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Getting Action: Crowdsourcing to the rescue! Looking for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development

The UNDP is challenging the world to find ways to develop sustainably. Can you help??

Dear Readers: 

The Democracy Center’s working relationship with the United Nations began five years ago in Montenegro, where I did a series of advocacy trainings for the staff at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These were folks wickedly committed to development that is equitable, environmentally responsible and economically competitive, and were involved in helping save their nation’s beloved Tara River from development.  One avid and able UN campaigner is Milica Begovic Radojevic, who I have been fortunate to work with since. In this Getting Action post we bring you an article, and call for participation, that Milica wrote for us about how the UNDP is using an old strategy reborn — “crowd sourcing” — as a way to generate new ideas on how to make global development sustainable in the face of climate change.  We hope you enjoy this post from the Balkans, and look forward to hearing your ideas!

Jim Shultz – Executive Director


Crowdsourcing to the rescue: looking for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development

By Milica Begovic Radojevic, UNDP in Montenegro

In 1919, famed New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for anyone who would dare fly solo across the Atlantic. It was a bold dare. In accepting the challenge, Charles Lindbergh paved the way toward transoceanic air travel and proved that crowd-sourcing can be a powerful method for reaching out to people in the hope of finding solutions to the most difficult problems facing humanity.

Almost a century later in the run up to Rio+20, where world leaders are meeting to renew their commitment to sustainable development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is preparing to crowd-source a challenge relating to sustainable development. Are the challenges of (un)sustainable development as important as our inability to fly across the ocean 100 years ago? Infinitely more so and here is why.

The way global economies have been developing is no longer a viable option – for people, for the economy itself and for the environment.

To a large extent, this is the case because we can’t shake the addiction to dirty energy. The price we pay for it doesn’t reflect the cost it inflicts by polluting the air, water, and soil, depleting natural reserves, not to mention the cost to human health.

On top of this, governments subsidize fossil fuels, sending all the wrong signals and creating many unintended consequences. One such consequence is that keeping prices low provides the least benefits to the poor who, for example, are not very likely to live in large homes and do not therefore consume as much energy.

The other by-product is the scientific link between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and extreme weather events. By subsidizing fossil fuels and incentivizing their use, governments around the world are contributing to the increase of frequency and intensity of these extreme events. It is usually the poorest and most vulnerable communities that suffer the most from this consequence, being generally more exposed to the effects of e.g. droughts and flooding, and also the least prepared to cope.

And for all the subsidies, domestic energy prices continue to rise. McKinsey’s Resource Revolution argues that this trend is likely to continue because:

  1. There is an interlinked relationship between the resources – you need water to generate energy and grow food – so a stress on one resource will be transferred to another.
  2. With up to three billion people projected to join the middle class, we can no longer say with certainty that the traditional supply of resources can satisfy our appetites for more without additional risks, costs and consequences. And guess who suffers the most when the price of food, water and energy go up?

So not only are subsidies increasingly ineffective in keeping the prices artificially low, they are chipping away at the Governments’ ability to invest in social programs and create new jobs. This is all the more critical today as an increasing number of people are facing malnutrition, and a lack of access to basic services. This traps people living in poverty, as they are unable to make the changes necessary to build better lives for themselves.

Does the compulsion to subsidize fossil fuels play a role in rising inequality? This could be the topic of a whole other blog, but what we see today is that the world is indeed becoming less equal. And what we do know is that more inequality leads to more social problems, such as higher rates of infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, and lower life expectancy, math and literacy, and trust within the society.

But I digress. Back to fossil fuel subsidies – they act as a barrier to investment in clean energy, in universal access to, and efficient use of, resources.

Out of 1.3 billion people globally who don’t have access to electricity, at least 3 million of them live in transition and OECD (Organization for Economic Development and Transition) countries. Can you imagine a life without electricity? Telling a bedtime story to your child – only by the light of a candle! How do you fight poverty without electricity? You don’t, or rather can’t.

So this is a shout out to engineers, urban planners, investment managers, research and development groups, and economists.

Renewable energy use in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States is among the lowest in the world. Heavy reliance on fossil fuels, 88 percent of the primary energy supply according to Human Development Report 2011, is not good news for health.  Armenia, Bulgaria, and Romania lead the world in deaths from outdoor air pollution. So, now you are poor and sick.

We are calling out to the scientists, meteorologists, engineers, mechanical and electrical technicians.

Europe and CIS is the world’s leader in energy inefficiency – one euro of GDP takes more energy to produce than in any other part of the world. This means more pollution and more subsidies. We are on the look-out for the behavioural experts, marketing gurus, architects, and the technology innovators.

So, to wrap up. Fossil fuels that drive our economies are bad for our health, bad for the environment, bad for society (inequality?) and increasingly bad for the economy itself. Subsidizing fossil fuels prevents investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy access for those who badly need it.

The scale of the problem is overwhelming and the solution goes beyond the capacities of any single government or private sector company. It goes beyond the civil sector, any one individual or development organization. It requires collaboration and the convergence of knowledge, resources, and commitment.

So what do we do? Well one thing we can do is try to draw out the expertise buried in the crowds. And this is what UNDP is attempting to do. Our first mission: to frame a good challenge that will effectively address an aspect – or aspects – of un-sustainable development.

One possible challenge candidate asks: What is the solar power equivalent of a $100 laptop? Access to inexpensive information technology revolutionizes education in poor countries. Access to inexpensive solar power would revolutionize development as we know it.

So as we continue in the quest to frame this challenge, maybe you could help out with some good ideas? Just remember, we are on the look-out for the Charles Lindbergh of sustainable development! And stay tuned….

Can you help Milica and the UNDP develop an effective challenge to find solutions for sustainable development? Please leave your ideas in the Comments section below (see comments policy) – and encourage your innovative friends to read and participate. 





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