Natural Partners: integrating development and environment to deliver sustainable development

Earlier this month a group of representatives from civil society convened at the ‘Natural Partners’ event at London Zoo. Together they discussed how to integrate development and environmental needs in order to deliver sustainable development with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals. Joining the chair, Achim Steiner, Director of the Oxford Martin School, and former Head of the UN Environment Programme, were the President of WWF International, Yolanda Kakabadse, Chris Bain, Director of CAFOD and Loretta Minghella, Chief Executive of Christian Aid. Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of RSPB, Fiona Wheatley, Sustainable Business Manager with M&S and several stakeholder representatives talked about the positive impact of their projects, resulting from natural partnerships.

During Mr Steiner’s thoughtful opening words the agenda of the evening was framed by reminding us that it is impossible to have an encompassing development agenda unless we also posses proper stewardship of the environment, bringing to the heart of the event the notion that the two are intricately linked.

It is high time to really stand together for this collective cross-sector commitment to creating a sustainable future instead of going down separate paths.

Despite the misleading initial assumption that the ground conflicts between a variety of species of life are entirely unrelated, it turns out that, upon closer inspection, they are all merging and that, truly, the well-being of all life-forms is interdependent. We cannot consider one without the others. This closer interdependence highlights the importance of partnerships between environmental and developmental stakeholders, including members of civil society, in order to achieve a sustainable future for all.

In light of the presentations and panel discussion, several challenges were raised by Mr Steiner. Questioning the status quo was mentioned as well as the importance of learning how to think differently, to move faster in accordance to ever accelerating time lines, instead of reproducing reality as we know it. This call to action went hand in hand with everyone acknowledging the Sustainable Development Goals as a strong sign of commitment to work together to positively shape the future; particularly echoed in regard to SDG 17, which highlights the necessity and benefit of cross-sector partnerships, such as were discussed in the case studies.

Bird Life International partner, Nature Kenya’s Sarah Munguti spoke about the development of a strategic plan with environmental assessment and government collaboration to develop the Tana Delta, whilst minimising the environmental impact. The stakeholders involved with Net-Works, a collaboration between ZSL, the private sector, such as carpet tile manufacturer Interface Inc., fibre manufacturer Aquafil and local communities, explained to the audience how to empower communities, tackle inequality and develop an innovative approach to marine conservation, whilst, at the same time allowing for self-sustaining enterprise for the local communities. Finally, the better cotton initiative between WWF ad Oxfam in collaboration with Marks and Spencer, showcased how a good partnership surrounding a critical commodity can work, introduced by Fiona Wheatley, Emma Keller and Lena Staafgard.

The linguistics surrounding partnerships were also a topic highlighted during the evening, both by Yolanda Kakabadse discussing the elimination of the word ‘donor’ and by Achim Steiner highlighting the inherent differences we associate with the words ‘trade-off’, ‘win-win’ and ‘choice’ in collaboration situations. He explained that the development side dilemma mainly resides around the notion of trade-offs, the conservation side errs on advocating win-win situations. However, importantly, when merging the two in order to achieve a strong partnership we need to stop legitimising the concept of trade-offs as they inadvertently reinforce a negative notion of unequal partnerships. Instead, we should talk about choice. This includes considering what framework conditions would have to change in order for win-wins to materialise in all choice situations and therewith to interrogate the common notion surrounding trade-offs.

The panel discussion continued with a similarly collaborative tone with the panellists referring strongly to the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, stating that it is high time to really stand together for this collective cross-sector commitment to creating a sustainable future instead of going down separate paths. Together we can lead change, recognise and drive forward a common agenda, through acknowledging our interdependence, deriving the benefit from collaboration with one another as members of civil society and by investing in strong partnerships in order to move forwards into a sustainable future, as highlighted by the multiple case studies and discussions throughout the event.