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.
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.