Grand Challenges

To build upon what other classmates have pointed out, when we talk about Grand Challenges we are referring to goals that are ambitious to say the least. Louis Branscomb defines them as “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (Branscomb). Multidimensional, complex, and cross-cutting are all accurate ways in which other classmates have defined these challenges. Moreover, when we hear the word “challenge” in our academic setting, our automatic response is to focus on solutions. In the case of the global Grand Challenges, the innovations that result from brainstorming possible solutions also deserve recognition – even if the concrete answers haven’t been discovered. The White House highlights on their “21st Century Grand Challenges” webpage the caliber of science, technology, and innovation that are required to brainstorm solutions and “capture the public’s imagination.” This is one example of how Grand Challenges have acted as a catalyst for innovative ideas.

In an effort to overcome the challenges that face the globe, humanity has expanded our frontiers of knowledge. We have also been forced to collaborate with sectors of the population that do not always see eye-to-eye. Branscomb emphasizes the importance of intellectual curiosity in developing new ideas – and the Grand Challenges are often discussed as a framework to inspire innovation rather than issues to be resolved by a specific date. The MDGs and SDGs provide a perfect example of how the international community approaches Grand Challenges. The MDGs were the first step towards goals such as eradicating poverty and promoting environmental sustainability. However, there were details lacking in this framework. The SDGs serve as the replacement and have included a wealth of information that was lacking in the MDGs. This demonstrates how the development literature adapts over time in order to become more inclusive and to overcome some of the issues brought up within the Grand Challenges discourse. The intellectual environment that is created by the Grand Challenges allows for quicker, more effective ideas to develop over time.

The cornerstone of developing ideas that will help us overcome Grand Challenges is the marriage of science and policy. Public policies that steers scientific innovation in the direction of helping society overcome certain challenges is crucial to making progress overcoming any of the Grand Challenges. What is more, there are stakeholders beyond the government and the scientists that can benefit from the conversation in overcoming grand challenges. Therefore, both international multistakeholder cooperation and technological innovation are both necessary if the global society is to overcome the Grand Challenges.

Efficacy of Global Frameworks

We have discussed a number of documents, conventions, and agendas in class that makeup the international framework. The MDGs, the SDGs, the CRPD, and the New Urban Agenda are all examples of international commitments that frame the direction in which the international community wants certain interest areas to take. Ideally, this framework should act as a guide to implementation. The combination of all of these documents, especially areas in which they intersect, are meant to direct individual countries toward policies that will help to meet the goals established by the international agenda. This is why signing and ratifying international documents is so important – completing these actions is a gesture of the individual countries’ leadership demonstrating to the international community that they will try to incorporate provisions of the international document in their respective domestic policy.

That being said, one of the common critiques of the international development framework is that it ignores context and promotes a one-size-fits-all approach. This is one of the many critiques of the MDGs that Deepak Nayyar points out in his article, “The MDGs after 2015: Some Reflections on the Possibilities.” It is easy to understand why a critique like this is made upon first reading the MDGs – the eight goals are broad and lack specificity. However, development is not a static process. In the ever-evolving world, we become more aware of development challenges and we collectively welcome more and better solutions to overcoming them. What is more, the MDGs were simple, but this provided for each country to decide for themselves the best way to implement them. In this way I argue against the critique that the global framework for development lacks context. Quite the opposite – the general sweeping goals allow each participating country to decide what policies they need to adopt in order to achieve the goals.

I do not mean to argue that the MDGs didn’t have room for improvement, however. Many societal groups that could benefit from development policies weren’t ensured that their leaders would act on their behalf. There were also a number of key global issues that were not addressed, such as access to energy and urban planning. The MDGs weren’t perfect – but the framework did not end there. The international community is continuously improving the global framework. The SDGs have since built upon the initiatives of the MDGs and incorporated a number of details that were previously lacking from the global framework.

Digital “access” Divide

When I think of the digital divide, the first word that comes to mind is “access.” The digital divide refers to the existing gap between those who can access the internet and those who can’t. Internet access is one of the many resource that people in industrially developed areas take for granted. I think I can speak for my fellow college students (and probably most of our parents) when I say we get frustrated with slow internet connection – let alone no connection at all! We rely on the internet to engage with our community. Access to this form of communication has become a lifeline to the rest of the world – or at least that’s how the people see it who have used it.

Falling through the Net is one of the key documents that addresses the digital divide. In Part II, the authors focus on three main aspects of internet access and usage. Two are related to where and how the internet is accessed. Then, the final area focuses on how people use the internet. I venture to say that most people in industrially developed countries rarely have to consider the first two areas. We can connect to wireless, broadband internet from university campuses, our homes, office buildings, and even many public spaces. Accessibility is something that we take for granted – and this document forces its audience to consider how difficult it is for people in less developed regions to access internet.

Furthermore, whether the internet is accessed via phone or computer does not normally make much of a difference for those of us in the industrially developed world. We know that if for some reason we cannot access the internet through our computer, we can use our phone. Likewise, if we can’t access the internet at work, we can access it at home or any number of public places. It is important to point out that Falling through the Net reports that most people who access the internet outside of their homes do so through work. This says a lot about what we as a global society use internet access for. We not only use the internet for communication, but the nature of the communication has other societal byproducts. To continue this point, Macbride Commission Report argues that it would be shortsighted to see technological advancements as merely technological (78). The reason I am relating these two points is to demonstrate how central the internet is to our work life. It is not only a milestone in regards to technological advancements, but also in regards to economic and social connections.

Development Theories


After reading the work of my peers, it seems we all agree that “development” is a vague term mired in nuances. I face the complexity of this term each time I mention to someone that I study international development – to which the reply goes something like, “What does that mean?” This experience is one that I know many of my classmates encounter. Development is nothing short of complex. It is approached from a wide range of perspectives, and covers a myriad of topics in a plethora of countries. I will cease to emphasize its ambiguity here. Nevertheless, a topic of this breadth has naturally crossed the minds of many intellectuals who have all asked themselves that crucial question: what is development?

The most comprehendible theory to begin to answer this question is suggested in the book Why Nations Fail. Acemoglu and Robinson, the authors of this work, suggest that development is defined by economic prosperity, or lack thereof. Furthermore, they propose that economic prosperity depends on how inclusive a country’s institutions are (91), and that inclusive institutions are necessary for economic prosperity because they provide incentives and reward talents and creativity (76). These authors link economic growth and technological improvement to development. What is more, they claim that political inclusion and the enabling of the public to innovate is a crucial element of development.

This leads to the next key author in the development field – which many of my classmates have already addressed: Amartya Sen. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen articulates the unique perspective that freedom is defined as access to choices and expanded capabilities and that development is an expansion of freedom. Looking at the field of development through Sen’s capabilities approach dramatically affects related policies and outcomes. His definition of development and emphasis on increasing access to choices related to the point that Acemoglu and Robinson make about inclusive political institutions leading to more development. While these authors define development in a different way, they seem to agree with Sen regarding the means to develop through empowering more people to participate by giving them more options and more avenues for participation.

It is also interesting to mention a couple development theories that we didn’t discuss in class, such as dependency theory and modernization theory. While not widely referenced in modern literature, these two theories contextualize modern concepts of development by providing incite to how the topic was viewed in the late 1900s. First, dependency theory was developed by Raul Prebisch and asserts that economic growth occurs at a faster pace in industrialized, advanced countries than in poorer countries. According to Prebisch, this creates a disproportionate relationship that puts industrialized countries economically so far ahead of non-industrialized countries that they can rarely ever close the gap in development. The disproportionate relationship, Prebisch would argue, makes non-industrialized countries dependent on industrialized ones. Modernization theory is the next model to discuss. The main point of this theory is that the Western world has influenced ad to some extent guided the direction of development when we started searching for colonies.

HLPF not there yet

Understanding the stigmas and disenfranchisement that disabled people have been faced with over centuries of civilization adds context to the current movements to advocate for their rights and equal treatment. Rimmerman helps bring some of the struggles of disabled people to light by demonstrating how religious beliefs have characterized this population, specifically Christianity through the Bible and Islam through the Qur’an. According to Rimmerman, “we cannot understand disability without knowing the way that humanity treated people with physical and mental impairments throughout history” (9). This author highlights a paradox mentioned in the Bible which is relevant to how society approaches people with disabilities in modern day. Persons with disabilities were seen as blemished and unworthy of God, yet it is recognized that society has an obligation to remove obstacles for them (10). Isolation of people with disabilities was seen as a paradox to be managed rather than a problem to be solved. Although this aspect of religious culture is not widely emphasized in mainstream society today, the disenfranchisement of people with disability has still been treated as a misfortune to manage rather than a problem that has a solution.

After centuries of facing cultural stigmatization- and even systematic removal through euthanasia (18-19) – we are finally reaching an era where people with disabilities have advocacy for equal rights and inclusion. Civil rights protection for persons with disabilities wasn’t a major issue until the 20th century in America (20); and even then, important movements such as the MDGs lacked specific language advocating for persons with disabilities. We are just now starting to see advocacy for disability inclusive development. Amartya Sen’s revolutionary theory in Development as Freedom is one key element of the change in perspective that allowed people with disabilities to gain recognition. Measuring development in terms of capabilities and access to choices is the cornerstone of Sen’s theory. In addition, he talks about people’s actions being productively complimentary – in other words, the unintended consequence of acting to benefit oneself benefits everyone (255-56). This idea is not unique to Sen. He even cited Adam Smith in his writing. Notwithstanding, the effects of unintended consequences can be interpreted positively or negatively, especially in context of advocacy for disenfranchised groups. The way I see it, the unintended consequence idea is the best advocate for getting the public interested in disability inclusive development because it appeals to human selfish nature, but in a way that suggests it is productive for an individual to empower another individual to participate.

Empowering participation is becoming more relevant to development discourse of late. One of the key movements to thank for this is the Major Groups and Other Stakeholders framework (MGoS). The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 recognized that all sectors of society need to be engaged in development discussions in order to develop sustainable solutions to grand challenges. Since then, the nine major groups were officiated. However, people with disabilities still do not have recognition as a major group within this framework. The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) designed as a mechanism to oversee the implementation of the SDGs is inaccessible to delegates who are not a member of one of the organized major groups. This conference, which is boasted as the most inclusive political forum at the UN, does not invite participation for advocates for people with disabilities. This goes to show that while there have been monumental successes in terms of disability inclusive development awareness, there is still a long way to go before the SDGs in regards to disability are met.

Multistakeholder global governance

The internet is a transnational resource. Much like the ocean and the air we breathe, the internet is not created by any one nation, and cannot be disproportionately regulated by any one nation. Our anarchic world system, absent of international government, leads to complications regarding internet governance. What is more, the internet has a vast range of uses for all stakeholders. Students, governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and individuals are but a small list of the endless groups within society that all rely on the internet. However, lack of ownership over this infinite resource makes oversight and regulation complicated. This is why multistakeholder governance over the internet is crucial to ensuring that regulation of this recourse is inclusive and transparent, and collective responsibility, and effective decision-making and implementation are maintained.

Originally developed for US military purposes, the internet’s uses and accessibility have dramatically expanded and are continuing to do so. ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) oversees internet governance and assigns domain names and transport controls. This organization handles the maintenance of the central Internet address pools by authorizing domain name sales and handling registrations. It is run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. This is why the recent transition of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is so important. In 2013, Internet Society (IS) members demanded that IANA’s oversight role be distanced from the US government and oriented more towards the international, multistakeholder community. The US government responded positively, demonstrating a willingness to transition oversight to make it internationally equitable.


Within the field of sustainable development, there are numerous documents and initiatives which overlap in their purpose. These intersections create a framework that communities around the globe can use to address the Grand Challenges we collectively face. In order to develop sustainable solutions to Grand Challenges, all sectors of society and all types of people must actively participate. The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development recognized this in 1992, which led to the Major Groups framework. Now, nine groups including Women, Children and Youth, Indigenous Peoples, Non-Governmental Organizations, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, Scientific and Technological Community and Farmers are encouraged to participate in discussions about development from which they were previously excluded. What is more, the role of multistakeholderism has gained notoriety because the Major Groups framework makes is possible for the many groups within society to all voice how Grand Challenges affect their specific communities. Therefore, the solutions that arise from a multistakeholder approach leads to more sustainable and inclusive solutions because this approach addresses the intersections within the development framework, and within the community that it seeks to impact.

One problem that I wish to point out is that the intersectionality of sustainable development and various stakeholder needs is not widely known among members of society that are not intellectually involved with development. Many people do not know what the SDGs are, much less how they address the needs of specific communities. What is more, the people who aren’t aware of these intersectionalites do not know that they are stakeholders. If an individual isn’t aware of the multistakeholder framework which exists to help achieve the SDGs, how would they be able to participate in the discussion or implementation of polities to do so? Local community leaders must be engaged in development and informed about intersectionality within the field in order to bring about policy changes that will have any impact.


Inclusive Education


Since nearly 10% of every country’s population of school-aged children are disabled, and 90% of disabled children are denied access to primary education, there are hundreds of millions of children across the globe who do not have the choice of an education – which restricts so many of their choices for the rest of their lives. While expanding access to education was already included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), improvements in this development area have been insufficient. Certain barriers that prevent children from accessing primary education restrict them from finding employment as adults, leading them into poverty and creating a vicious cycle. The impact of this cycle on MGOS, specifically PWD, is even worse. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seek to further the efforts of the MDGs in many development areas, including education.

The SDGs, in combination with other documents such as the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Model Policy for Inclusive ICTs in Education for Persons with Disabilities published by UNESCO, collectively address how to overcome obstacles that PWD face regarding access to education. SDG 4 addresses inclusive education, and specifically mentions PWD in targets 4.5 and 4.7a. The first of the aforementioned targets is aimed at equal access, and the later prioritizes upgrading educational facilities to accommodate disabilities. Both of these targets intend to make education more inclusive. In alignment with SDG 4, Article 24 of the CRPD is devoted to diminishing discrimination faced by PWD in the education system. Additionally, the Model Policy for Inclusive ICTs in Education for Persons with Disabilities addresses how to achieve equal access to education – both information and physical facilities.

The international framework mentioned above addresses how to overcome both the systemic obstacles to accessing education information, and the physical obstacles to accessing the educational environment. In order to achieve inclusive education, barriers to both of these areas need to be mitigated. UNESCO studied different approaches to inclusive education around the world to assess impact of different environments. Between special schools for PWD, special classes in integrated schools, or inclusive classes no one environment is proven to have better results. This is due to the fact that there are so many variables. The many kinds of disabilities present, the educational resources of the country in question, and the behavior of the teacher or other children in the class are all possible examples.

New Urban Agenda, SDG 11, and Smart Inclusive Cities

Emily draws attention to an interesting dichotomy in both our class discussion and the overall discussion over SDG 11: the difference in smart cities and inclusive cities. As we discussed in class, smart cities attract young people and intellectual adults into a space that provides resources for innovation and enables them to develop ideas and exist in a sustainable environment. Inclusive cities, as discussed in the Asian Development Bank’s article, have the resources which allow all members of society to participate – not only those who are intellectual. While smart cities and inclusive cities need not be mutually exclusive terms, one focuses more on innovation and progress, and the other focuses more on equal ability to participate.

Both the New Urban Agenda and SDG 11 include language that advocates smart and inclusive cities. Equal access to safe, affordable housing, transportation, and public spaces as well as cultural expression an economic growth are all topics prioritized by each of these documents. What is more, both of these documents emphasize the role of incorporating major groups and other stakeholders who have previously been left out of the development discourse. Specifically, persons with disabilities (PWD) are directly mentioned. SDG 11 target 11.2 advocates for equal access to transportation for PWD, and 11.7 addresses equal access to green and public spaces. The New Urban Agenda recognizes PWD twelve times throughout the entire document. Both of these documents together set up an international framework for developing sustainable, smart, and inclusive cities.

In Victor Pineda’s article Enabling Justice: Spatializing Disability in the Built Environment, he argues that people should reframe how they define disability when approaching development. According to Pineda, the legal definition of disability fails to consider the physical space in which people carry out our lives (113). By omitting the “philosophical preeminence of space” (113), the definition of disability does not accurately capture what it means for a person to be disabled. Having a disability alters and in many cases prevents PWD from accessing certain resources in their environment which others may find commonplace. Staircases and crosswalks are commonplace in an urban environment, yet these resources which are designed to enable people to share space, are not accessible for PWD. The international framework set up by SDG 11 and the NUA are set up to address the obstacles facing large portions of the population who are prevented from participating in urban life.

ICTs and Capacity Building

Bridging the so-called “digital divide” that has resulted from the gap in information and communications technology between developed and lesser developed communities is one of the Grand Challenges facing modern society. The Report of the Independent Commission for World Wide Telecommunications Development suggests that  other Grand Challenges have taken precedence over telecommunications development. However, there have been improvements in international commitments to increase access to ITCs.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)+10 Outcome Document outlines measurements of implementing policies focused on expanding communications infrastructure and access. These policies were decided during the 2003 and 2005 conferences, and represent a “common vision on the information society.” It seems to be widely accepted now that telecommunications should be just as crucial of an element in development as topics which attract more attention – such as agriculture and clean water policies. The WISIS+10 document emphasizes the creation of partnerships to overcome this Grand Challenge of ITC disparities. Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and Multi-Sector Partnerships (MSP) are the two which are directly mentioned in the document. One key partnership which is less highlighted, however, is that between ITCs and energy companies.

It goes without saying that electricity is necessary for making use of modern communications technology. Although, while a concern for capacity building is articulated in the WSIS+10 documents and other ITC related policies, it should also be noted that there is a potential for ITC development to compliment alternative energy development. Communities that lack affordable energy cannot even begin to think of advancing their communication infrastructure. What is more, access to energy must increase in order to expand access to the information society. The clear link between these two Grand Challenges demonstrates the need for partnership between their respective communities.