Sustainable Development and Intersectionality

In recent years, the word intersectionality has become a buzzword in many different academic disciplines from public health to environmental sustainability to education. The concept of intersectionality is actually quite self-explanatory. Within the context of international development, intersectionality is the idea that you cannot address development issues as stand-alone issues, because sustainable development is intertwined and what occurs in one area can have effects on other areas. There are both positive and negative examples of this. For example, if a person receives a quality education, this could also have positive outcomes for their economic status, their future employment, their health, and other factors. Similarly, if someone is struggling with extreme poverty, this may have ramifications for their education, health, and access to decent work. All aspects of sustainable development are interrelated which is why it is important to look at development comprehensively rather than as individual issues. This is why it is important to look at all 17 Sustainability Development Goals as a set rather than 17 individual goals. The success and progress of each goal effects the others, so for sustainable development to be successful, it is critical to understand how different aspects of development effect one another.

Another important aspect of intersectionality in the sustainable development field is the collaborative efforts between many different stakeholders to achieve goals. For example, one of the important aspects of urban sustainable development going forward is the idea and implementation of smart cities. This is discussed in the New Urban Agenda developed at Habitat III and Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Creating smart cities needs a combination of information and communication technologies (ICTs), urban planning, clean energy, infrastructure, and most importantly, the people who live there. The intersectionality between all of these sectors is what makes smart cities possible. I think that international actors and sustainable development stakeholders have successfully understood the importance of intersectionality in the sustainable development field, with the SDGs as a wonderful example. The SDGs predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, did not have the same understanding of the intersectionality between the 8 different goals, which is one reason I think the SDGs will have more success in achieving their goals compared to the MDGs. I am hopeful that with the continued focus on intersectionality in sustainable development, we will continue to see improvements and successes around the world. 

ICTs and Sustainable Development

Throughout the 21stcentury, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have drastically changed the way we live our lives. Even more incredible, ICTs have the ability to completely change the sustainable development field. In a recent joint study performed by Huawei and SustainAbility, experts found a high correlation between countries that are progressing well with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) and those that have performed well in the ICT field. 

ICTs have many uses in all aspects of the sustainable development world. First and foremost, ICTs facilitate worldwide communication and networking which allows experts to assist and work with people from all around the world without even having to step outside their own homes. This fact alone can be incredibly helpful in providing information and knowledge to those who may not have access to it without the use of ICTs. Another use of ICTs is in the education field. With the use of different technologies such as webconferencing, students from around the world can learn without having to have the funds to afford costly travel. This is also had tremendous success in increasing inclusive education because persons with disabilities are able to use ICTs to communicate and receive an inclusive education that might not be available in their community. Another factor of ICTs in sustainable development is that eCommerce allows businesses around the world to connect to customers anywhere and everywhere. This can have big impacts on economic growth and employment. 

However, one problem to consider is that countries with extensive ICT use and development are beginning to drastically overtake countries still developing their ICT infrastructure and industries. This means that, if steps are not taken to mitigate this, the divide between countries with high use of ICTs and those still developing ICTs may grow exponentially and leave a massive gap, a digital divide, between large portions of the world. While ICTs have incredible potential in their application to the sustainable development field, more focus needs to be placed on bridging the digital divide between countries or else sustainable development will suffer. Greater emphasis should be placed on catching those countries that have less developed ICTs up so that they do not fall so far behind. This will also have a very positive impact on sustainable development as ICTs open up many opportunities in the field. 

Internet Governance

Since the development of the internet several decades ago, it has grown to be one of the most important aspects of society today. The internet offers vast opportunities for businesses, education, networking and so much more. However, while the lack of international borders on the internet is what makes it such an incredible resource, it also makes it very difficult for international bodies and governments to control and govern what occurs on the internet. An important term to understand when discussing this topic is internet governance. A working definition of internet governance was included in Article 34 of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society developed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that took place in Tunis in 2005. This working definition of internet governance is “the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet”. Rather than being regulated and formed from the top-down, the internet is decentralized and mostly works from the bottom-up with internet stakeholders, civil society and governments all having to work together to create policies. 

One important element to understand about multistakeholder internet governance is that it is not a single solution, but rather a set of tools and practices that see various parties all working together to find solutions, share ideas, and develop policies. For example, the NETmundial Initiative created a set of internet governance principles meant to support the idea that the internet should be managed for the public interest. These principles include: human rights and shared values; protection of intermediaries; culture and linguistic diversity; unified and unfragmented space; security, stability, and resilience of the internet; open and distributed architecture; enabling an environment for sustainable innovation and creativity; and open standards. They also emphasize the importance of internet governance being multistakeholder, transparent, accountable, inclusive and collaborative. These are all important principles for internet governance as the internet is a vitally important global resource. 

Another important body in the internet governance field is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF is part of the United Nations, and it is a multistakeholder platform that is responsible for facilitating the discussion of public policy issues pertaining to the internet. I think the platforms such as the IGF are very important for promoting multistakeholder collaboration and creating a space for internet governance issues to be discussed. 

Development as Freedom

Although those of us in the international relations field love to talk about development, we rarely take a moment to consider the actual meaning of the word. Most often, we think of development in terms of the different factors that relate to it such as education, gender equality, economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and so on. But it is crucial to understand the meaning and theories behind development, and how we came to understand development in the way that we do today. 

According to Sumner and Tribe, there are three main ways to understand development. First, development can be understood as a long-term process of structural societal transformation. This viewpoint looks at the changes in society over time as development. Second, development can be understood as a short- to medium-term outcome of desirable targets. This second perspective can be seen in the form of the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. And third, development can be seen as a dominant discourse of western modernity. Those who view understand development this way tend to see development as something forced on developing countries by the dominant, developed Western world. All three of these views have their own merits and truths to them in terms of understanding development. 

However, one of the most influential ideas within the development field was presented by Amartya Sen in 1999 in his famous book Development as Freedom. Before Sen, development was viewed exclusively from an economic standpoint. The only indicators that mattered were those that measured economic growth and prosperity. However, Sen challenged this accepted truth and instead offered a new perspective. Rather than solely focusing on economic factors, Sen presented the idea of considering the freedoms offered to the people in the country as a measure of development. Sen believed that different factors such as education, health care, democratic norms, employment and more should also factor into development. He also discussed the removal of unfreedoms, or restrictions that prevent people from making their own life decisions. Amartya Sen’s transformative work changed the way development is discussed and implemented around the world. In the development field today, we can see the many influences of Sen’s ideas in places such as the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda. Understanding development as freedom has greatly improved how development is measured and implemented around the world since the turn of the century. 

Inclusive Education

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: Quality Education, a quality education is the “foundation to creating sustainable development.” It is largely understood that education is one of the most important factors in reducing poverty and improving quality of life. While the world has seen great strides in increasing enrollment, literacy rates, and access to education, there is one important factor that still has not received the attention it deserves in the education sector: inclusive education. An estimated 15% of the world’s population is persons with disabilities, which accounts for over one billion people, yet inclusive education is still greatly lacking in many countries. Education is the key to social and economic development, and without inclusive education, sustainable development efforts cannot be fully achieved. 

In 2003, UNICEF released a study on Inclusive Education Initiatives for Children with Disabilities: Lessons from the East Asia and Pacific Region which was a pivotal study in the disability-inclusive education field. Through studying policies and programs throughout Southeast Asia and China, the report made a number of recommendations that have been instrumental in creating and improving inclusive education initiatives around the world. While the study had a long list of recommendations for improving various aspects of inclusive education, some of the fundamental recommendations included improving and funding inclusive education training for teachers, increasing community participation, advocating for better understanding of children with disabilities and inclusive education both in schools and the community, and creating more flexible curricula and assessment procedures. These are the types of changes that need to be implemented in order to achieve SDG 4 of inclusive and equitable quality education and improving quality of life for everyone. 

Since the UNICEF study back in 2003, there have been many changes in the possibilities for inclusive education specifically in regard to information and communication technologies (ICTs). In 2014, UNESCO and the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ICT) published a model policy for Inclusive ICTs in Education for Persons with Disabilities. The advancements of ICTs have created numerous opportunities for improving education, especially for persons with disabilities. In my view, investing in inclusive education is ultimately an investment in a better future for everyone and should be a top priority. 

Inclusive, Smart Cities and the New Urban Agenda

In 2016, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) occurred in Quito, Ecuador to discuss the future of sustainable urbanization. Around 30,000 people participated in the conference, representing member states, civil society, organizations with accreditation from the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) which includes members from the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS). There was also an emphasis on having representatives from local and regional governments as these are key actors when considering urbanization. 

The outcome of Habitat III was the New Urban Agenda (NUA). The purpose of NUA is to act as a guide for the next 20 years of sustainable urban development. There are several key concepts that NUA addresses as vital to a successful sustainable urban development framework. First, NUA emphasizes the importance of acknowledging all aspects of sustainable development in order to work effectively. The framework makes references to and is meant to work in conjunction with other frameworks related to sustainable development including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Understanding the intersectionality between all sectors of sustainable development is the key to creating a successful structure to address it. 

Another important element in NUA is the endorsement of the smart-city model. A smart city is an urban area that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as sensors, to create a more efficient, accessible and overall better city. NUA encourages the adoption of the smart-city approach which encourages clean energy use, digitalization, and innovative transportation technologies to improve environmental sustainability, economic growth, and overall quality of life for residents. NUA also puts forward a new vision for cities, referred to as the “right to the city”, which essentially makes equal access to the use and enjoyment of cities a human right. Especially in a smart city, this would mean that both the built environment and the technological environment of the city must be accessible for everyone. The idea of the “right to the city” is an incredibly important step towards creating a more inclusive and accessible world. Future meetings and documents should continue to focus on the idea of the “right to the city” and promote it among local and regional governments around the world. I believe if cities are developed using this mindset, cities in the future will be far more accessible and inclusive for all residents.

Click to access NUA-English.pdf

Disability Inclusion in Disaster Risk Reduction

Between the ever-worsening impacts of climate change and rapid urbanization around the world, the risks posed by natural disasters increase every day.  Now more than ever before, disaster risk reduction is vitally important for protecting infrastructure, the economy, and most importantly, human lives. Since the 1990s, the United Nations has promoted disaster risk reduction as a crucial part of sustainable development. In 2015, the United Nations held the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. At this conference, participants approved the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction as the successor to the Hyogo Framework. Because of the UN’s emphasis on the intersection of sustainable development and disaster risk reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also include specific references to disaster risk reduction. It is very important that the UN continues to push this relationship between disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, especially as it relates to urbanization and the environment.

In recent years, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has become a role model to other international organizations for their heavy focus on accessibility to their conferences and inclusion of persons with disabilities in their documents. The WCDRR in Sendai is considered by many the first international meeting to create a highly accessible environment, which allowed many persons with disabilities to participate in the conference. The Sendai Conference did an excellent job of leading by example on disability inclusion. It is very significant that the disaster risk reduction field has made such strides in inclusion and realized that they cannot achieve their goals without considering and including persons with disabilities, a population that makes up around 15% of the world’s population. 

Luckily, the UNDRR did not stop there. In 2017, they held the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico, as a way to continue the work and check the progress of the Sendai Framework. This meeting also emphasized accessibility in many ways including having International Sign Language interpreters, accessible documentation, accessible transportation, and allowing remote participation through web-conferencing, remote hubs, and telepresence robots. The UNDRR should continue setting the example for disability-inclusion in international meetings, and other groups should begin instituting similar accessibility requirements for their respective meetings. In order for the UN to fully achieve any of its goals, it cannot forget to include and consult 15% of the world population.

World Urban Forum

In just over 2 months, the 10th World Urban Forum will convene in Abu Dhabi for several days with over 20,000 delegates and 150 countries expected to attend. The United Nations established the biennial World Urban Forum (WUF) to discuss major issues related to rapid urbanization and sustainable urban development. The goal of WUF is to advocate for, raise awareness of, and further collective knowledge on sustainable urban development. Additionally, WUF functions as a follow-up mechanism for tracking the advancement and implementation of the frameworks developed at the Habitat conferences. So far, there have been three Habitat conferences occurring every 20 years with the last conference, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III, taking place in 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. The primary goal of Habitat III was to form a blueprint to guide the next 20 years of urban development. This goal was achieved through the creation of the New Urban Agenda (NUA). 

However, since the next Habitat conference will not take place again until 2036, WUF is where states and interested stakeholders can meet to discuss the progress made in following NUA, new ideas and technologies related to sustainable urban development, and the challenges to urban development in today’s ever-changing world. In 2018, the first WUF since Habitat III, the creation of NUA, and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This fact was reflected in the theme for WUF9: Cities 2030, Cities for All. This theme emphasized not only the need for preparing and advancing cities for the future, but also the importance of inclusion in cities.

Looking forward to WUF10, this will be the first WUF to be held in the Middle East, a region dealing with the worsening impacts of climate change and rapid urbanization. The theme of WUF10 is Cities of Opportunity – Connecting Culture and Innovation. This forum will focus on tackling the complex issues of rapid urbanization with consideration culture and demographics. I think this is a very interesting topic, especially since the conference is being held in Abu Dhabi, a rapidly expanding city that is heavily influenced by the diverse population living there. It will be interesting to see the various side events, roundtables, and other events that take place during WUF10 and the progress that has been made in advancing NUA and the SDGs.


In 2000, the United Nations implemented the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which consisted of eight broad goals to address major issues in international development to be accomplished by 2015. Although the MDGs received their fair share of criticism from around the world, they were important for creating a blueprint for international actors to follow to work together towards common development goals. When the MDGs expired in 2015, the United Nations implemented its successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs include 17 goals that focus both on improving human lives and addressing environmental issues. The SDGs have the same 15-year time frame as the MDGs, which puts the end date in 2030. 

A discussion of the SDGs would not be complete without addressing the UN body in charge of sustainable development: the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The HLPF is in charge of overseeing the follow-up and review of the SDGs on the global level. Each year, the HLPF convenes in New York to discuss the progress made towards achieving the SDGs and the challenges that must be overcome to achieve the SDGs by 2030. The HLPF is also responsible for voluntary national reviews that are provided to the HLPF by nations themselves to review their progress in sustainable development.

When comparing the MDGs and SDGs, it is clear that many of the problems with the MDGs were considered and improved upon when creating the SDGs. One example of this is the greater emphasis on environmental sustainability in the SDGs compared to the MDGs. The SDGs also use significantly more indicators than the MDGs, which is critical to tracking the success of the goals. Finally, the SDGs apply equally to all countries, whereas the MDGs were mostly focused on developing nations. I believe that the SDGs are a great improvement upon the MDGs and that governments, the private sector, and civil society should continue collaborating and focusing their efforts on achieving these 17 goals set out in the SDGs. 

However, by far one of the most important aspects of the development and implementation of the SDGs is the inclusion of Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS). This includes the 9 Major Groups established at the 1992 Earth Summit, as well as 4 more stakeholder groups. These 13 sectors all have a significant role to play in achieving inclusive sustainable development, so including MGoS in the HLPF and the creation and implementation of the SDGs, the SDGs have a higher chance of achieving success in improving sustainable development.

Grand Challenges

In the 21stCentury, we are faced with a multitude of problems to solve from climate change to wars to dangerous diseases like Ebola. While these problems may seem daunting or even impossible to solve to some, there are many people around the world who see these important issues and decide to take on the challenge. This type of thinking is referred to as Moonshot thinking. This term comes from the American mission to put the first man on the moon despite this feat seeming impossible to many people. This type of motivated and visionary mindset is what is needed to address the Grand Challenges we face today.

As defined by the Obama Administration, Grand Challenges are “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination”. There are a few key elements that a goal must have to be considered a Grand Challenge. First, these goals must think big but still be attainable. This means that setting a realistic time frame in which to solve these problems is a crucial factor. Second, Grand Challenges should be multidisciplinary, bringing together people from different fields as well as the public and private sectors to work together to achieve their goal. Finally, these Grand Challenges need to be compelling and inspiring to capture the public’s imagination. If all these criteria are met, then a goal can be labeled as a Grand Challenge. The Obama Administration took a particular interest in promoting Grand Challenges such as the BRAIN Initiative and the Asteroid Grand Challenge.

Although Grand Challenges have historically been confined to the science and technology fields, in recent years the development field has begun applying the idea of Grand Challenges to focus on ambitious but achievable goals within international development. USAID has promoted several Grand Challenges since 2011 including All Children ReadingSecuring Water for FoodFighting Ebola, and Scaling Off-Grid Energy. These Grand Challenges cover a variety of important issues, and by formulating them as Grand Challenges, USAID is able to bring focus and motivation to these global problems. 

I think that one of the most important impacts of Grand Challenges is their ability to inspire both experts and the public to achieve big goals. Going forward, I think that the US government should refocus on promoting Grand Challenges, particularly those focused on climate change. Climate change is an immense problem that many people feel hopeless about, but I think that creating a series of Grand Challenges to address some of the serious problems of climate change, such as rising sea levels, resiliency after natural disasters, and reliance on fossil fuels, would help refocus and motivate the country to take on these challenges and maintain hope for the future.