What Is the Brown Agenda?

In brief, the brown agenda refers to issues of safe water provision, sanitation, and drainage; inadequate solid and hazardous waste management; and air pollution including uncontrolled emissions from motor vehicles, factories, and low grade domestic fuels. The brown agenda emerged as a matter of concern and debate, in part, because of a perceived lack of attention to the specifically urban environmental problems of the developing world. This lack of a coherent urban environmental agenda was due to both the rural focus of many development debates and interventions, and the emphasis in environmental debates on natural resources and the global commons. In contrast, the gaze of the brown agenda is firmly trained on problems faced by cities of the global South, including rapid urbanization and growing urban poverty alongside poor urban management and inadequate service delivery. These problems in turn are inextricably linked to environmental degradation at city level.

In many respects, the brown agenda is an attempt to place developing countries at the forefront of both environmental and development debates and to confront the disconnect between global environmental ‘green’ problems and the problems confronting cities. The justification for an urban focus is clear. The United Nations estimates that in 2007 the world’s urban population, as a percentage of the total world population, will surpass the rural population and by 2030, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities is expected to reach 61%, and 79% of these urban dwellers will live in less developed countries. Cities loom large as ‘engines of economic growth’ and as perpetrators of environmental degradation, while also themselves being subject to some of the severest impacts of poor environmental management. Moreover, the environmental problems that cities face have very immediate and dramatic consequences. In this respect, the brown agenda serves to highlight environmental problems that are not necessarily the concern of future generations but are urgent problems whose impacts are being felt by millions of people already, problems such as the absence of safe and affordable drinking water or unnecessary mortality and morbidity from preventable diarrhoeal diseases. Certainly, problems such as inadequate water provision and poor sanitation facilities are not new in the developing world, but there is a consensus that urban environmental degradation has rapidly exacerbated these problems in recent decades.

That the global and regional problems of climate change, atmospheric pollution, ocean acidification, and land degradation are worsening is now well known and is often perceived as an inevitable consequence of unregulated economic development. But why problems such as basic sanitation, water provision, and waste management should be worsening is less clear. In part, the explanation can be found in the political and economic approaches championed in the developed world and increasingly adopted in the developing world, which have had negative and localized effects on cities in poor countries. Finding themselves in huge amounts of debt, many governments in developing countries have been encouraged to make investments that are likely to damage the environment in the long term. This has been accompanied by a ‘retreat of the state’ under neoliberal economic development policies, leading to failure on the part both of states and the private sector to secure urban environmental services for the poor. In part, however, the answer also lies in the dramatic increase in urbanization and urban poverty, which has had huge knock on effects for urban environments in which the urban poor effectively destroy their own environment through processes of survival. It tends to be the case that the poor create localized problems in their own environment, while the rich create problems impacting on a wider public.

In contrast to cities in developing countries, which predominantly degrade their ‘own’ immediate environment with negative health impacts for their own people, cities in the developed world often have an impact on the environment and global futures in ways that do not always affect their own populations in greater measure. Hence environmental degradation can take place on many different levels, but it is hard to expect wider green issues to be addressed adequately in contexts where brown agenda problems have such a damaging, inescapable impact on daily life. The following section briefly examines each of the major elements of the brown agenda in turn.