An international network of universities is now in place determined to shape a sustainable economic, social and environmental programme for developing countries.
The successful emergence of the network was marked by the first International Congress of Universities for Sustainable Development held late last month in Costa Rica.
The idea dates back to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 when it was agreed to campaign for a more sustainable and less environmentally-damaging way of life. Universities and associated institutions were given a particular responsibility for informing and encouraging this debate.
Several umbrella organisations emerged to foster co-operation and collaboration between universities in their teaching and research programmes on environmental and related issues.
The Talloires group, with a secretariat based at Tufts University, Boston, aspires to be a global network. To date, however, the majority of members are in North America. The Copernicus group, with a secretariat based in Geneva, is concerned primarily to foster co-operation on environmental teaching and research between institutions in east and west Europe.
The congress in Costa Rica represented the emergence of a third group: universities of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. The universities represented were, with few exceptions, based in Central and South America, the Spanish Caribbean, Spain and Portugal.
As many government ministers, officials and diplomats attended the conference as academics. Many delegates argued that an emerging sustainable development framework for Central America should form the basis for a common economic and social development programme that would help to unify Central and South America.
The long-term goal was to create a new political and economic bloc that would enable the member states to negotiate on a more equal basis in a world increasingly dominated by the three existing economic groupings: the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area, and the Association of South East Asian Nations.
The most pressing goal was spelled out by Rene Castro, Costa Rican minister of natural resources, energy and mines, who explained that the economic development model that had served his country reasonably well for nearly 50 years would not survive the globalisation of the world's markets.
The old programme, founded on the country's historic power-sharing settlement in 1948, succeeded in raising national literacy levels to 94 per cent but left the government with a massive financial deficit while generating few internationally competitive industries.
This economic failure became painfully apparent in the 1980s, and between 1987 and 1994 the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats agreed to adopt a three-part model of sustainable economic, social and environmental development.
This involves firstly economic modernisation through privatising state ventures and opening borders to foreign competition and investment. The private sector is being relied on to identify opportunities, invest capital and generate wealth.
The government has extended this principle into academia by allowing the creation of the country's first private universities (partly in response to the unpopular use of strike action by academics working in the public sector).
The sector is expanding rapidly, largely by making extensive use of staff moonlighting from the public sector. The private universities tend to focus on marketable skills, such as business and computing and some are very well resourced.
The second part of the programme is to counterbalance economic efficiency with social programmes. There will be a long-term commitment to improve the health and education of the nation. Other government spending will be reduced as resources are switched into these priority areas.
The third part is to protect and enhance the natural environment and resources of the region. Costa Rica comprises less than 1 per cent of the land surface of the Earth, but contains about 12 per cent of total global biodiversity.
There will be research and development to support sustainable agriculture. This involves reducing the use of pesticides and petrochemicals, the intelligent utilisation rather than exploitation of indigenous forest resources, and on how best to involve and use the knowledge of local people, for example, in helping to identify and classify plants with promising pharmaceutical potential.
This three-part definition of sustainable development is the proposed basis for a common framework for a new bloc of Central and South American states.
The presidents of seven Central American states signed an accord to that effect in October 1994. Costa Rica sees this move as a continuation of the Central American Peace Process for which the former Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fernando Naranjo Villallobos, Costa Rican foreign minister, suggested that the framework might eventually be adopted as a common platform by the United Nation's G77 group, which comprises the 132 developing nations of the world, and perhaps by the UN's other "parallel group", the non-aligned nations. In 1996, Costa Rica assumes the presidency of the G77 group, while Colombia assumes the presidency of the non-aligned group. This unprecedented coincidence of presidencies will be used to try to persuade the members of both groups to adopt the Central American model.
Universities were urged at the meeting to play an active role in the political and economic policy analysis needed to steer the sustainable development programme forward, with several government ministers chiding the academics present for not taking a more active role to date.
Tony Clayton is the environmental coordinator for the University of Edinburgh, and has just returned from the congress.