The opportunities and obstacles on the path to sustainable development are both greater than ever before. Though access is uneven, new technologies and global markets offer the prospect of broader and more rapid economic growth and social progress; though environmental stress is deepening, so is understanding and agreement on the issues; though population numbers are ever greater, there are good prospects for stabilization within the next two generations; though chasms divide North and South, rich and poor, the Cold War no longer stands in the way of solutions.
The fate of nations, enterprises, families and individuals for good or ill is increasingly affected by external decisions. But development, if it is to be worthy of the name, increases rather than reduces autonomy.
In the 1990s a series of international conferences has articulated a common vision for social development through meeting human needs and enabling the contribution of each individual, family and community.
First, everyone needs to play an active role in the development process. The capacities, perspectives and contributions of women in particular have long been undervalued or ignored. Women have too often been valued primarily for their reproductive role, but even in that role their views and perspectives have not been respected. This has limited women's opportunities for education, employment, and recognition of basic rights and responsibilities such as autonomy in person and property, rights to land ownership and inheritance, access to credit, participation in political life and decision-making authority within the family and their communities.
The role of women should not be narrowly defined by the burdens, joys and risks of child-bearing and child-raising. It follows that a fundamental condition for social transformation is the basic human right of individuals and couples freely and voluntarily to determine the number and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so. This exercise of reproductive rights must be free of coercion and violence, encourage recognition of male and female responsibilities and foster full partnerships in the making of decisions.
Second, lives should not be truncated by avoidable morbidity and premature mortality. Improvements in basic health (of which reproductive health is one important component) will improve the quality of life, increase productivity and extend the duration and the security of the support which family members can give each other throughout their lives. It will allow decisions about family formation and family life to be more responsive to the desires of parents, their capacities for support and hopes for their children's futures than to their worries about their own. Access to healthy and safe shelter, to water, sanitation and to productive livelihoods are as important as health services in realizing these possibilities.
Third, the full exercise of personal capacities requires quality basic education and the opportunity for further advancement. Access to and promotion of education for all, and especially girls and women, are vital components of any sustainable development strategy. Education creates and strengthens capacities for informed decision-making. These basic conditions of empowerment, health (including reproductive rights and health) and education work together to create a positive dynamic for development.