Posted by: PARTHA DAS SHARMA | February 17, 2010

Assessment of Sustainable Development : ‘Bellagio Principles’ for Assessment

Assessment of Sustainable Development : ‘Bellagio Principles’ for Assessment

Author: Partha Das Sharma, E.mail:,


A. Introduction and Basic notion of Sustainability – In general terms, the idea of sustainability is the persistence of certain necessary and desired characteristics of people, their communities and organizations, and the surrounding ecosystem over a very long period of time (indefinitely). Achieving progress toward sustainability thus implies maintaining and preferably improving, both human and ecosystem wellbeing, not one at the expense of the other. The idea expresses the interdependence between people and the surrounding world.

Development means to expand or realize the potentialities of, bring gradually to a fuller, greater, or better state. It has both qualitative and quantitative characteristics and is to be differentiated from growth which applies to a quantitative increase in physical dimensions. In fact, sustainable development is not a “fixed state of harmony”. Rather, it is an ongoing process of evolution in which people take actions leading to development that meets their current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Conversely, actions that reduce the ability of future generations to meet their own needs should be avoided.

The ideas presented are not complicated. They say that certain features of the world need preserving and improvement if life (for people, plants, and animals) is to endure. Further, they reinforce the concept of sustainable development as value-based. Thus the design of a sustainable world — the choice and degree to which “certain features” are to be sustained — will depend on the operating set of values, values which will shift over time and will vary within communities and from place to place.

Achieving progress toward sustainable development is clearly a matter of social choice, choice on the part of individuals and families, of communities, of the many organizations of civil society, and of government. Because it involves choice, change is only possible with the broad involvement of the general public and decision-makers in government and across civil society. And because of the need for this involvement, care must continually be taken to ensure that substantive conceptual and technical issues are considered within the context of the delicate value-driven processes of real, day-to-day decision-making. In this way, new insights can effectively be fed to decision-makers and conversely, the processes of assessment and decision-making can enhance technical and public inquiry. The process is a two-way street.

B. Approaches to Assessing Progress toward Sustainable Development – A number of approaches to assessing progress toward sustainable development are currently being developed and tested. In most cases, the emphasis is on choosing appropriate measures for the task and in organizing them in a meaningful way. A dominant concern is to effectively communicate the result to the general public, as well as to decision-makers in civil society and in government.

An effective framework accomplishes two important goals: first, it helps determine priorities in the choice of indicators; and second, it triggers the identification of indicators which may be more important in the future. Any framework that is chosen reflects some sort of conceptual model against which the real world can be set. Five groups of models appear to be emerging as influential in assessing progress toward sustainable development. These include: (1) models with roots in economics; (2) stress and stress-response models; (3) multiple capital models; (4) various forms of the three-part or theme “social, economic, environment” model; and (5) the linked human-ecosystem well-being model.

C. The Need for Guidelines: The Rationale Underlying the Bellagio Principles for Assessment – The debate regarding what might be a broadly accepted way of measuring, monitoring, and assessing progress to sustainable development has deep roots. Some suggest that the issue is none other than the age old question “What is the good life?” evoked by the ancient Greeks.

There is a clear link to “results-based management” and associated reporting, whether the scale be a local project, a corporate enterprise, or a large political jurisdiction. Faced with growing demands that expenditures of increasingly limited resources be both well directed and monitored in terms of success, decision-makers are actively pursuing systems for ensuring accountability. Although many have offered lists of indicators that would supplement the GDP in an overall assessment of progress, consensus has not emerged. Many question whether or not a common list is even possible, given the wide variety of natural conditions and the differences in values apparent from place-to-place.

D. The Bellagio Principles for Assessment

a. Background – In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development  called for the development of new ways to measure and assess progress toward sustainable development. This call has been subsequently echoed in Agenda 21 of the 1992 Earth Summit and through activities that range from local to global in scale. In response, significant efforts to assess performance have been made by corporations, non-government organizations, academics, communities, nations, and international organizations.

In November 1996, an international group of measurement practitioners and researchers from five continents came together at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy to review progress to date and to synthesize insights from practical ongoing efforts. The assessment principles resulted and were unanimously endorsed.

b. Their Uses and Beneficiaries or UsersThese principles serve as guidelines for the whole of the assessment process including the choice and design of indicators, their interpretation and communication of the result. They are interrelated and should be applied as a complete set. They are intended for use in starting and improving assessment activities of community groups, non-government organizations, corporations, national governments, and international institutions.

c. OverviewThese principles deal with four aspects of assessing progress toward sustainable development. Principle 1 deals with the starting point of any assessment – establishing a vision of sustainable development and clear goals that provide a practical definition of that vision in terms that are meaningful for the decision-making unit in question. Principles 2 through 5 deal with the content of any assessment and the need to merge a sense of the overall system with a practical focus on current priority issues. Principles 6 through 8 deal with key issues of the process of assessment, while Principles 9 and 10 deal with the necessity for establishing a continuing capacity for assessment.

1. GUIDING VISION AND GOALS – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• be guided by a clear vision of sustainable development and goals that define that vision

2. HOLISTIC PERSPECTIVE – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• include review of the whole system as well as its parts

• consider the well-being of social, ecological, and economic sub-systems, their state as well as the direction and rate of change of that state, of their component parts, and the interaction between parts

• consider both positive and negative consequences of human activity, in a way that reflects the costs and benefits for human and ecological systems, in monetary and non-monetary terms

3. ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• consider equity and disparity within the current population and between present and future generations, dealing with such concerns as resource use, over-consumption and poverty, human rights, and access to services, as appropriate

• consider the ecological conditions on which life depends

• consider economic development and other, non-market activities that contribute to human/social well-being

4. ADEQUATE SCOPE – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• adopt a time horizon long enough to capture both human and ecosystem time scales thus responding to needs of future generations as well as those current to short term decision-making

• define the space of study large enough to include not only local but also long distance impacts on people and ecosystems

• build on historic and current conditions to anticipate future conditions – where we want to go, where we could go

5. PRACTICAL FOCUS – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should be based on:

• an explicit set of categories or an organizing framework that links vision and goals to indicators and assessment criteria

• a limited number of key issues for analysis

• a limited number of indicators or indicator combinations to provide a clearer signal of progress

• standardizing measurement wherever possible to permit comparison

• comparing indicator values to targets, reference values, ranges, thresholds, or direction of trends, as appropriate

6. OPENNESS – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• make the methods and data that are used accessible to all

• make explicit all judgments, assumptions, and uncertainties in data and interpretations

7. EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• be designed to address the needs of the audience and set of users

• draw from indicators and other tools that are stimulating and serve to engage decision-makers

• aim, from the outset, for simplicity in structure and use of clear and plain language

8. BROAD PARTICIPATION – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• obtain broad representation of key grass-roots, professional, technical and social groups, including youth, women, and indigenous people – to ensure recognition of diverse and changing values

• ensure the participation of decision-makers to secure a firm link to adopted policies and resulting action

9. ONGOING ASSESSMENT – Assessment of progress toward sustainable development should:

• develop a capacity for repeated measurement to determine trends

• be iterative, adaptive, and responsive to change and uncertainty because systems are complex and change frequently

• adjust goals, frameworks, and indicators as new insights are gained

• promote development of collective learning and feedback to decision- making

10. INSTITUTIONAL CAPACITY – Continuity of assessing progress toward sustainable development should be assured by:

• clearly assigning responsibility and providing ongoing support in the decision-making process

• providing institutional capacity for data collection, maintenance, and documentation

• supporting development of local assessment capacity

Thus, the Bellagio Principles for Assessment are guidelines for undertaking and improving assessments of progress toward sustainable development. These principles are helpful in selecting indicators, measuring progress, interpreting and communicating assessment results. They are intended for use in determining starting points, specifying content, and suggesting scope. As a set they help build the capacity for doing assessments.

E. Summary and conclusion – In summary, sustainable development commits us to considering the long-term and to recognizing our place within the ecosystem. It encourages a continuing reflection on the implications of human activity. It provides a new perspective from which to see the world. It is a perspective that forces the bridging of many ideas and disciplines (contemporary and traditional) that have previously remained disparate. Those using this perspective, including the Brundtland Commission and participants at the Earth Summit among many others, have come to the conclusion that the current nature of human activity is inadequate for meeting current needs and is seriously undermining opportunities for future generations.

The Bellagio Principles for Assessment serve to focus the perspective described above. They are offered in the belief that seeing differently is the first step to doing differently.


* BellagioSTAMP SusTainability Assessment and Measurement Principles

* Tools and methods for integrated analysis and assessment of sustainable development:

* Environmental Impact Assessment and Sustainable Development:

* Part 2. Sustainable development assessment framework:

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