Intersectionality in Sustainable Development

Intersectionality discusses the fact that different social identities and demographic groups cannot only be looked at in a vacuum; they are interconnected and will always be.  People identify with more than one demographic group, so when looking at how development is affecting certain groups we have to take these nuances into consideration to get a broader understanding of the situation.  Some demographics that are under examination when looking at development include race, gender, class, ethnicity, age, and more.  When looking at the interactions of multiple demographics within an individual or group, there are different outcomes and implications then if we were to only look at one.  For example, a disabled woman will face different challenges than a disabled child.  A disabled child may be excluded from receiving an education, and a disabled woman may not be able to access adequate prenatal care.

The Grand Challenges show us that participants from all these different groups need to be involved in development to help paint a more detailed picture of what the problems are, and how they can best be solved.  Stakeholder groups in international development 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 are the nine groups that the UN outlines in the Sustainable Development Goals, although there are many others.  Since the goals were redesigned, there has been a larger focus on paying mind to intersectionality among different stakeholder groups, and in making sure development practitioners have the opportunity to hear from many different viewpoints on what problems should be addressed.

The conceptual basis for my final capstone project on sustainable urban transport in São Paulo had a lot to do with the concept of intersectionality in development.  The recommendations I made came from multiple angles, and did not simply suggest the government expand transportation networks.  Since the issue affected urban residents in many different ways, I made recommendations that would also indirectly fix the problems seen in the city to fill in the gaps where simply building more public transit wouldn’t fix the issue.

Inclusive Education

Inclusive education is another grand challenge international development practitioners have grappled with for a long time, and universal primary education is one of the top concerns or goals to achieve for the Sustainable Development Goals.  When talking about inclusive education, a main problem we see is students with disabilities being excluded from the classroom environment.  There are many different reasons behind this. Oftentimes, people say they will promote disability-inclusive education, but it is much more difficult to do in practice, and much less common.

This can be for cultural reasons.  In many countries, students with mental or physical disabilities are stigmatized for their condition.  This certainly happens in the United States, but we have stronger protections in place for ensuring that students of different backgrounds and abilities are included, relatively speaking.  The cultural stigma of someone having a disability will lead schools to say they cannot have that student in the classroom.

Another cause behind this problem is the extremely daunting financial and professional burden of ensuring that every student, regardless of level of ability, has a seat at the table of education.  It can be extremely costly to get professionals who are trained in working with students with disabilities, and to purchase appropriate equipment and tools that may be needed for a disabled student to have the same level of success as a student who does not have a disability.  It can also be costly, for example, to make an educational facility accessible to a student with a physical disability.  These may mean building wheelchair ramps or installing elevators, which many schools to not have the funds to put in.

As previously discussed, the Millennial Development Goals did not mention these issues enough, but the CRPD has been working hard to increase the rights of people with disabilities.  The cultural stigma is tough to combat if it is so deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of a country, but the CRPD and the new SDGs recognize the need to combat the issue from a cultural standpoint and a financial one.  Students with physical and mental disabilities have unique problems, and the tactics used also need to be tailored to the country of operation due to cultural reasons.  That way, the outcome can be as effective as possible.

Inclusive Cities, Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda

The United Nations had their conference on housing and sustainable urban development in Quito this October, which had the aim of discussing how to improve urban development in cities around the world.  The New Urban Agenda outlines the next steps with which to tackle the Grand Challenge of sustainable urban development.  This is an extremely important issue, especially when we consider the number of people that are moving from rural to urban areas every year.  Urban areas are exploding in size, and it is crucial that we properly manage them.  IF poorly managed, these urban centers could have detrimental effects on society and on the environment.  Managing this growth is so important, and in fact, by the year 2050, the number of people living in urban areas will double.

Urban development affects every aspect of a person’s daily life, from education to health care, economy, food security, and sanitation, just to name a few.  The ideas laid out in this Urban Agenda have a lot to do with my own capstone project, which was about sustainable urban transport in São Paulo, Brazil.  Public transportation is one of the main challenges that hose focusing on improving urban sustainability focus on.  That’s mainly because public transportation is in many ways the backbone of an urban center, and is what allows a city to develop and thrive.  Half the battle of development is providing access to the different centers of urban activity, like schools, the workplace, hospitals, and more.  Without access to these places, or with poor urban transport infrastructure where commutes to these places can take hours, one cannot live a sustainable and healthy lifestyle, and more importantly, it makes it more difficult for everyone to contribute their skills and talents to the development of the city.

There are many different ways to improve urban transport, whether that be through actual construction of more public transportation networks, or through restructuring new urban development around pre-existing transit stations to increase accessibility (especially for the urban poor, who are the most often excluded from urban activity.)

Multistakeholder Global Governance

Internet governance is a sticky issue, because it is used in every corner of the world and not directly controlled by any one specific entity.  The internet is a public good where information is freely shared.  While the internet was invented in the United States and originally began as a research project done by our military, it has spread to be used worldwide.

In 2005, the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) created the concept of internet governance.  Since almost everyone is affected by these decisions, WSIS took a multistakeholder approach to their internet governance and encouraged all to be involved.  Some stakeholders in decisions that are made about the internet include individuals, schools, businesses, and many others.

The Internet Governance Forum was created to be an outlet for voices and opinions of stakeholders to be heard, and for informed decisions to be made.  While governing a free-flow of information is a daunting task, creating this outlet for input from many different groups has helped the situation.

Another important group is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  This group’s main goal is more administrative in nature, and a common critique with the group is there isn’t a strong enough focus there on international development through the internet.  However, their main objective is the run the technical side of the web, and do things like assign domain names.

In my opinion, having multiple organized groups that administer the internet and monitor its usage allows everyone to benefit, because each of the groups keeps the others accountable for their actions and keeps everyone’s needs in mind.

Digital Divides

The digital divide problem strongly relates to last week’s topic regarding rapid communication technologies.  It is a problem we see mainly in poor rural areas and economically depressed inner cities.  The digital divide refers to the gap in access to communication technologies and the internet, and this is a problem many development practitioners and multinational organizations have had to deal with.  This is because it’s been widely accepted that, for development to occur, this gap needs to close.

Many argue that the world got along just fine before the digital age.  This may be true, but we have now reached an era where these modern technologies have become seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our lives, and that fact simply cannot be ignored.  People can now finish tasks and achieve goals so much more rapidly, and the exchange of knowledge taking place over these systems is beneficial to many.  That being said, much of the world is being left out of these processes that enhance quality of life since they don’t have access.

It is important to look at the digital divide as a whole, but also through the lens of the different demographics being excluded.  As discussed in other weeks of the class, recognizing the intersectionality of different demographics in development speeds up the process.  We see gaps in the digital divide between different minorities, and also based on gender and economic status, for example.  A lot of people overlook the fact or simply don’t know about how large the digital divide actually is, but we have entered an era where these types of technologies are almost needed to survive.

One of the biggest challenges to getting access for everyone, especially in rural areas, is devising ways to put in the needed infrastructure for such technologies to be usable in the first place.  Many of these areas don’t have electricity, fiberoptic cables, computers, or even roads for deliveries.  There are many things we take for granted and don’t even think about that make access nearly impossible in many excluded areas, so work on this needs to be done from the ground up.

ICTs and Sustainable Development

Communication technology is a crucial part, especially in this day and age, of successful development.  This has been demonstrated by documents like the Maitland Commission Report called the “Missing Link” that we read in class, as well as the WSIS+10 outcome document.  We’ve reached a point in society where communication technology is needed to function and participate in almost every aspect of life.  It has the ability to speed up and make more efficient every task we do from day to day, and contributes to quicker development.

The report called “The Missing Link” highlights the gap we see between certain demographics to rapid communication technology.  We commonly see disparities in access to this technology between the rich and the poor, urban and rural residents, and young or old people.  To give a sense of how big the gap really is, it is estimated that 75% of the world’s telephones are concentrated in only nine countries.

The poor and disadvantaged are excluding from contributing to development when they don’t have access to these technologies since they stimulate many social and economic activities in life.  The exchange of knowledge is a powerful tool.  An example we discussed in class was that a farmer without access to communication technology may fall behind on the latest farming methods or technologies.  They could also fall behind by being unaware of what the market prices for certain crops are, and that could result in earning less than they deserve.

Computer access specifically can help people by bringing to them information about job postings, or community resources they may have been previously unaware of.

The idea of knowledge sharing through this technology can specifically relate to my capstone on sustainable and reliable urban transportation.  As we know, adequate public transportation is required to live a sustainable and healthy lifestyle, and allows more people to contribute their talents to the development of society.  In developed cities, residents can use smartphone applications to get live updates on public transit arrivals and plan their commutes to work and school.  Those in underdeveloped cities or countries without access to these services may be left out of the equation, and will cause difficulties in securing a job or doing well in school, for example.

The WSIS+10 document explains that institutional changes will have to be made to fix this problem, like providing cheaper technology or installing infrastructure to allow the technology to be used.

Efficacy of Global Frameworks

The global frameworks that we have, like Millennial Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, represent ways to see the “grand challenges” the world is currently facing.  The Millennial Development Goals made significant progress since 2000, but there was still a lot of disproportionate growth and improvement worldwide.  There was a lot of disparity in wealth, for example, when comparing rural and urban areas.

The Millennial Development Goals were wide in scope and did cover lots of different problems that needed to be tackled, however the indicators of progress and plans to continue forward were not specific enough.  There wasn’t a reliable method of measurement laid out, and were less comprehensive than the SDGs since they did not have specific action plans for each step in the process.  Another issue with the MDGs was the inability to get a good picture of the progress made after 15 years, since there was strong enough measuring and recording of the starting point in 2000.  They didn’t have much to compare to at the end of that timespan to see how far they had really gotten.  While some thought the goals provided a nice framework for the world to come together and see a concrete way to fix these problems, others said there were too many sectors of development covered and that many would be spread too thin.

Another big critique of the Millennial Development Goals is that there was hardly any mention of what the plan was to include persons with disabilities.  15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, and when all those people are left out of the development conversation and unable to contribute their talents, everyone is at a loss.  The SDGs have paid much more attention to this problem, and the next step is also to focus more on the intersectionalities involved in development problems.  For example, women with disabilities will be affected differently by certain situations then children with disabilities.

The SDGs added a lot more goals and are much more comprehensive which is a huge positive, however the critics who said the MDGs were focused on too many different things at once certainly still remain.

Development Theory

Development theory is a difficult subject, because it is oftentimes purely subjective.  It is a concept that’s difficult to define, in terms of what it is and where we draw the line of whether a country is developed or underdeveloped.  Furthermore, the question of who gets the authority to make these decisions arises.

There are a lot of academic voices in this field, one being Amartya Sen.  His piece called “Development as Freedom,” is one of the most well-known development theories.  He explains that human rights and freedoms go hand in hand in the process of developing a country, and that freedoms are needed before any development will occur.  His theories were considered controversial, because before Sen most development practitioners pushed the idea that economic stimulation was the right way to go about development.  According to Sen, creating personal and human freedoms paves the way for development to thrive.  More specifically, he says for development to happen we need to provide social and economic freedoms, and political and civil rights.  In underdeveloped countries, missing freedoms that we see affecting the development process may include lack of representation in government for multiple voices to be heard, or lack of access to health care and education, for example.  Furthermore, since all freedoms are generally interconnected, people must have the rights to basic freedoms if they also hope to gain civil and political rights like the aforementioned examples of health and education.  A strong interconnected web of such freedoms can build each other up.

Sen argues that democratic governments speed up development because more voices are heard, so decisions are better informed and serve society in a more efficient and positive way.  I believe Sen’s definition would be appreciated by the UN, especially in the current context of pushing for multistakeholderism and focusing on the intersectionality of development. Traditionally, development levels were measured by per capita income.  The reason to look at many intersecting factors is because, while a family may earn more than the poverty line, the infrastructure someone is surrounded by that they use to access society may be lacking, which is half the battle of development.

Grand Challenges

The UN Grand Challenges are defined as “technically complex problems that have stubbornly defied solution.”  These challenges are large, complicated issues that have been plaguing society for years, and take an enormous amount of effort to begin to solve.  The needed solutions are often interdisciplinary in nature, and require not only strong effort, but collaboration from many different stakeholder groups.

While different organizations have different definitions, the general consensus is that problems like providing clean water, increasing literacy rates, finding cures to cancer, solving hunger, and solving AIDS comprise some of the world’s “Grand Challenges.”  Many agree that these goals are ambitious, but are achievable after a lot of collaboration.

Development practitioners have come to the consensus solving these problems will require non-traditional actors to step in, including people from the fields of science and technology, since the problems are so complex in nature.  In my opinion, this approach has fostered communication between many different stakeholders and fostered innovation, leading to discoveries that may not have been previously made.

Branscomb explains this idea using cancer research as an example.  He says this disease is a long-term and pervasive issue, and through slowly chipping away at the problem from different angles they have made discoveries and improvements in multiple sectors, such as genetics, surgeries, and more.  He says if the research done were narrower and focused in scope, and did not look at the problem from a holistic standpoint, progress may have been slower.

The UN is one of the most important stakeholders that has contributed to work on the Grand Challenges.  They drafted the Millennial Development Goals in 2000, which include: eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/aids, Malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.

A huge improvement made since then in working on such Grand Challenges was learning to include persons with disabilities.  Around 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, and the MDGs hardly addressed that problem.  The 2015 SGDs are much more inclusive, and have worked to give everybody a seat at the table of development in the hopes of speeding up the process.