Messner’ized – Notes from a Conversation with One of the Leading Experts on Development Policy

Dirk Messner (left) and Alexander Ochs (right) speaking at the Worldwatch Institute.

Last week I invited Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), to Worldwatch for an informal dialogue with the staff.  In addition to his leadership of DIE, Dirk is a professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen as well as Vice-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). As a leading expert in the fields of development policy, environmental policy, and global governance, he plays a vital role in addressing key policy and sustainability challenges, as well as advancing the discourse surrounding climate and energy policy.

Like Worldwatch, Dirk is currently struggling with the question of how to facilitate an effective transition to a green global economy, particularly under the impact of shifting demographics. While transatlantic institutions have traditionally led international cooperative efforts including on the environment, the rapid ascendance of emerging economies like China and India has fundamentally shifted both actual diplomacy and the intellectual dialogue about it (the New York Times just today published an article on the United States’ waning influence on the global economy).  Dirk outlined several key areas of inquiry regarding this shift including its implications for sustainability, poverty alleviation, security, and democracy. Several recent developments have contributed to this changing landscape of international development and sustainability efforts.

Over the course of just the last decade, the development of a “global” middle class has reoriented international relations and catalyzed the increasing influence of the global south. While OECD countries once accounted for 80 percent of the middle class globally, they now account for only 50 percent.  As this transition of global wealth and influence continues, development policies and strategies that have traditionally been designed according to western paradigms and focused on the poor south, will need to include substantial input from new actors.  Specifically, the evolving role of China as the largest developing country, to a regional power in the past, and to a leading global player in the present, needs to be taken into account.

The transition to a sustainable economy and green development requires more than top-down policy direction and support.  Over the last decade, individuals and businesses from around the world have begun to incorporate the paradigm of social, economic and environmental sustainability into their daily lives and business practices.  CEOs and top-level executives at leading corporations in all countries of the world are reaching a consensus that business as usual is not acceptable if we are to tackle the challenges of resource depletion, growing populations, and climate change; a welcome departure from precedent which is reasoned in their own economic interests. Dirk commented that 30 percent of German businesses are now involved in the “green economy,” resulting in a mainstreaming of sustainability concepts and practices.  In addition to life-style and business practice changes, the increasing importance of cities in policy development and implementation will change the world we live in substantially. The new role of local policy-making will affect the way humans engage with each as they pursue sustainable solutions.

Our climate and energy team at Worldwatch reflects on these new trends and incorporates these new concepts in multiple ways.  Most of our current projects focus on non-OECD countries, including in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia. They afford us direct access to these countries’ leaders, projected to be major actors in the global society of the future.

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