The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play a critical part in the international conversation on development and global interactions. In 2015, all UN member states adopted the 17 goals, “which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.” The goals cover a variety of issues from education to life below sea; all equally important to the betterment of the planet in both an environmental and human context. Further, what is significant about the SDGs is that they are intended to overlap as all issues are interconnected on some level.
The United Nations’ High Level Political Forum, a platform for facilitation of the Sustainable Development Goals including targets, partnerships, publications, and documents. Described as the “most inclusive and participatory forum at the United Nations,” the HLPF is the process that governs the 15 year period SDG implementation and progress.
One inclusive aspect of the HLPF are the incorporation of “major groups” and stakeholders other than countries. The framework for the “major groups” came from the 1992 Earth Summit in the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The groups include “nine sectors of society as the main channels through which broad participation would be facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development” (United Nations). These groups specifically include: women, children and youth, indigenous peoples, Non-governmental Organizations, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technological community, and farmers. These categories are a little surprising to me, given that they range quite significantly in levels of vulnerability and representation in societal decision-making. Representing workers and trade unions juxtaposed with representatives from business and industry could create a constructive dynamic of criticism and progress for both levels of capitalist society. Creating a separate category for farmers is a way to bring a group that makes up a large proportion of the world’s population, and in some ways constitutes the backbone of human society, to the forefront, and lifts their voices. That is the reason for creating these groups in the first place: making sure that those who may have not had “a seat at the table” before, do now.
That being said, within the multi-stakeholder environment, there are limitations with this framework. The major groups can attend all official meetings of the HLPF and intervene in official meetings; however, whereas governments can speak whenever they want, as many times as they want, major groups are limited, which ends up placing significant pressure on the chosen spokesperson. Even with a few caveats, the HLPF and “major groups” provide several mechanisms for people to not only physically participate in the processes that govern the 15 year period of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also shape discourse and advocate for their point of view.
Development as a whole is an area of study that has a diverse set of beliefs and assumptions. Nevertheless, “a common theme within most definitions is that ‘development’ encompasses ‘change’ in a variety of aspects of the human condition” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, p. 10). What distinguishes the path to this goal is the theories and approaches used to get there. Additionally, what must be considered in development theory is where or not change is considered good or bad on both a short and long term timeline.
Sumner and Tribe identify a three-dimensional puzzle, similar to a Rubik’s cube that encompasses multiple facets of development. Understanding each aspect of this puzzle helps decipher that different views that one can hold on development and how best to approach it. Continue reading
The World Bank has a long and integrated history with development. This institution started out as a lending agency, supporting post-war programs and countries that were able to convince the World Bank that their projects would make some sort of marked improvement on the world. Decisions on what received funding and what did not relied heavily on traditional data, such as economic reports, employment records, and health statistics. Project management was mostly delegated to organizations and institutions outside the World Bank, giving the project management a hands-off feel.
The World Bank has since shifted to assume the role of the dominant provider of development-related information on the global scale. Now relying more on secondary data sources which are the result of lengthy social processes and which are shaped by the biases of agents involved, the World Bank advises other lenders on which projects or aspects of development should be supported. The World Bank now aims to be the “first port of call for development expertise.”
Although some consider it to be helpful to have an authoritative global voice on development, the World Bank as a “knowledge bank” of development expertise is also loaded with Western biases, neoliberal assumptions, and rigid theories. The secondary data that the World Bank is doling out is chock-full of inaccurate reporting, underrepresentation, and misconceptions of qualitative measurements. Although this type of data is important to give a human face to information and to help give focus to development policy, it is critical to recognize the implicit opinions and beliefs that make this data impossible to be objective.
In terms of inclusive sustainable development, the monopoly on knowledge that the World Bank has also has problematic implications. Even if the World Bank supports the CRPD and other policies that advocate for persons with disabilities, the data that they are receiving may place them in the background or, even worse, forget about them entirely. Trying to complete a cross-country analysis with secondary data is also extremely difficult as the World Bank does not have a standardized comparative study of the data that is collected.
The World Bank also tends to focus only on the poorest countries (measured by GDP, GNP, or some other traditional neoliberal measure of development), leaving middle and even high-income countries where the poor, and persons with disabilities, still live at the mercy of their government. This is a major problem in places in the US where public infrastructure is not accessible to people with disabilities and basic human rights like healthcare and internet are not evenly distributed.
If we are truly to regard the World Bank as a trustworthy institution that conducts rigorous development research, we need to look critically at the type of data they are collecting and the biases that are implicit in its construction and development studies.
World Bank’s work on person’s with disabilities https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability
International Development Studies, Sumner and Tribe, chapter 6 http://sk.sagepub.com/books/international-development-studies
Amartya Sen, the author of Development as Freedom, has contributed to our conceptualization of what development means: shifting the mainstream discourse primarily centered on poverty alleviation and economic indicators such as GDP growth and personal income, to more of a focus on humans and their lived experiences. More specifically, Sen defines development as the removal of “unfreedoms”, or aspects of life that limit one’s ability to make choices. This centers around access to five freedoms in particular: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.
While I do agree with Sen’s conceptualization of development as something more comprehensive than poverty alleviation, I take issue with the idea that freedom is the sole end and means of development. Although there is some validity in this argument, the rapid economic rise of a few non-democratic nations, which has significantly increased the standard of living for millions of people, must be included in what we understand as development.
For example, China’s government structure is made up of a one-party communist system, in which the people do not have many of the freedoms that Sen posits define development. Yet, over the past few decades, Chinese people’s lives, in general, have overwhelmingly improved without the freedom to democratic processes or free markets. In a discussion with a Peking University professor, with the context of relatively recent political turmoil, famine, socio-cultural disasters in mind, for most people, they are happy if they can find jobs and feed their families. If the CCP blocks their use of Youtube or if the news is biased in favor of Xi jinping, it does not affect the way they want to live their lives day-to-day.
I am not saying that freedom does not matter in development; surely the Chinese people would benefit from the freedom to mobilize and advocate for their needs and wants. I see the importance of Sen’s work for the development field, but do not think the Western-leaning ideas of freedom and individualism are always applicable to development. It is still a useful framework for many states in the international system to use as a guide of what to be constantly striving for, through the continuous process of human progress. Countries like the United States could look to removing “unfreedoms” as a way to raise the standard of living and make real improvements in people’s lives.
A Grand Challenge is a complex, ambiguous term that embodies the objectives of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. While Tom Khalil of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy claims that there is no definition for what constitutes as a Grand Challenge, he provides some guidance for specific characteristics of Grand Challenges (Pescovitz, 2012). Continue reading