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Why sustainable development legislation in Scotland matters

A member blog post by

Lewis Ryder-Jones

Scotland's International Development Alliance

Some have challenged the logic behind the Alliance and its members pursuing what appears to be domestically focused legislation in regard to sustainable development, asking: Would it not be better to focus on global development issues alone? Would this not serve our aims more, as a network dedicated to creating a fairer world?  

The question is a fair one, but the answer is a resounding no. Here’s why our key recommendation ahead of last year’s Scottish election (now in the 2021-2022 Programme for Government) will remain a big focus for us. 

A small contribution can have big impact, but look beyond and there is always an even bigger global footprint to consider…

Scotland’s direct financial contribution to global development and humanitarian assistance is relatively small (whether measured through our taxpayers contributions to UK Government ODA, or through the even smaller additional funding provided by the Scottish Government), with the total equating to less than 10 pence out of every tenner spent from the public purse. When expressed in these terms, it is indeed quite remarkable how much impact Scotland’s small contribution has on the lives and livelihoods of communities in low income countries.  

But as important as this direct financial support to low income countries is, it is by no means the whole story. Much of the bigger systemic issues at the heart of global issues – such as inequality, poverty, the nature emergency and the climate crisis – are impacted, positively and negatively, by other public policy decisions across government. 

So, to achieve our vision of ‘a Scotland increasingly committed to creating a fairer world, free from poverty, injustice and environmental threats’, we must look beyond ODA towards other more complex issues not necessarily directly related to global development. 

Whether about the way we trade, our public procurement, what we invest in, and where or how much emphasis we put on global citizenship, the broader actions of our government, public bodies and local authorities matter. They can have a significant direct and indirect impact on outcomes for people low income countries. 

Take the issue of procurement by a local authority. How do we know that spending on a particular contract isn’t having knock on impacts down the supply chain in a low income country? Actively considering procurement through a global impact lens could mean the difference between more farmers and workers in low income countries getting a fair price for their produce and earning a decent living or being pushed further into poverty.  

How we define ‘sustainable development’ and ‘wellbeing’ affects the scope of our action

We have realised that these types of global considerations aren’t going to become the norm across different sectors unless those of us who care really push for them. That’s not to say there aren’t many examples of good sustainable development considerations, but often the scope is limited to Scotland. We must get a better handle on what we collectively define as ‘sustainable development (SD)’. 

For us, SD means societal development everywhere that will allow humanity to survive and thrive in the very long term. This means the scope is necessarily global, and now more than ever, as the world faces multiple intersecting crises.  

No longer, if we ever could, can we separate the nature crisis and the climate emergency from our consumption habits and fossil-fuel dependency, nor can we decouple our own economic prosperity from the poverty experienced elsewhere. 

The same is true for how we define ‘wellbeing’. Whose wellbeing matters? The complicated truth is that it is the wellbeing of many – our own, our children, and people elsewhere. A wellbeing economy does not start nor end with national borders. It demands we put global justice firmly on the agenda and do all we can here in Scotland to ensure everyone – wherever they are in the world – can thrive now and into the future. 

What could wellbeing and sustainable development legislation in Scotland achieve?

So with this broader understanding in mind, the Wellbeing and Sustainable Development (Scotland) Bill must be both domestic and global in its scope.  

By doing so, it could help us further reduce our Co2 emissions, consume ethically, challenge injustice, reject inequality and build a society that does not harm others, internationally or intergenerationally.  

The bill could:  

  • offer a legal definition of wellbeing and sustainable development that ensures policy-makers and decision-makers are bound by sustainable development principles in everything they do. 
  • make it a statutory requirement for public bodies and local authorities in Scotland to assess the short and long-term impact of their decisions, both in Scotland and elsewhere.  
  • drive all of us to set objectives towards sustainable development outcomes, ensuring that they impact positively on people and the environment here in Scotland and in low-income countries.  
  • help actions in Scotland contribute to the betterment of wellbeing, both here in Scotland and elsewhere, for current and future generations.  
  • create an independent commissioner with enough powers and resources to enforce these duties while supporting public bodies to set objectives, monitor progress and review their outcomes.  

Next month, the Alliance will publish a detailed research paper to inform much broader engagement on this future bill. Check out details of the scope of the research here

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