SAIS Case Studies in Sustainable Development

SAIS Case Study Summaries

This teaching resource is made available on the Electronic Hallway in collaboration with Professor Shalini Vajjhala of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Energy, Resources, and Environment Program. All cases in this series were developed as part of an independently designed course entitled Case Studies in Sustainable Development. Special thanks to Chad Reed, Andrew Sprott, and Mwangi Chege for their research and teaching assistance. This series is dedicated to the memory of Professor David Jhirad, a champion of innovation in sustainable development education and practice.

Reframing Development Decisions & Trade-offs

Sustainable development encompasses everything. The term was first used in the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report to describe “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since then three pillars—economic development, social development, and environmental protection—have featured prominently in various international negotiations and agreements. Although thousands of studies and projects have been implemented since the term was first coined, the process of making and implementing sustainable development decisions on the ground remains abstract and messy. Most real-world examples are multi-disciplinary, multi-sector, and multi-actor anecdotes describing leaders and decision makers overcoming limited authority and resources. There are always uncertainties and rarely win-win-win outcomes. Success is often only clear in hindsight.

Yet, these types of decisions are increasingly the norm. Policy-makers and corporate leaders are looking for new ways to improve development outcomes, enhance resource efficiency, promote supply chain integrity, and meet environmental goals—all at once. These are not technical problems, but leadership challenges.

The cases in this series are specifically designed to offer a diverse set of real-world examples to help current and future leaders work through detailed economic, environmental, and social trade-offs at the core of all sustainable development decisions. These cases are working models of situations and decisions that are framed to challenge traditional development plans and precedents in fields including energy, water, transport, forestry, and planning, among many other public and private sector issues.

Generating innovative options, balancing multiple objectives, and aligning diverse stakeholder interests are all important traits and skills of sustainable development leadership. Taken together, these cases are intended to help build these skills by enabling readers to walk in the shoes of decision makers from around the world.

About this Series

This course and series were developed following the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in response to the global call for new Sustainable Development Goals to complement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015. Regardless of what goals emerge in coming decades, translating global agendas to tangible economic, social, and environmental outcomes on the ground will require a new generation of leaders and problem-solvers. There is no one source of sustainable development expertise or authority. Economic issues are no longer the sole domain of finance ministers nor are environment issues contained exclusively within environment agencies. Decision makers at all levels will need practical examples and models to move beyond anecdote to develop effective policy instruments and on-the-ground development practices. This series aims to help bridge this gap.

To learn more about the design of this course or to request course syllabi and materials, please contact Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder & CEO of re:focus partners and former SAIS Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Policy, at