Intersectionality: A Crossroads

Intersectionality is the idea that we cannot address a single social condition without also addressing the other social conditions that exist. For example, “white feminism” defines the brand of modern feminism that often leaves out women of color, women who identify as LGBTQ+, women in poverty, or other important aspects of a women’s identity that need to be addressed under the umbrella of women’s rights. Without intersectionality, progress is simply not possible.

The same holds true for sustainable development. For example, we must acknowledge intersectionality that exists across the “major groups” framework as well as the discrimination that exists within each. For example, a queer disabled woman of color faces unique and important issues that should be addressed by AND across each of the major groups. Unfortunately, across global frameworks, we see limited mention of these intersectional identities and their importance in sustainable development. Their importance comes into mainly in that development is not sustainable or inclusive when it leaves out the issues or identities of an entire population.

However, even with the division the “major groups” framework presents, it also can be utilized as a unique opportunity for collaboration and creation of intersectional understanding. For example, women in the Indigenous People group may meet with the Women group in order to discuss their overlapping thoughts and issues. After meeting, the two groups can work together to ensure their experiences, needs, and suggestions are heard at the higher level.

In the past, the major groups framework also raised issue by excluding a large number of groups but thankfully, the NUA at Habitat III introduced sixteen other stakeholder groups who cover a large number of identities and issues.

In addition, other frameworks such as the SDGs are moving in the right direction such as SDG 4, which I focused on in my capstone project. SDG 4 focuses on the right to education and includes mention of multiple intersectionalities such as gender equality under education as well as the importance of granting access to education for persons with disabilities.

Overall, intersectionality serves as a crossroads for many identities and issues and when included in the global frameworks can have a huge impact in working toward truly inclusive sustainable development.

From the MDGs to the NUA: Evolution of Global Frameworks

As one way to respond to Grand Challenges, the global frameworks we have studied are by no means perfect. But, I claim that they are the best that we have and that optimism can be found in the fact that with each new framework, we seen an evolution toward a more inclusive idea of development and how we wish to see the world.

Our initial global framework for global development was the GDP, which simply measured the income of a country. From there, we were able to grow into a more inclusive understanding of development with the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals, meant to take on challenges such as eradicating poverty by 2015. Clearly, we have not reached that point yet, making the point that these frameworks are not perfect. In addition, the Millennium Goals were not as clear with their targets and not as inclusive as they should have been. For example, there was no mention of persons with disabilities.

However, from the Millennium Development Goals came the more inclusive and specific SDGs, after which came the CRPD, and the NUA, all of which outlined goals even more inclusive of all people, with more specific targets, and with the potential for increased sustainability. As we move forward, each of these frameworks becomes more and more successful. Each of these documents has redefined development in a more progressive way.

An additional challenge stems from the fact that international law is incredibly difficult to enforce. While we have the International Court of Justice, it is difficult to navigate and often shaky in its role. What we can count on though, is the desire of nations to maintain norms, moral expectations and standards, and to meet the expectations of the United Nations rather than to come under scrutiny at the feet of the international community. The power of this desire is shown through the many successful laws and treaties upheld by the UN as well as by the large numbers in which countries sign and ratify the documents that become global frameworks.

While they are not perfect, the global frameworks we have continue to grow, evolve, and succeed.

Governing the Internet

The biggest problem with governing the Internet is that not one entity can claim ownership over it. While it was developed originally in the United States as a military tool, the US cannot and should not maintain control over the entire web. This is not a problem in that one entity should claim ownership as it is and should remain a shared resource. The problem is that it requires a vast number of stakeholders in the Internet to come together to govern it together. When framed this way, it becomes less of a problem and more of a challenge or opportunity for collaboration.

This opportunity was taken advantage of with after the 2005 Summit in Tunis at which WSIS introduced a shared aim to maintain equal access to and treatment of different states in their access to the Internet as well as the importance of net neutrality. In response, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) has begun to transition away from being a United States dominated power and is now an international forum for monitoring of the logistics of the Internet.

Additionally, the Internet Governance Forum allows for a balanced and shared overseeing of the right to the Internet, access to it, and issues of neutrality. The IGF notably has a number of inclusive initiatives based on region, age (youth), and provides a “tool kit” for those outside of the organization looking to be involved and have their voice heard regarding the resource that connects us more than any technology ever has.

Not only is this magnificent in that it allows for shared overseeing of the right to the Internet as well as the importance of neutrality and increase access, this collaboration also marks a significant group of stakeholders working together for a shared goal. In what feels like an increasingly divided world, this is no small feat.

Sen’s Theory Toward Inclusive Development

Development is a loaded term, difficult to define in one finely packaged sentence. Traditionally (and wrongly), the picture that comes to mind with “development” is a cross-comparison, one side in a remote village with no running water, children working the fields rather than attending schools, etc. with the other side taking the shape of a large city, covered in high-rise buildings, cars crowding the streets, the latest mobile technologies in everyone’s hands. In the past, “development” was seen as a mission, something the picture on the right needed to intervene and help the picture on the left achieve. I recall being guilty of this myself, even. In a World Studies course in middle school, a woman came to speak to us about Africa as a continent. She showed us a series of pictures, some of naked children, wild animals, women with water in jugs on their heads, and small huts and some of tall buildings, bustling city centers, and highway systems. She asked us “which of these photographs are of Africa?” and we all chose those that seemed to fit our definition of “underdeveloped,” a notion that she quickly turned over on its head.

Much like this guest speaker did for me (and I am so grateful to her that she did), Amartya Sen has done for development as a concept on a global scale. In Development as Freedom, Sen has changed the discourse on development from the “developed” saving or fixing the “underdeveloped” with an end goal of increased income to an understanding of freedoms and unfreedoms. Thanks to Sen, we know that it is an unfreedom for people and entire countries to be left out of the discussion on what makes them “developed” with countries that claim to be already developed making all of the rules.

He defines development as discourse and more importantly, development as freedom, noting that it goes beyond income and applies to freedoms as the opportunities and choices that exist for people. These choices may included where you live and who you live with, what type of transportation you take, where you go to school, what you study in college, and what career you will have.

In turning our previous notions of development on its head, Sen acknowledges that by these standards, some “developed” countries are not truly developed at all and sets the standard for inclusive and sustainable development. As we move from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs to the CRPD, WSIS, and Habitat III and the NUA, it is exciting to see the impact a theory of inclusive development has on the progress we are making and the lens through which we frame these goals and their results.

Bridging the Digital Divides

The MacBride Commission Report titled “Many Voices One World” sponsored by UNESCO found that a majority of modern communication problems exist between the global North and South as a result of an imbalance in access to telecommunication technologies and as a result, an imbalance of media (often favoring the North) which then impacts how we perceive the information we have access to. 

In response, the overarching goal of telecommunications policy is to ensure universal service and equal access to affordable telephone service in all communities as well as to ensure all communities are being reached with access to broadband for more and better communication. With digital divides, the issue is not just access to these technologies but also if there is access to broadband (high speed and quality) or to mobile access or just within the home, additional markers of truly equal access. The digital divide is defined by the regional, age, gender, and racial/ethnic divides in access to telecommunication technology. In addition, the divide includes access to broadband vs. narrowband, the knowledge divide regarding ICTs as well as a result of a lack of them, and a skill divide surrounding digital technologies.

This is alarming in that as shown through WSIS and its ancestor-documents, access to good ICTs is crucial for development, especially regarding the increase in access to information that they provide, not just at an economic level but at a social and political level as well. For example, in tying back to education, children with access and the ability to use computers and broadband Internet have an automatic increase in knowledge and accessibility to the world. In response, the main steps that can be taken are training of teachers on how to be able to teach students to use technology while also recognizing that children have skills that they are able to teach their teachers, using technology to build capacity. In an increasingly globalized world and a knowledge-based economy, as UNESCO has worked towards, it is crucial that we level the playing field by closing the digital divide.

Finally, an interesting aspect of closing the digital divide involves learning how to utilize cyberinfrastucture to its fullest potential. When we are able to fully understand and utilize the technology we have access to, we have the opportunity to work in global virtual teams across distance, time zones, and cultures. For inclusive sustainable development, this presents a wealth of opportunities from increased information on disabilities for diagnosis, treatment or coping, to increased collaboration among persons with disabilities as a stakeholder group, allowing for a more cohesive and beneficial representation at UN conferences and as a result, in official documents. As we continue to bridge the divide in a world where our lives are so closely intertwined with the digital, the possibilities are endless and exciting for development and beyond.

ICTs as a Tool for Accessibility

Out of the 1985 Maitland Report, the ITU identified the fundamental importance of ICTs, especially telephone access for social and development access for uses such as the need for bankers to assess credit, farmers to find the best price, and general back and forth communication. In the report, they called the lack of ICTs in developing countries the “missing link” for development. In framing the importance of ICTs in this manner, the report was troubling in that it saw the developed world as having it right without taking into account developing world-specific solutions, opening up the potential for leapfrogging or the skipping of important steps.

In response, NTIA’s Falling Through the Net document better outlined that people are falling through the net even in developed countries, looking at the US where huge discrepancies existed between rural and urban areas, old and young people, and based on education level, race, and ethnicity. The document outlined the key discrepancies while in response to the Maitland report noting that the developed world does not in fact have all of the answers.

Finally, in response, WSIS was convened organized by the ITU and convened by the UN first in 2003 and again in 2005 with the goal (and eventual results) of seeing less of a developed dominated process while still reinforcing that ICTs are critical to development. At WSIS + 10, ten years later, a significant amount of progress was identified regarding an increase in accessibility to telecommunications in development.

In tying ICTs to sustainable development, we don’t have to look far as there is a direct connection between WSIS, the SDGs, NUA, CRPD, and WSIS + 10, including an SDG matrix that outlines ICT related goals including a desire to make these conferences more accessible and making the internet more accessible for persons with disabilities. While there is still a long way to go for full inclusion of persons with disabilities, the opening of a conversation on how ICTs can be used for increased involvement such as through the use of screen readers on conference websites or opportunities for remote participation for those physically unable to navigate the conference space (for example by being unable to take a wheelchair and medical equipment on a plane), we see a crucial first step in bridging the inclusion and access gap with the help of ICTs.

Persons With Disabilities as a “Major Group”

In my blog post on the SDGs and HLPF, I mentioned that they claimed to be the most inclusive and interactive UN conference and explained why this was not in fact the truth as it heavily excluded persons with disabilities through the use of the major groups framework. As discouraging as that truth is, hope, opportunity and true inclusion arose from Habitat III and the development of the New Urban Agenda.

A “smart city” is defined, as a city that is sustainable and recognizes everyone’s equal right to it, meaning that a city should allow for equal access to all to enjoy the full benefits of the city such as through accessibility. While most UN documents would stop here, defining this statement alone as inclusion, the NUA takes it further, explicitly stating that with 15% of each country’s population living with a disability, a city should be fully accessible in order to be smart and sustainable. In a huge success for persons with disabilities, the NUA includes fifteen references to persons with disabilities including an entire standalone paragraph on their inclusion in cities.

In addition, the most important step the NUA takes for persons with disabilities is in introducing them as a “major group”, allowing for full participation in the monitoring and implantation of the NUA. “Major group” is in quotes because persons with disabilities were not named as a tenth group but still, introduced under the title “other stakeholders” allowing for their direct involvement along groups like the aging and elderly, another group making up a large population of the world and in need of representation. From this exciting and important inclusion, the Persons with Disabilities Partner Constituency Group (PWD-PCG) and the Disability Inclusive Development (DID) Collaboratory were formed as a platform for a network of stakeholders to organize for representation under the NUA.

With this exciting right to participation and a dramatic increase in access to the discussion through the extension of a metaphorical seat at the table comes the responsibility to organize and participate. While this can be overwhelming and difficult to do, the DID Collaboratory provides a crucial platform for doing so and even with the challenges, this increase in access, participation, and representation is what the disability community has long advocated for.

Above all else, the main takeaway from the NUA is the power of individual stakeholders coming together to represent true inclusion. With this inclusion, we are one step closer to achieving truly inclusive and as a result, sustainable development.


Visibility, Validation, Inclusion & Implementation

The overarching framework for inclusive education is SDG 4, the goal to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” by 2030. More specific to our continued commitment to education inclusive of persons with disabilities is Article 24 of the CRPD. Article 24 reads that “States parties recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to education” and outlines a set of standards for meeting this goal such as ensuring that students with disabilities are not separated from their peers on the basis of disability and that equal and inclusive education begins at the primary level continuing on for the rest of a person’s life whether through traditional or trade/skill-based education.

Signed and ratified by 168 countries, the CRPD is a significant success for the disability community, specifically in the area of education with regards to the clear and extensive rights extended by Article 24. However, in many countries, such as South Africa, which ratified the CRPD in 2007, where 70% of students with disabilities are out of school entirely, international agreement and legislation are just the first steps with a significant amount of work still needed to “make the right real.” There are three steps that are crucial to making the right real: visibility, validation, and inclusion/implementation. In South Africa, visibility made possible by organizations like Disabled People South Africa allowed for validation through the passing of the CRPD and The White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a national policy, validating the experiences of persons with disabilities and essentially validating the truth that persons with disabilities should and will be treated equally.

South Africa has stopped at the last and most difficult step of inclusion and implementation, allowing the rights outlined in official policy to translate to the everyday lives of persons with disabilities. In order to achieve equal education as promised by SDG 4 and the CRPD, Article 24, South Africa must outline a plan for implementation that includes persons with disabilities at the forefront of the process. A model for such implementation can be found in Finland, another signatory to the CRPD and a country with one of the most inclusive education systems in the world.

Similarly to South Africa’s White Paper, Finland passed the Basic Education Act, extending similar rights to education. In doing so, the Finnish government also outlined a plan for its implementation in collaboration with persons with disabilities, introducing required teacher trainings, building accessibility requirements, increasing funding to special resources, and most importantly, noting that public authorities must hold the school system accountable, creating regular checkups on these standards for inclusive education.

In developing a similar model of accountability, South Africa and governments like it who have yet to see true education inclusion, have the opportunity to see success through inclusion and implementation.

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.

Grand Challenges as an Invitation

Based on a series of definitions across UN documents, government statements, and proposals by organizations to solve them, Grand Challenges are best defined as “multidimensional, multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary longer-term problems without clear solutions.”

In name alone, Grand Challenges have the potential to feel overwhelming, like unsolvable problems that loom over us as a society but when we breakdown the meaning, there is potential for something so much more. While “grand” does signify something imposing in size, its definition also includes the word “magnificent.” “Challenge,” which feels like a synonym for problem is actually defined as ‘a call to take part or an invitation to engage in a contest.” In exploring these definitions, it becomes clear that we do not have to see the issues of our time as looming problems but rather, we can see them for what they are, an invitation to take part in a collaboration, in the solving of a difficult but magnificent challenge.

Grand Challenges frame ending Climate Change or finding a cure for the Zika Virus into an opportunity for collaboration on these puzzles across fields, groups, and differences. In exploring Grand Challenges of the past like the development of faster technology for connection among people or vaccines for illnesses like Polio, we are reminded of how achievable these goals are when viewed through this framework.

Even more exciting is the fact that we are seeing inclusion in these challenges at a rate faster than ever. Through the CRPD, we see a notable shift in development strategy, a pillar of Grand Challenge solutions, to take into account intersectionality. Under the umbrella of disability inclusive sustainable development, one of the biggest Grand Challenges is inclusion and implementation of rights granted through policy but not yet in practice.

Organizations across the world have come together to address this Challenge, again marking the value of multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder, multi-dimensional involvement and problem solving. One of the biggest answers to this specific Grand Challenge is the use of UN ESCAP’s Incheon Strategy out of the CRPD’s call to “make the right real.” Developed and advocated for by persons with and without disabilities for persons with disabilities, the Incheon strategy increases monitoring and reporting of rights at the regional level, allowing for policy and practice specific to the needs of the region. Through the collaboration promoted by the Grand Challenges framework, similar strategies can be adopted across the world in response to the need to “make the right real.”