augusto Lopez-Claros, The Global Competitiveness Report 2004-2005. World Economic Forum. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmill, UK and New York.

Shoghi Effendi. 1938. The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois.

Article last updated 29 June 2006

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