When Intersectionality Isn’t Enough

The SDGs, a framework for sustainable development built out of the 2030 Agenda hope to achieve no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well=being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible and consumption, climate action, improved life below water and on land, peace, justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the goals for all people by 2030.

The goals and their targets are optimistic and necessary for an improved, more sustainable world. If we collectively reach the outlined targets and with them, the goals, our planet and the life on it will certainly be happier and healthier. The High Level Political Forum designed to oversee the goals illustrates where some people and groups are excluded from the goals. The High-Level Political Forum claims to be the “most inclusive and participatory forum in the UN” in that it addresses a vast array of issues pertaining to all people and will meet every four years. However, this is not quite true.

The HLPF works under the major groups framework, allowing the nine major groups (women, children, farmers, indigenous peoples, local authorities, businesses, civil society, workers, and trade unions) to establish and maintain connection mechanisms to work together to ensure broad and balanced participation across regions and groups. At first glance, this appears to put the “inclusive” in inclusive sustainable development. Upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that this framework isn’t truly inclusive at all. With only nine major groups allowed in the highly politicized process of who gets to be involved and which organizations and individuals within the major groups get to be represented, people are left out of discussion on issues that directly impact them and an opportunity to advocate for themselves.

While they are able to participate under the clause of “other stakeholders,” one of the most important groups excluded from the major groups framework is persons with disabilities. The World Bank estimates that 15% of every country’s population is living with a disability. For such a large population with unique challenges and abilities, representation in the SDGs and HLPF (where it is currently notably lacking) is crucial and the common argument that representation as a major group is not necessary because of intersectionality across groups is not strong enough.

The HLPF platform allows for limited representation of the wide array of issues each major group faces. As a result, major groups tend to focus on issues that impact the totality of the group with little room for other needs. For example, a woman with a disability would have a difficult time finding representation of her needs as a person with disability among the “women” major group who may be focusing on issues related to sexism. Additionally, the same argument could be made (and as easily negated) for the other groups. For example, the women group may include farmers, making the group unnecessary. Certainly, intersectionality plays a key role among each group but it isn’t enough to rule out an entire major group.

We have since seen an exciting increase in participation allowed for persons with disabilities as a stakeholder group with the introduction of the NUA but the main takeaway is still that development is not truly inclusive or sustainable if it does not include an active role for persons with disabilities and the large portion of the population they make up.