Gro Harlem Brundtland

From “Our Common Future” to the “Gro Brundtland Award”—the Contributions and Legacy of the Godmother of Sustainable Development, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

  • Gro Harlem Brundtland
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(This article is the outcome of a project collaboration between the Tang Prize Foundation and Pan Sci Taiwan.)


Chinese original by Hsuan-ling Chao


The 20th century bears the scars of some major disasters which inflicted considerable harm on both mankind and nature, including two world wars, the Bhopal gas tragedy, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident. However, more serious challenges have already posed themselves to us: overpopulation, widespread poverty and famine, unchecked deforestation, man-made greenhouse effect, ozone depletion and so forth. Human beings finally woke up to the fact that development of any kind, when left unrestrained, is going to wreak havocs.


From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its activities into that pattern is changing planetary systems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards. The new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized-and managed.” (from “Our Common Future”)


“Our Common Future,” also called “the Brundtland Report” in recognition of Brundtland’s role as chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, was published in 1987 by the United Nation through the Oxford University Press. A report unique to our time, “Our Common Future” champions a concept that has become so ubiquitous that it is practically on everyone’s lips now: sustainable development. Hardly the first person to come up with this idea, Brundtland nevertheless gave sustainable development a clear definition in a report which heralded the inception of international consensus on this issue.


A career transition from public health to politics


Known as “the Godmother of Sustainable Development,” Brundtland was born in Norway in 1939 to Gudmund Harlem, an eminent doctor and an influential politician who once served as Norwegian Minister of Social Affairs and Norwegian Minister of Defense. Frequently discussing important international affairs with her father since her early years imbued Brundtland with the vision of a society built on shared values. After graduating with a medical degree from the University of Oslo, she went on to study public health at Harvard University, before returning to her home country to begin her career as a physician.  


Her life took an unexpected turn when, aged 35, she followed in her father’s footsteps and entered into politics. Her image as a vocal columnist left Trygve Bratteli, the then prime minister of Norway, with such a strong impression that he decided to invite her to join his cabinet, thus making Brundtland the youngest ever Minister of the Environment in Norway. Even though environmental issues were not really her forte, she was convinced of the close connection between health, environment and development. It was for this reason she took up this great challenge and proved herself worthy of the appointment by becoming an up-and-coming star politician.       


In 1981, Brundtland became the first female prime minister of Norway, a capacity which allowed her to actualize many of her political philosophies. Eagerly concerned with issues about gender equality, she pushed for maternity leave and promoted breastfeeding, a demonstration of how she applied her MA studies to the development of her policies. Her term of office marked the first time in Norway’s history when more than half of the positions in the Cabinet were held by women, and about forty percent of Congress members were female.   


During the 1990s, Brundtland’s government instituted a carbon dioxide tax, levying taxes on fossil fuel companies and stipulating that their tax liabilities should be in proportion to the amount of oil they produce. Admitting that she was confronted by the interested parties both in Norway and in other countries, she never budged even under such great pressure.  


Toward a sustainable development of society and environment


In 1983, Brundtland was assigned a task by the then Secretary-General of the UN to set up and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. She insisted that more than 60 percent of the commission members had to be from developing countries, the rationale being that when it comes to environmental issues, developed countries usually hold views quite different from those of the developing ones. Therefore, it will be a tall order to persuade representatives from developing countries to follow through the resolutions passed by the commission to protect nature before their struggles with poverty, famine or economic growth receive due attention. Besides, having over 60 percent of the commissioners originate from developing countries means they can provide different perspectives in every discussion, while making sure their voices are heard can also earn the trust of people in these developing countries.    


On the other hand, Brundtland’s insistence ties in with the main argument in “Our Common Future,” which, released in 1987, stresses that environment and development should be regarded as one single issue. The enthusiastic response the report elicited from the rest of the world extended into the Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where Brundtland’s concept of sustainable development was turned into action plans, where the “Agenda 21” was established to be the cardinal principle behind every country’s effort to achieve sustainable development, and where important agreements concerning climate change, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, were open for signature. Since 2020, the time when the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will end, is drawing closer, negotiations have been conducted among contracting parties on possible future measures. This resulted in the Paris Agreement, adopted on December 12, 2015, as a separate instrument under the UNFCC and as a continuing effort to mitigate man-made climate change through international collaboration.     



Sharing the Tang Prize with third-world female scientists


30 years after the report came out, there are still countless issues regarding global environment and development that have to be tackled, and Brundtland has always been on the front line, leading international initiatives in reaching the long-term goal of sustainable development. Her substantial contributions to the protection of our planet received another high reward in 2014 when the Tang Prize Foundation, founded in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin, announced that Brundtland was their inaugural winner in the category of Sustainable Development.


Already in her 70s, Brundtland decided to use half of the Tang Prize research grant, NT$ 5 million, to help and encourage young female scholars. Therefore, as of 2016, the National Cheng Kung University has been in charge of giving the annual “Gro Brundtland Award” to outstanding female scientists under 40, from developing countries, and working on public health or environmental issues. They were also invited to attend a series of events and give talks during the “Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development” in Taiwan so that their efforts and contributions can be celebrated. At the same time, coming from different countries and meeting up in Taiwan, these scientists also took advantage of this special occasion to exchange ideas with one another, hoping to inspire more international collaborations.     


Female scientists of different nationalities who all made great contributions to human society


The recipients of the Brundtland Award in 2018, the last year this honor was conferred, are Dr. Barbara Burmen from Kenya, Dr. Natisha Dukhi from South Africa, Dr. Neha Dahiya from India, Dr. Weena Jade Gera from the Philippines, and Dr. Sarva Mangala Praveena from Malaysia. Working in different fields and on different subjects, they have all been making earnest endeavors to create a better future for generations to come.  


Using data analysis to investigate the AIDS and tuberculosis endemics in Kenya


Even until today, the huge number of Kenyans contracting AIDS, tuberculosis or both still doesn’t show any sign of dwindling. What’s more alarming is that the current statistics only refer to those diagnosed with these diseases, and they are but the tip of the iceberg. There is a larger yet unknown number of people who have never been to a doctor or received any treatment. Dr. Barbara Burmen, a physician in Kenya who also carries out research on public health, has spent more than a decade studying AIDS and tuberculosis. Through statistical analysis and algorithms, she wants to know more about the spread of these diseases and how to control it.


“Research from the clinical trials gives us the best evidence, but you have to find the best way to translate this evidence from the laboratory to the clinic,” Dr. Burmen remarked. In recent years, she has been trying to find more efficient ways to identify the hidden patients in order to provide them with preventive healthcare or medical treatment. Though her hard work has already yielded some positive results, Dr. Burmen still has other things to worry about: “The funding for (public) health is reducing. Populations are increasing. The patterns of diseases are changing. So health systems are going to face bigger problems, I guess.”


Using low-cost technology to provide health education


It has never been an easy task to impart correct educational information on health in a developed country, let along in a third-world country, which is especially true for Dr. Natisha Dukhi, a research specialist at the Human Science Research Council in the Department of Population Health, Health Systems and Innovation in South Africa. She is actively involved in research relating to maternal, adolescent, and child health and has been trying to adopt low-cost technology to increase community participation. The device she relies on is something we are all familiar with: mobile phones.


For the past few years, she has been engaged on the Teen MomConnect project, using mobile phones, a product almost everyone can afford nowadays, to supply pregnant teenagers with accurate information. Dr. Dukhi noted that so far it has been proven quite effective, which in turn can encourage more similar attempts to be made in the future. 


Improving the quality of life for people in India


Cancer is the battle modern medicine has to fight, and for people living in places where medical resources are scant, it is a real mortal combat they have to face. Indian doctor Neha Dahiya has long been attending to a variety of health issues in her home country, including cancer. She hopes that existing technology and good public health strategies can help work out a method for efficient screening tests and vaccine development even when there is no sufficient resources, so that Indian people, regardless of whether they reside in big cities or remote villages, will have quick access to the treatment and care they need.      


“While most doctors would sit in hospitals waiting for their patients, as a public health researcher, I need to be in closer contact with people and to rise to different challenges. But it always brings me great comfort and delight whenever my efforts reach fruition, because that means I will be able to save more lives,” Dr. Dahiya observed.


A study of the polluted drinking water in Malaysia


Water is an indispensable part of our life, and also a topic of serious concern to Dr. Sarva Mangala Praveena, senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in University Putra Malaysia. She stresses that the current research on water pollution is not just about the pollutants we have gained a sound knowledge of, such as heavy metal or microbial organisms, but also about the emerging pollutants detected in our drinking water, such as remnants of some common drugs.


Dr. Praveena feels that however closely linked her research focus is to people’s daily lives, most of the findings so far only exist in academic papers. Thus, by employing existing communication technology and social media platforms, she hopes important information can be disseminated to a wider audience.  


Understanding sustainable development through the lens of politics


“In terms of economic development or our public health and environmental sustainability, they are basically integrated issues and you cannot address them separately…I think the fundamental problem in developing countries is primarily anchored to a failing economic model that we are pursuing in our countries,” said Dr. Weena Gera from the Philippines. Without an educational background in public health, Dr. Gera instead tries to explore topics on sustainable development from a political point of view. She specializes in the evolving structure of governance, examining the implementation of tripartite co-regulation in sustainability monitoring of coal mining industries in the Philippines. 


Lately, she also started to look at issues concerning public participation in environmental issues. She believes it is only through receiving decent education and correct information can the general public have a reasonable opportunity to take part in the formulation and implementation of policies pertinent to their own situations. In addition, she urges government of the Philippines not to solely focus on pursuing economic growth but to pay more attention to the sustainable development of the country.    


Overcoming the barriers to sustainable development is a test the entire humanity have to face


Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


When the terms of reference of our Commission were originally being discussed in 1982, there were those who wanted its considerations to be limited to ‘environmental issues’ only. This would have been a grave mistake. The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles…But the ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.” (from “Our Common Future”)


Brundtland is like an architect of our shared future. At the core of the blueprint she drew up for us is sustainable development. A pioneer in this field, Brundtland also wants to make sure the torch is passed on to the next generation, as she envisages a future when brilliant scientists can put their knowledge and skills into play and bring about positive effects on sustainable development and on the whole of mankind.


During her visit to Taiwan for the 2018 “Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development,” Brundtland reminded us that many challenges concerning energy sources, pollution, gender equality, and quality of life still lie ahead of us. “Not just the public and voluntary sectors, but also the business community must be socially and globally responsible…I believe we are all in this together, as individuals and as representatives of civil society.”