Intersectionality in Sustainable Development

Coined by American civil rights activist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, in 1989, intersectionality is defined as the study of overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. According to this intersectional theory, all biological, social, and cultural categories interact on multiple levels and come together to shape how a person experiences oppression. Therefore we can use this framework to better understand how systemic injustice and social inequality occur on a multidimensional basis. Having a good grasp on the issue of intersectionality is crucial for international development because as the international community looks to address distinct problem areas they need to be able to understand how different social identities affect project outcomes and how their projects need to be structured in such a way that they take into account issues of intersectionality to avoid narrow thinking. When the complexity of this issue is not taken into account, the solutions tend to be temporary because they are not made to adapt to the intersecting systems and therefore they are short lasting.

All of the SDGs are affected by intersectionality. In fact, there is truly no issue in today’s world that is not. However, one clear example is SDG 4 that looks at quality education. Usually, in the field of development the goal is to increase enrollment. However, in order to do so and in order for the education to be effective once all children are attending, the different groups such as girls, minorities and persons with disabilities need to be included and accounted for. If this is not the case, then the successful increase in enrollment will not be as impactful or effective if certain groups are being excluded from the benefits. Currently, the issue of education for PWDs is being more actively addressed and it has been recognized internationally that schools need to be able to accommodate all because education is a basic right of every child including those with disabilities (UNICEF). Ensuring that girls are being given the opportunity to attend school is also an issue that in recent years has received increased attention. Yet improvement can still be made when it comes to combining such efforts. Directing projects specifically at these groups is important because they have been ignored for such a large part of history. However, we need to step away from simply fixing our neglection mistakes of the past and take the next step forward. We need to combine our efforts by recognizing how all the different issue areas interrelate and impact one another.

Given the direction in which international development efforts are moving, it appears as though more conscious efforts will be made to address intersectionality. Increasingly, marginalized groups are highlighting the importance of joining efforts. With little time to waste, it is crucial that intersectionality be addressed and implemented into development projects, and the international community is definitely realizing this and coming onboard with it. 

Efficacy of Global Frameworks

Introduced in 2000, the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) committed the world to reducing extreme poverty and its many dimensions by the year 2015. In the span of 15 years, significant progress has been made on all of the eight goals, but at times disproportionately. According to the Millennial Project, “there are huge disparities across and within countries” with rural areas still experiencing much of the brunt of poverty although urban poverty is also extensive. The MDGs were in part a successful step towards bringing the world together to focus on necessary development targets but they received criticisms in certain regards both in terms of conception and design. To begin with, a conceptual problem was the fact that each goal specifies a required outcome while not laying out a plan of action for the process that will help achieve the desired results (Reading week 1). Furthermore, another conceptual issue was that in the goals there is no reference to the initial conditions of each target, so that made difficult the ultimate analysis to measure their success (Reading Week 1). In terms of design, the MDGs have 8 goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators, creating a multiplicity of objectives that complicated the completion of objectives (Reading Week 1). Despite these complications, the biggest issue with the MDGs is that they did not include people with disabilities. Given that about 15% of the world population has disabilities, that is a significant portion of the population that is missing out entirely from any type of help.

Although the MDGs had several weaknesses, they led the way for better, more focused goals. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect in January 2016 to replace the MDGs and advance where they fell short. There are 17 SDGs but there is also a larger agenda that focuses on people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership, just just poverty. Furthermore, a big improvement and step forward in development is the fact that there are 11 references to people with disabilities in the SDGs. Although it is still too soon to make any concrete analysis of the SDGs, it is already quite noticeable that they will be much more inclusive and that more portions of the population will greatly benefit from them.

Besides the SDGs, many international frameworks in the field of development are increasingly looking to ensure that Persons With Disabilities (PWD) are actively included. For example, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), is an international treaty that requires parties to the convention to promote, protect, and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities to enjoy full equality under the law. With this as a basis, several other international frameworks are addressing the issue and including disadvantaged groups into their official language. The future of development is looking promising. The frameworks being created appear more and more likely to follow through on their commitments and disadvantaged groups are becoming more included. Although there is a lot of work to be done, there is much progress being made that looks very promising.

Inclusive Education

Inclusive development looks at ensuring that all groups in society, everyone that is affected, are included in the development processes and programs. In a similar way, inclusive education is focused on the right of education for all children including those that are sometimes left out or marginalized, for example children with disabilities. As the UNICEF document on Inclusive Education Initiatives states, it is the responsibility of all schools to be able to accommodate any and all students. Whether it is one single student or a group of students that need special attention or different physical accommodations, these things cannot be denied. Schools cannot turn students away and they cannot actively neglect someone an education simply because they do not have the necessary resources or do not want to invest the extra time and money into helping these individuals be able to actively participate in their education. While this idea of inclusive education is becoming very widespread, still many educational institutions are not accessible to all and some even actively ignore their responsibility to do so. What makes inclusive education initiatives so challenging is that they require the successful implementation of various elements such as, strong political and government commitment, awareness at all levels of the rights of children with disabilities, awareness of the benefits of inclusive education for all students, pre-service and in-service teacher training, whole school approach with specialist support, constant advocacy for the full employment of disabled children’s rights and needs, and a couple more crucial elements (UNICEF). These elements have to be implemented together in order for the necessary impact to be made and for concrete change to occur.

Some countries more than others have made significant progress towards achieving inclusive education, but several successful initiatives have been driven by motivated individuals with disabilities that choose to fight for their rights and bring awareness to the issue. For example, there is the university student in Brunei who stressed the importance of self-advocacy and fought to get the necessary resources established in the university to ensure that he was able to successfully complete his studies. Setbacks and shortcomings can lead to frustration and feelings of isolation for students with disabilities who are unable to keep up with their studies due to all the barriers they face. The student mentions the importance of learning to overcome that frustration but others should also take it upon themselves to help prevent that frustration. That is why it is so important that university or school staff, teachers, and peers work together to help other students fit in and maneuver the system, so that not all the weight of the problem is placed solely on the student with disabilities.

As schools work to create inclusive educational environments in today’s modern world, the ICTs are increasingly becoming key players towards this goal. With the incredibly sophisticate technologies that we have today, there is much that can be done technologically to ensure that education is made available to all. That is why we now have the Model Policy for Inclusive ICTs in Education for PWDs that focuses on finding ways to use ICTs to support the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of PWDs. In order to guarantee that all students have the same opportunities and access, technology will have to play a role. While it is not the sole solution, it is an important one for many aspects of inclusive education.

Multistakeholder Internet Governance

The issue of Internet governance in today’s hyper globalized world is quiet complex due to the fact that as an entity, the Internet is not technically owned by anyone. This lack of concrete ownership complicates the organization of oversight and regulatory management. Starting as a military research project, the Internet has grown at incredible speeds and spread across the entire world. All corners of the world have been touched by the Internet and in fact, almost everything in one way or another now depends on the Internet, whether it be businesses, schools, governments, or individuals. With so many individuals and organizations dependent on the Internet and with only parts of the Internet being owned, the best approach to Internet governance is through a multistakeholder approach in which decision-making is accountable, sustainable, and effective (Internet Governance (IG) – reading). However, the multistakeholder approach cannot be seen as the single solution but rather as a toolbox in which a source that has been developed and maintained by many actors can by governed by an open, distributed and interconnected governance force (IG – reading). Due to the Internet being transnational in scope, the multistakeholder governance attributes such as inclusiveness and transparency, collective responsibility, and effective decision-making and implementation are crucial and it is why it is important to ensure the survival of a multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.

Since there is no global government in place, there are a couple of multistakeholder platforms that help maintain an open dialogue around the key issues in Internet governance. First off there is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which brings people together and facilitates the discussion around public policy issues relating to the Internet. Although it does not create a concrete negotiated outcome, its importance lies in informing and inspiring those that do have policy-making power both in the private and public sector. Meetings for the IGF are held annually and all of their sessions are live streamed allowing as many people as are interested to join in. Another important global body is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Its main function is to coordinate the maintenance and procedures of databases related to the namespaces of the Internet. Ultimately, ICANN performs more of the technical maintenance work of the central Internet address pools by authorizing domain name sales and handling registrations. The main critique of ICANN is that it does not do enough for development, but that is not really its focus.

As most things, if not all things, Internet governance is far from perfect. However, as with other topics in development, there is the concern that the global North is too involved in the process and doing as it pleases without concern for the rest of the world. In the summer of 2013, after the Snowden revelations, ex Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff accused the U.S. of breaking international law. The outcome of this was the NETmundial meeting that focused on the elaboration of principles of Internet governance and the proposal for a roadmap for the future development of this ecosystem (NETmundial). Apart from being a very open and transparent process, NETmundial was important also for the fact that it was hosted and organized by the global South. Although the meeting was successful, the follow up NETmundial initiative was said to be hijacked by the north. Therefore, this concern will continue to be at the forefront. However, what is important is that we as a world community continue to participate in and respect the importance of the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.

Digital Divide(s)

In today’s world, success is strongly correlated to Internet access. It is extremely unfortunate, but without technology and an online presence, there is very little anyone can do to get ahead. If everyone is to have access to the same opportunities in life, that automatically requires that everyone have access to a computer and an Internet connection. The importance of technology’s role keeps increasing daily and at incredible speeds. If a country or if individuals cannot keep up, they are left behind in a blink of an eye.

Although it appears at first glance that the majority of the world, or even the majority of the United States, has access to the net, this is not true. There is in fact a fairly large divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (Irving). Despite the social advancements that have been made, the groups of society that tend to lack access are still for the most part minority and disadvantaged groups based on age, education, location, race and gender. While not immediately visible in all contexts, this gap or divide is quite large. One of the main obstacles to achieving access is the lack of proper infrastructure to deliver the services. Having access depends on many different factors that have to come together. It is in this area that the link between the SDGs and WSIS is key in ensuring that these physical factors are provided to those parts of the world and groups in society that lack the basic infrastructure to access the various technologies necessary to succeed in today’s world.

As connectivity and penetration increases and access becomes more widespread, the issue then becomes one of how much access do you have? Is it fast? Is it wireless? Basic access is no longer enough (Falling Through the Net #3). In order to be able to achieve even the things that are considered “basic” it requires one to have the latest technology. Therefore, we need to build awareness on why access is important and we need to encourage the build out of broadband networks to all. Unfortunately, even though in recent a year the disparity has shrunken between groups and the access to computers and Internet has grown quickly, another problem exists and that is that the groups that were already connected are now even more connected. Therefore, although the size of the gap may have shrunken, the divide is deeper in a sense and those left behind are even farther behind now.

Beyond this issue of access and connectivity, is the problem of content on the web. Once people have access to the Internet, are they able to access the information they want? Is there a variety published or is all the content controlled by one entity or region of the world? The MacBride Commission Report touches upon this problem. In recent years it has been brought to attention the fact that the global north controls much of the access to images and media production, and that most of the information online is heavily influenced by the more developed countries. This should not be the case. Each country, each group, should have the ability to create and publish images and information about themselves. Information should not be consolidated and created by the hands of few. As we advance and more people gain access, this is another issue we have to tackle to ensure that proper access in ensured.

ICTs and Sustainable Development

The fast pace growth of information and communications technology has allowed the world to advance at rapid speeds, yet at the same time, those left behind are quickly falling behind and suffering the consequences. This phenomenon is known today as the “digital divide” and it was first internationally recognized when the Mainland Report was published in 1985. The report highlights the huge imbalance in telephone access between the developed and developing countries and makes it clear that this imbalance is intolerable for the healthy sustainable development of our world (Mainland Report). This telephone imbalance has expanded to include cellphones, computers, the Internet, etc., and with the increasing dependence on these technologies, it is crucial that this imbalance be corrected.

As we analyze the imbalance, whether at an international level or here in the U.S., certain areas and groups of the population are always disproportionately affected. Patterns show that rural areas, communities of minority groups and areas with low economic activity suffer from lack of access to ICTs that other parts enjoy and depend on to thrive (Falling Through The Net). This lack of access further isolates these communities and inhibits people from making the proper decisions because they have inadequate information with which to make their choices (Class Lecture). With the example of the more developed countries, it is easier for those trying to catch up to follow the leapfrog model of development, yet this does not mean that it is in anyway easier to help those left behind catch up. Cutting down the access gap and improving the penetration of ICTs has been a prominent issue in development as of recently and certain international agreements have been made to help work towards this goal. Out of the World Summit on Information Society, convened by the UN, came the Geneva Declaration of Principles that declares a commitment to building a more people-centered, inclusive and development oriented information society where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals and communities to achieve their full potential and promote their sustainable development and quality of life (Geneva Declaration of Principles). Many steps have been taken by the international community to not only improve access but also to harness that access and use it to promote sustainable development goals. Linking these two is crucial for the future.

However, there are many challenges that impede the proper implementation of this plan. One of the clearest obstacles is access to electricity because without proper access to this amenity first, it is impossible to provide access to ICTs. However, there are other challenges that are less obvious and more intricate. One of these deals with indigenous communities and ICTs. While on the one hand it is important to include these communities into the global net, on the other hand, it is important to respect their traditions and land and not forcefully make them change in order to fit into our modern world. This is a highly sensitive and debated topic that must be addressed as we work towards creating a highly connected technological world.

Habitat III


Not only is our world population growing at an exponential rate, but patterns also show that the population is concentrating along coasts and in cities. A report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that by 2050, 66% of the world population will be living in urban areas.

As seen throughout history, the process of urbanization is usually associated with positive social and economic transformations. Cities are the heart of economic activity, its inhabitants have greater access to social services, citizens are much more culturally and politically involved and health and literacy tend to be much better. However, these positive outcomes require effective city management with proper policy implementation and the necessary infrastructure to support them. Without some sort of organized control, rapid unplanned urban growth can be dangerous for sustainable development. Issues stemming from uncontrolled and almost hectic growth include things such as pollution, rapid environmental degradation and unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Yet, with proper oversight, organized urban growth is the key to sustainable inclusive development.

In November, Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito will be held for world leaders to come together and agree upon a plan to move forward with urban development in a way that is sustainable and ensures that all parts of society have equal access to all parts of the city (Class Lectue). Habitat III is committed to “strengthening the coordination role of national, sub-national and local government’s” in order to fulfill their vision for urban settlements (Habitat III). Such settlements are meant to be participatory, fulfill social functions, achieve gender equality, promote age responsive planning, adopt and implement disaster risk reduction, eradicate poverty and protect, conserve, restore and promote their ecosystems (Habitat III). While all these goals are incredible, what is left to be seen is how successful the international community will be at producing the desired and intended results. In the past, most issues with global frameworks have always been encountered at the oversight and implementation stage primarily but it appears that increasingly various actors are finding better ways to be productive and work together toward the common goals. So personally, I am more confident that this time around the results of the conference will be much more concrete and effective.

While trying to achieve the established goals, it is important to observe the side effects that some seemingly successful projects might have. For example, when it comes to creating more inclusive cities and reducing poverty, some of the eradication efforts to eliminate the presence of slums in major cities cause more disruption than anything else (ADB). The two common eradication methods are complete demolition and resettlement or upgrading existing slums. Resettlement most often creates more problems for the individuals being uprooted despite the fact that their physical living environment might improve, simply because individuals are taken away from their familiar surroundings and their jobs. By moving them, many people are relocated without jobs and they feel more helpless because they are now living in a completely unfamiliar environment. Upgrading can be more successful, but also depending on the level of improvement of the individual slums, the cost of living in these communities increases to the point that its original inhabitants can no longer afford to the live there and are indirectly forced out of their homes. Therefore, it is crucial that projects be implemented with these negative externalities in mind and that local communities contribute to the betterment of their surroundings so as to avoid a narrow, one-sided approach.

The goals that Habitat III lays out are exciting and it will be interesting to follow how the world responds to them and works towards achieving them.

SDGs and the HLPF

Although much progress was made by the MDGs in terms of reducing poverty, with their expiration in 2015, the SDGs were adopted with a much more ambitious agenda. Not only do they look to end poverty rather than just reduce it, but they also make it a point to specifically advance where the MDGs fell short (Class Lecture). Another strong point of the SDGs is that they are much more detailed and focused which makes it easier to plan and oversee their implementation. With clear targets and indicators in place, oversight will be much more effective since there will be little confusion in regards to the goals and how they must be measured. However, one of the most important features of this new vision for the world we want is the fact that in the SDGs unlike in the MDGs, people with disabilities are specifically referenced eleven times within the document and a couple of the goals are explicitly relevant to their needs. Nevertheless, while this is a victory for the disabled community, it is only the first step towards the ultimate goal of having people with disabilities mentioned and included in everything else moving forward. The small victory is good for now, but it is not enough. In order for our world to develop in the way it should be at this point in time, more attention needs to be directed towards ensuring that people with disabilities are included into every aspect of life, because despite this advancement, traditional stereotypes of people with disabilities still consciously and unconsciously exist and in turn affect their wellbeing (Rimmerman).

As with all goals that are put in place, the critical part is implementation and the overseeing of that process. The unit in charge of overseeing the implementation of the SDGs is the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). However, there is one major issue with the forum and that is the barriers it has to inclusion despite claiming to be the “most inclusive and participatory forum at the UN”. At least the major groups were finally expanded to include PWDs, which is a major victory but again not enough. Nevertheless, it is great to see the progress that is being made to include and acknowledge people with disabilities. Although it might be slow, it is moving in the right direction and that is all we can ask for.

Development Theory

Development is one of those international relations topics that can be viewed through a variety of lenses. Ultimately, development looks at change in the human condition, but this change can be observed, measured and explained in multiple ways (Sumner, Andrew, and Michael Tribe A. “What Is Development”). Some attempts at explaining the gap between developing and developed countries include the geography, culture and ignorance hypotheses, but these proposed explanations do not have much support and in general do not show a concrete connection to the problem (Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson A. “Theories That Don’t Work”). The most common view that most people tend to gravitate to when they hear the term development is the economic perspective of development. Under this approach, a country is seen as developed or not based on their economic and infrastructure capabilities. While this view has its merits and serves as a reasonable model for looking at development levels of countries, it leaves out a whole other set of factors that play a crucial road. Money alone does not determine or assure that a country is properly developed. Brazil, while not an extreme example, suffers from major economic inequality. The country itself is not poor, but the wealth of the nation is highly concentrated in the upper 1% of the population. Therefore, the majority of the country is still underdeveloped compared to the small pockets of success and the majority of the population does not have access to the resources and services of a developed country. So, is Brazil truly developed beyond just the economic perspective?

Others have noticed this gap in the economic view of development and among them is economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who has truly re-conceptualized how we look at development and has taken a more holistic approach beyond just GDP. Amartya Sen’s work focuses on the quality of life of people and their substantive freedoms, because the way he see’s it, there are many limits to the material world (Sen, “The Perspective of Freedom”). Development as freedom is a capabilities approach that tries to ensure people have the freedom to make any choice and more importantly have access to these choices. This approach has gained a lot of momentum in the development field and it looks promising for the future. Personally, I used to tend to focus more on development as making sure societies had the necessary resources, but with time and especially after reading Amartya Sen’s work, I have grown to see how crucial it is that the sources also be equally accessible to everyone because that is the only way true development will take place.

One last thing I came across in the readings, which I have never put much thought into, is the issue of “over-development” (Sumner, Andrew, and Michael Tribe A. “What Is Development”). One always thinks of development as a positive thing, but it does not often cross people’s minds that too much of a good thing can be bad. I think now more than ever we are feeling the effects of over-development. Things such as obesity, terrorism and pandemics are very real challenges that are posing many issues to society. It is interesting to observe how today not only development is a focus but that now we have to also learn to handle issues of too much development, or at least find ways to counteract the problems that might arise from developing too quickly.

Grand Challenges

Society’s grand challenges are not a new phenomenon. They have always existed, but they have greatly evolved with time. Although the term “Grand Challenges” might seem daunting, it is important to remember that while these challenges are ambitious, at the same time they are also achievable (Tom Kalil). Thinking about the main issues that these challenges encompass, it can be hard to believe at times that these challenges will in fact be overcome. While things such as clean, affordable, reliable energy sources, high quality jobs and a cure for cancer, do not seem to be so out of reach they have stubbornly defied solution for quite sometime now (L. Branscomb). The key to making sure that these goals are achieved lie in the way we define them and measure our progress towards those ends. As White House’s Thomas Kalil states, it is critical that these challenges have measurable targets and a timeline for completion as well as a definition that is not too narrow.

When reading and thinking about these issues that humanity faces, the common belief seems to be that science is the solution. While I do not necessarily disagree, because ultimately I do believe science is going to be the thing that allows us to keep living our comfortable lifestyles while at the same time improving the world for all individuals, I believe science and education as a whole have to be done and taught from a different approach in order for more creativity and alternative thinking to enter the world of science. Mr. Branscomb argues that policy-promoting science needs to be more focused than just research and more creative than applied research, but I think it goes far beyond that. I believe our current education system is rather rigid and stiff and I do not think that it is conducive to the type of creative thinking we are going to need to overcome these challenges. I have faith that people will come together to find solutions and that furthermore they will be properly incentivized to do so, but I am worried that the solutions will not be as creative and innovative as we need them to be.

One last observation from this previous week’s discussion that left me rather disappointed was the fact that the MDGs did not include people with disabilities. Personally I was completely unaware of this, but given the fact that so many people live with disabilities, I cannot understand how they were “forgotten” by the entire international community. There might be more obstacles to achieving the set goals for the entire population but that is no excuse for entirely leaving them out. Just cause something is harder to achieve it does not mean you avoid it. I hope with time all of the SDGs will mention people with disabilities and that there will be major efforts to include them in all development projects.