Stuck in the Middle: Why Green Growth is Essential For Middle Income Countries

Stuck in the Middle: Why Green Growth is Essential For Middle Income Countries

I have the privilege to currently be living in Indonesia for two months, in a city called Semarang in Central Java. I am working on a community health placement as part of my Public Health masters and learning as much as possible about Indonesia. It is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen; with wonderfully warm people, distinctive cultures and never-ending diverse landscapes. It’s also evolving into a middle income country and one of the largest economies in Southeast Asia.

There is however a critical issue emerging with rapid development in countries like Indonesia; tackling the environmental issues of both an underdeveloped and developed country. Developing countries are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, yet have the capacity for innovation and change to prevent the disastrous environmental mistakes of richer countries. Of course each country has its own issues to tackle, however developing countries have the power to emerge with green growth; developing sustainably for both economical and environmental benefit.

Train station at West Jakarta City, Indonesia
Train station at West Jakarta City, Indonesia. Credit: Aprizilio Edwardo

The double-edged sword of an emerging economy

There are of course significant benefits to a growing economy and development, for starters – more money to be spent on infrastructure, social care and public health. There is also an improvement in satisfaction / quality of life for people living within these emerging economies. With Indonesia’s growing economy, it’s improved some serious issues such as the amount of people living in poverty.

Indonesia has made enormous gains in poverty reduction, cutting the poverty rate by more than half since 1999, to 9.8% in 2018

The World Bank, Indonesia Overview

A growing economy (like many countries in Southeast Asia) can also be a threat to the environment. Looking to more developed countries as an example, money has historically equated to over-development and a disposable culture which is now causing global destruction. This is of course a double-edged sword as approximately 20% of Indonesia is still vulnerable to falling into poverty.

Related Post: Climate Change is Expected to Hit the World’s Poorest Nations Hard. Here’s What Three of Them Are Doing About It…

South Jakarta. Credit: Afif Kusuma

Traditional environmental issues

With nearly 50% of Indonesia’s population living in rural villages, traditional environmental issues such as sanitation and waste management are still being tackled (which of course require money and development). When going into rural villages it’s really depressing to see the pile up of (mostly plastic) rubbish EVERYWHERE. I regularly see chickens in dry rivers with their legs stuck in plastic bags, pecking bags of rubbish. Rubbish is either thrown into rivers or burnt. There are no government incentives or even the infrastructure to recycle on mass; there aren’t even fines for tipping. Even if there was, there are no police wandering around the rural villages; so who’s going to stop them from dumping rubbish?

Not only is plastic waste an issue, human waste is a big issue. Not everyone can afford or prioritise a proper toilet with a septic tank so it ends up in rivers. This is on top of sanitary products and diapers. Times are slowly changing with the help of the Office of Environment and public health officers, but it’s still a major issue. Indonesians are incredibly resourceful; they just need the money and empowerment through education to be able to adopt better waste management programmes within the community. This could be adopted in line with incentives from the government, such as food exchange for plastic waste which is occurring in villages in the Philippines.

Woman combs through waste for textiles. Credit: Rangga Cahya Nugraha

Modern emerging environmental issues

On the flip side of this complicated coin is a growing middle class living in increasingly urban cities. Indonesia is currently having some of the worst forest fires in its history from cheap development; leading to dangerous air quality, human and animal deaths and damage to the economy.

Deforestation, resource exploitation (such as overfishing) and soil erosion are huge environmental issues in Indonesia that are impactful both domestically and internationally. Indonesia’s CO2 emissions per capita have grown drastically since the 1990s at an average rate of 2.23% per year.

“How dirt became so dangerous — and why reversing the damage is so difficult — is on grim display here in Central Kalimantan, inhabited by about two million people and a rapidly dwindling population of orangutans. Economic logic here is firmly on the side of those wrecking the environment.” –Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, 2009

Indonesia has a growing population, densely populated in specific cities. The population density is around 140.08 individuals per square kilometer. More people equals more development, more cars, more industries, more food and a more throwaway culture.

Even wandering around the city of Semarang in Java, everyone has a trendy plastic drink, with a plastic straw, in a plastic bag… with some sort of Korean plastic toy. It’s trendy to be disposable. I don’t blame them, a booming economy brings exciting prospects. It’s just heartbreaking to see, in a country that has so much to lose from environmental damage; diverse fauna, beautiful beaches and unique species.

Related Post: Poor Filipino Fishermen are Making Millions Protecting Whale Sharks?

Bawah Reserve, Indonesia. Credit: Chelsea Gates

Green growth

“Green growth is a matter of both economic policy and sustainable development policy. It tackles two key imperatives together: the continued inclusive economic growth needed by developing countries to reduce poverty and improve wellbeing; and improved environmental management needed to tackle resource scarcities and climate change.” –OECD. (2012). Green Growth and Developing Countries: A Summary for Policy Makers

With the environmental challenges of being a middle income country, desperately trying to develop whilst fighting against traditional issues, ‘Green Growth’ is perhaps the answer. Albeit not an easy answer. Countries like Indonesia have the resourcefulness and opportunity to develop both economically and environmentally. The United Nations has been pushing this approach for decades, yet it takes political and industry leadership and will to focus on investment and innovation for sustained growth.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that Green Growth should target the following areas: opening up new markets such as green energy, enhancing productivity for greater efficiency using natural resources, mobilising revenues through green taxes, boosting investment through predictability of major environmental issues and reducing negative shocks to growth. Each country will have to carefully analyse the tradeoff between Green Growth and poverty reduction. It’s focused on the idea that the natural environment is an economic resource that should be carefully measured and protected.

Every country should be focusing on Green Growth, with the dominant responsibility of climate change in the hands of those responsible. Middle income countries however are in a unique position to avoid the mistakes of fellow countries and grow much further sustainably.

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Feature image by Fikri Rasyid/Unsplash.

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