The Role of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) “has a central role in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs,” according to the Sustainable Development Goals site page dedicated to the HLPF. The HLPF meets annually under the Economic and Social Council and meets every four years under the General Assembly (“High-Level Political Forum”). Notably, the Forum asks member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven” (“High-Level Political Forum”). These national reviews are used by the HLPF when they conduct their review process (“High-Level Political Forum”). The HLPF works well in the sense that it allows countries to conduct their own, voluntary reviews that are used as the basis for the Forum’s review. This allows for experts, government organizations, and civil society organizations to participate in the specific country’s Voluntary National Review. Further, this allows for the report to be grounded in the country’s specific context, which is often left out in development discourse that traditionally imposes the West’s perception of global development. Country context is essential to assessing the progress of the SDGs. The HLPF could be improved to promote inclusive sustainable development by implementing accountability measures for those members on the Forum. How are these members chosen for the Forum? Do these members represent the diversity of both the SDGs (including experts on poverty, education, water, energy, etc.) and the member states (including representation from different countries in different regions)? 

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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. 

What is Development?: Theoretical & Conceptual Approaches

Development is a key thematic area of focus within the study of international affairs. Although I do not come from the background of ‘Development’, these theoretical and conceptual approaches are very familiar to an international relations researcher, like myself.  In fact, development theories reach deeper into the practicality of solving foundational issues which are commonly based on economic or social policies. According to Development Studies literature, such approaches in development consists of means, opportunities and substantive freedoms that bring human beings value. 

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Development Theory and Actors: An Understanding of Development

The readings from this previous week delved into the first chapters of Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and International Development Studies by Sumner and Tribe. Amartya gives an initial overview as to what freedom means in development and how current indicators value policies and individual well being. He discussed how evaluative purposes should be based on substantive freedoms that consider functionings and capabilities. Functionings are certain things a person may value doing or being, such as being free of disease. Capabilities are the combinations of those functionings feasible for a person to achieve, and that capability represents the freedom to achieve. Freedom has two parts: the processes that allow for it and the opportunities people have. You can define a more developed society based on how much access to these freedoms (health care, education, employment, etc.) a person has. The World Economic Forum published an article back in 2016 where the New Economics Foundation attempted Continue reading

Development Theory as a Rubik’s Cube

Development as a whole is an area of study that has a diverse set of beliefs and assumptions. Nevertheless, “a common theme within most definitions is that ‘development’ encompasses ‘change’ in a variety of aspects of the human condition” (Sumner & Tribe, 2008, p. 10). What distinguishes the path to this goal is the theories and approaches used to get there. Additionally, what must be considered in development theory is where or not change is considered good or bad on both a short and long term timeline.

Sumner and Tribe identify a three-dimensional puzzle, similar to a Rubik’s cube that encompasses multiple facets of development. Understanding each aspect of this puzzle helps decipher that different views that one can hold on development and how best to approach it. Continue reading

World Bank as a “knowledge bank”

The World Bank has a long and integrated history with development. This institution started out as a lending agency, supporting post-war programs and countries that were able to convince the World Bank that their projects would make some sort of marked improvement on the world. Decisions on what received funding and what did not relied heavily on traditional data, such as economic reports, employment records, and health statistics. Project management was mostly delegated to organizations and institutions outside the World Bank, giving the project management a hands-off feel.

The World Bank has since shifted to assume the role of the dominant provider of development-related information on the global scale. Now relying more on secondary data sources which are the result of lengthy social processes and which are shaped by the biases of agents involved, the World Bank advises other lenders on which projects or aspects of development should be supported. The World Bank now aims to be the “first port of call for development expertise.”

Although some consider it to be helpful to have an authoritative global voice on development, the World Bank as a “knowledge bank” of development expertise is also loaded with Western biases, neoliberal assumptions, and rigid theories. The secondary data that the World Bank is doling out is chock-full of inaccurate reporting, underrepresentation, and misconceptions of qualitative measurements. Although this type of data is important to give a human face to information and to help give focus to development policy, it is critical to recognize the implicit opinions and beliefs that make this data impossible to be objective.

In terms of inclusive sustainable development, the monopoly on knowledge that the World Bank has also has problematic implications. Even if the World Bank supports the CRPD and other policies that advocate for persons with disabilities, the data that they are receiving may place them in the background or, even worse, forget about them entirely. Trying to complete a cross-country analysis with secondary data is also extremely difficult as the World Bank does not have a standardized comparative study of the data that is collected.

The World Bank also tends to focus only on the poorest countries (measured by GDP, GNP, or some other traditional neoliberal measure of development), leaving middle and even high-income countries where the poor, and persons with disabilities, still live at the mercy of their government. This is a major problem in places in the US where public infrastructure is not accessible to people with disabilities and basic human rights like healthcare and internet are not evenly distributed.

If we are truly to regard the World Bank as a trustworthy institution that conducts rigorous development research, we need to look critically at the type of data they are collecting and the biases that are implicit in its construction and development studies.

World Bank’s work on person’s with disabilities

International Development Studies, Sumner and Tribe, chapter 6

Development Theory and Actors

Last week we discussed and read about development, its’ complicated definition and the different frameworks that we use to analyze it and implement development theory. How one defines international development is a contested topic by theorists and has evolved over time. International development once meant that “developed” countries such as the United States and Western European states would give aid to “underdeveloped” countries in Latin America and Africa. This definition focused completely on GDP and how those “underdeveloped” countries did not look like the so-called “developed” nations. Readings from Amartya Sen and Sumer and Tribe helped to paint the evolution of development theory and how we should be looking to “develop” moving forward.

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Development Theory

While there is no clear definition of the term “development”, the majority of international relations courses I have taken have been spent studying development theories to analyze, critique and understand “development”. When first defining development, researches reached for GDP and economics as the method for determining what countries were considered developed and developing. Currently, the definition of development is altering as authors spend their careers researching a more accurate way to define the concept. One researcher who seriously impacted development theory is Amartya Sen.

Sen focused on the intersection between development and freedom, creating a new discourse that deviated from the economic and industrial based definitions of development. Sen’s work was extremely important for the field of development as the conclusions he presented made development a more intersectional field that highlighted the importance of human rights and social issues in development and that urbanization was not synonymous with development. Unlike numerous other development researches, Sen highlighted the importance of human well being in development and argued that economic development is linked to freedoms. Sen focuses on how societal arrangements, involving many institutions in a particular society, impact freedoms and how a broad view of freedom, that encompasses opportunities, is necessary.

I find an echoing between Sen’s research and what I envision for my capstone project. While I understand the importance of economics in international relations theory, particularly in development, my project is coming from a more humanitarian view of development. I’m using this idea of “overall freedoms to all people” and finding its intersection with the CRPD 8, focusing on raising awareness for people with developmental disabilities. Studying Sen’s Development as Freedom is extremely useful because his focus on opportunities as key to freedom is poignant to Article 8 of the CRPD, focusing on acceptance. My project is planning on focusing on ideologies and how ideologies are impactful to people with developmental disabilities. I feel raising awareness for people around the world with disabilities and promoting acceptance will lead to positive change in societies worldwide. Sen argues that capability deprivation is a better measure of poverty than low income and without awareness, numerous people with disabilities have opportunities stripped away from them. Poor education systems, poor working conditions and a lack of ability for social movement. The more awareness that is raised for people with disabilities, the more societal arrangements might be made for them and as Sen argued, these societal arrangements can lead to more freedoms. In order for a country to be more developed, all people need to have equal opportunities.

Development Theory

For this week’s readings, the term development was thoroughly analyzed. Historically, societies have looked at development as an economic term that translates to urban high rises, higher incomes, etc. Instead of considering “development” as an economic term, the authors associate it with freedoms. They describe development as the process of expanding individual freedoms or the real freedoms people can enjoy. This can be more access to healthy food, good education, water, internet, etc. These increased individuals freedoms are supposed to help improve the quality and, above all, the happiness of individuals in a country.

This new perspective of looking at development is very different compared to the way current governments see the term. When governments look at their economy, they look at economical metrics like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), income per capita, wealth, etc. Freedoms are not associated with measuring the current or potential state of a country’s economy. In their view, economies are already free and liberal to an extent because they allow individuals to make something out of themselves if they really wanted to. The readings show great examples that show that numbers do not capture the whole situation. For example, you can be technically richer in the U.S., but be in a worse living situation than someone in a poorer country. Other examples relating to African American completely astonished me. The fact that African Americans have lower survival rates than the average Chinese civilian is depressing and shows inequalities in the U.S. Relating development with freedoms gives a more holistic view because it shows the capabilities and advantages that people have.

People would assume that living in a very rich country like the United States would benefit people and be an advantage, but for the African American, it is not. As an immigrant, I have always thought that living in America is a privilege and that people of color are better off here. All these graphs show that I’m wrong.

Other sections of the reading discuss how institutions play a critical role in helping achieve more individual freedoms and happiness. Institutions that can make it better for individuals in society are public schools, better courts, etc. They are not described as tools that make it easier in a society, but as tools that give accessibilities to individuals so they can be stable and happy. Public schools and public health insurance do not have to be used for economic development that countries have always longed for, but for human development. If countries start putting individuals first and focus on human development, then the rest will follow. My question is though, how can governments focus on human development without first achieving economic development?