Tag Archives: SDGs

Connecting the Sustainable Development Goals

Last week a short article of mine – Sustainable rural livelihoods and the SDGs – was published in an excellent new edition of the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth’s (IPC-IG) journal, Policy in Focus. Along with a number of other articles – including ones on poverty, labour, migration, gender and land access– it made the case for rural poverty issues to be central to discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To go beyond the siloed, box-ticking of too much activity around the SDGs, an integrated approach is needed. I made the case for a politically-informed livelihoods perspective linking across goals. This could draw on the sustainable livelihoods approaches that became central to rural development debates in the 1990s, but learn lessons from their limitations.

This is an argument I have also made recently in a lecture at Sussex (available here) and in an IDS podcast conversation with my colleague, Marina Apgar. The podcast discusses the book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development (a 20 percent discount on the paperback is available via this link, using the code SLRD20), which makes the case that linking sustainable livelihoods approaches with critical agrarian political economy can move the debate forward.

These are the themes picked up in the Policy in Focus article, an edited excerpt of which follows (for the full piece, including references, check out the issue here):

Negotiating pathways to sustainable development

“The emergence of the SDGs as an overarching approach to development, agreed across the United Nations system, suggests that a grounded and integrative approach is urgently needed if implementation is to deliver the type of radical transformations envisaged. Sustainable rural development will not be realised if policymakers and practitioners proceed goal by goal, target by target, governed by elaborate monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and impact protocols. Instead, a return to a more integrated approach is required, allowing debates to occur about synergies, connections and trade-offs across the SDGs.

Achieving sustainability across environmental, economic and social spheres is centrally about political negotiation between different actors and interests. The pathways that emerge, and the directions that social and technical innovation takes, necessarily involve some people winning, while others lose out. What is ‘best’ for a particular place cannot be decided through technocratic diktat but must emerge through inclusive, participatory deliberation that allows for dissent, disagreement and inevitable conflict. Such processes must involve political negotiations, and require people and institutions, at local, national and global levels, to broker, facilitate and allow all voices to be heard, and alternative pathways to sustainable development to be uncovered and realised.

Power and political economy: extending the livelihoods approach

Some of the very legitimate critiques of the early versions of the sustainable livelihoods framework—and particularly the versions that were adapted for use by development agencies—focused on the lack of attention to politics, power and political economy. Some argued that the approach was too deterministic and too technocratic and contestation, dispute and patterns of winners and losers were not made clear. Politics of course appeared in discussions of the ‘institutions and organisations’ acting as mediating between resources and activities, and so affecting outcomes; but in many of the more operational applications, this element became side-lined in favour of a rather mechanistic institutional or policy design focus, rather than attention to the contestations around access and control, as originally intended.

The short book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development, aimed to link the original framework with a wider concern with agrarian political economy, making politics, power and control central. The result was an extended framework diagram, articulating key questions in agrarian political economy.Following Henry Bernstein (and his superb book in the same ‘small books for big ideas’ series – Class Dynamics and Agrarian Change), four core questions are asked:

  • Who owns what (or who has access to what)? This relates to questions of property and ownership of livelihood assets and resources.
  • Who does what? This relates to the social divisions of labour, the distinctions between those employing and employed, as well as to divisions based on gender and age.
  • Who gets what? This relates to questions of income and assets, and patterns of accumulation over time, and so to processes of social and economic differentiation.
  • What do they do with it? This relates to the array of livelihood strategies and their consequences as reflected in patterns of consumption, social reproduction, savings and investment.

In addition to these four, we can add two more, both focused on the social and ecological challenges that characterise contemporary societies:

  • How do social classes and groups in society and within the State interact with each other? This focuses on the social relations, institutions and forms of domination in society and between citizens and the State as they affect livelihoods.
  • How are changes in politics shaped by dynamic ecologies and vice versa? This relates to questions of political ecology, and to how environmental dynamics influence livelihoods. These in turn are shaped by livelihood activities through patterns of resource access and entitlement.

Taken together, these six questions – all central to critical agrarian and environmental studies – provide an excellent starting point for any analysis across the SDGs, when seeking to link rural livelihoods with the political economy of agrarian change in any setting.

Long-term, historical patterns of structurally-defined relations of power between social groups are central, as are processes of economic and political control by the State and other powerful actors, together with differential patterns of production, accumulation, investment and reproduction across society. Such an analysis allows analysis to move beyond mere empirical description of multiple cases to explanations rooted in understandings of wider structural relations, patterns and processes.

Taking a differentiated view of rural livelihoods in any context, we see that rural dwellers may be farmers, workers, traders, brokers, transporters, carers and others, with links spread across the urban–rural divide. Classes are not unitary, naturalised or static. Given this diversity of hybrid livelihood strategies and class identities, accumulation—and, therefore, social differentiation and class formation—takes place through a complex, relational dynamic over time.

Indeed, only with a longitudinal perspective, rooted in an understanding of the political economy of agrarian change, can longer-term trajectories of livelihoods be discerned. Rural livelihoods are not isolated and independent, amenable to narrow development interventions, but tied to what is happening elsewhere, both locally and more broadly. For these reasons, a wider political economy perspective is essential for any effective livelihoods analysis, and indeed any assessment of SDG interactions.

Making political economy central to the SDGs

It is essential to rescue the SDGs from a graveyard of technocratic-bureaucratic approaches, where goal-specific indicators, monitoring and impact assessment take over, locked into a sectoral view of the world, where the politics of interactions, connections and negotiations are ignored.

This requires new ways of thinking and working, and a revived livelihoods approach, rooted in an understanding of political economy can offer a way forward. By examining diverse pathways of change in a particular area, the contests between SDGs come to the fore, with winners and losers identified. Asking the six questions highlighted earlier shows how accumulation by some affects others, and how benefits and their distribution are contested over time.

Only with such an analysis can we get to the heart of the politics of the SDGs, and establish the platforms that are required for real transformative change. This will require new integrative institutions, with new people with new skills of more integrative analysis and practice. Reinventing, revitalising and resuscitating sustainable livelihoods approaches, but adapting and extending them for new demands, presents an urgent challenge for rural development and the SDGs.”

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

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How the Sustainable Development Goals can open up political space for transformative development

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed last September, there was much expectation about how they could help get sustainability back on the development agenda, and push the international community to develop new approaches to development. A declaration, covering both north and south, sought to identify a new era for development that was universal, indivisible and radical. As the slogan went, ‘no-one was to be left behind’. The old aid focused, post-colonial MDGs were a thing of the past we hoped, and a new political space was to be opened up.

Yet since then the excitement has somewhat waned. There have been other things on the agenda. A migrant crisis in Europe, continued terror attacks around the world and economic slump that has precipitated an economic crisis in commodity-dependent countries from Brazil to Zambia. Various SDG events now barely get a mention in the press. Meanwhile many seem to be spending a lot of time on the multiple goals and targets, and still bickering about what is in and out.

As I argued back in September, the potential for the SDGs is less the bureaucratic process of ticking boxes against targets, but more the political opportunity to open up a discussion about the directions for development, and how sustainability and development can be realised together. Last week the Independent Expert Group on Least Developed Countries, the STEPS Centre and IIED convened a high-level dialogue in London to discuss progress on implementation of the SDGs, and to reinject some of the earlier excitement, urgency and political debate that motivated people to sign up in the first place.

Transformations to sustainability and development is mostly about politics, as we explored in a  recent STEPS book on the politics of ‘green transformations’. It means having searching debates about visions and directions, confronting incumbent power head on, and creating a transformative politics, rooted in alliances between players – across states, businesses, civil society and more. Transformations to sustainability will not emerge from goals and targets, but fundamental political change, combined with new thinking and wide mobilisation.

The Least Developed Countries are some of the poorest in the world. They have been subject to decades of underdevelopment, both in the colonial and development eras. Many are highly dependent on external support, and inequalities and deep poverty undermine opportunities for sustainable development. But the SDGs can also offer hope. They offer a key moment for recasting the debate, providing what the event’s keynote speaker, Dipak Gyawali, calls a ‘toad’s eye view‘ – one rooted in local conditions, contexts and coalitions. The political space that has opened up with the SDGs for a new debate on sustainable development, must start with casting off the standard routines of development. It must avoid at all costs getting stuck in a techno-managerialist trap, one caught up in the audit culture of targets and goals, that so constrained the post Rio and MDG attempts at creating sustainable development.

Instead, building from the ground up means generating new futures that are not stuck in the past. In part because of the history of underdevelopment in LDCs, such countries can imagine new directions for development that are not so constrained by existing infrastructures and embedded patterns of consumption and development, as exist in the global north and the new ‘rising powers’. Instead, low carbon energy systems can be generated, for example, using the best of modern technology such as in decentralised solar systems. Without carbon intensive infrastructures and political powerful industrial interests, LDCs can leapfrog, creating new development paths for a low carbon energy transition. The same can be the case for agriculture, water resources, housing and other forms of infrastructure. This can be good for jobs, livelihoods and the environment.

Through the SDGs, development can be reimagined fundamentally, and LDCs can lead the way. But LDCs must not use ‘developed’ or ‘rising power’ countries as the model – this is failed, unsustainable development that must be rethought fundamentally. Innovations for sustainable development must start afresh, and aid and development support completely rethought. A few years ago, the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development offered some ideas on ways forward for opening up the SDGs to more radical, transformatory pathways for sustainable development. We must start now with an engaged political debate that discusses each of the 3Ds. We need to discuss the Directions for development, the Distribution of benefits within and between countries, and the Diversity of choice in development options, technologies and infrastructures.

Our London meeting began to map out some of these ideas, with contributions from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Nepal and Senegal.  A clear message once again was that the SDGs need to become more political.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland. Other versions appeared on the Huffington Post and the STEPS Centre blog

 

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SDGs: Will they make a difference?

This week heads of state assemble in New York to launch the Sustainable Development Goals. The agreed text lays out 17 goals and 169 targets. It is an ambitious agenda for all of humanity.

But will they make any difference? We have had the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were launched with similar fanfare in 2000. These focused on ‘development’ and ‘poverty’, but were similarly high-sounding. Promoted heavily by Jeff Sachs, bed nets, vaccines and agricultural technologies were going to save the world. Big money from international donors and philanthropists came behind them, but did they make a difference?

I must confess I was a deep cynic in 2000. The ‘aid’ frame of the MDGs meant that implementation was subject to the usual top-down impositions, and there were many limitations, with the added burden of the target-oriented audit culture, and all the distortions this creates. Was aid going to be a saviour or just a sticking plaster, unable to address the real structural causes of poverty and inequality? Did the MDGs just reinforce a world order where underdevelopment was the consequence of capitalist power and control in some parts of the world? Maybe.

So what happened since 2000? There have been major changes in the world economy, and with this geopolitics. The old aid frame with western nations and rich philantrophists from the US setting the agenda has gone (or at least partially). The declines in aggregate poverty achieved since then were not largely the result of MDG interventions at all, but the growth of China (and also India, parts of Latin America and more recently some countries in Africa). These changes were not driven by goals and targets, or village pilot projects such as Sachs’ much criticised Millennium Villages, but by economic aspiration, capitalist expansion and growth.

But I must admit that my cynicism for the MDGs has waned over 15 years, and this gives me hope for the SDGs. There are a number of reasons.

Investment linked to MDG targets has in some places resulted in significant gains. Ethiopia was one country for example that took the MDGs seriously. The statistics are impressive. Child mortality is down by two-thirds from 1990, and various other targets – on women’s empowerment, nutrition and food insecurity – have been met. Yes, there have been distortions – sometimes a blind focus on a target, forgetting the wider picture – but the effect has been galvanising. A commitment to a new state-led developmentalism is especially apparent in Ethiopia, the inheritance of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, but it’s evident elsewhere too. In a period when the neoliberal mantra has been the economic discipline, the retreat of the state and reliance on the private sector and voluntarism, the efforts of states like Ethiopia, committed in partnership with international donors to United Nations ambitions, is impressive.

Perhaps most importantly, the MDGs opened up a political space for a debate about development. The UNDP’s MDG ‘campaign’ was important in keeping a development agenda on the radar of governments around the world, and Salil Shetty was a great initial champion. These commitments were amplified, extended and supported of course by the major efforts of NGOs and civil society groups, around ‘Make Poverty History’, and other campaigns. Without such collective action and political pressure, the temptation to cut aid budgets in the face of the late 2000s financial crisis would have been even greater. The summits and grand UN meetings may have been performative circuses, but they have also provided a focus for advocacy and challenge. The politics of global summitry can be one where new ideas emerge, creating spaces for more radical alternatives. Moving beyond the target culture and shifting towards generating globally-agreed norms for policy and action – as has happened around human rights, women’s rights and the environment – is perhaps a more appropriate focus for advocacy, rather than getting hung up on all the goals and targets, while still keeping governments to account around key themes.

In a period of financial crisis, austerity, inward-facing nationalist politics and a geopolitics overtaken by the ‘war on terror’ post 9/11, the MDGs were in some way an important counter, offering a more internationalist vision of development, and a confirmation of the UN ideals. Fifteen years on, I have emerged with a somewhat less cynical view. But what of the SDGs? Might these offer the same? Just maybe.

If you read the document you will probably despair. It’s full of high-flown rhetoric and grandiose statements – most of which are rather meaningless hot air and grand gestures. Great fodder for the cynic. But I think if we (largely) forget the goals and targets (except as politically useful tools), and focus on the wider politics of the SDGs, we can see (perhaps) some radical potential. There are five things that might help assuage the cynic in me.

First, again, the launch this week, and the continued presence of the goals, agreed by all nations, opens up a political space, as the MDGs did in 2000. Like then, it will have to be followed up by an energetic campaign, and radical voices will need to enter the debates to keep governments on their toes. Today, the broader conditions for a new argument for development are even less promising than in 2000, so we need to catch the moment, and make the case.

Second, and this is emphasised repeatedly in the agreement document, the SDGs are universal – for all nations. This is not a ‘development’ document, with the unequal relations between ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ inscribed. Instead, this is as relevant to the UK as it is to Zimbabwe, and accountabilities and commitments must work in all directions. This is an important departure from the MDGs that had the old (post-colonial) aid framework at the core. Recently the SDGs were discussed in the UK Parliament, but in the wrong committee. The SDGs are not just the concern of the International Development Committee but of all government. SDGs should be discussed under Home Affairs, as well as development.

Third, the explicit linking of sustainability and so environmental concerns, especially climate change, is vital. Long-term, sustainable development cannot forget this. The MDGs pigeon-holed environmental issues, and did not see them integral to all development. Bringing sustainability centre stage is crucial, as the world negotiates a future in the context of climate change. In terms of UN efforts, it also brings development (UNDP) closer to environment (UNEP), and so makes the connections that have been attempted repeatedly in Stockholm, Rio, Joburg and Rio again.

Fourth, what is needed here, along with the wider ‘campaign’ for sustainable development is what emerged from the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development – a local level movement for sustainable development, based on practical change on the ground. Back then it was called Agenda 21. Remember that? Agenda 21 petered out and sustainable development became increasingly the domain of global summitry and COP events associated with climate change. But without practical enactments of sustainability, and a radical realisation of what it means in different places, the big ambitions will fall flat.

Fifth, a new developmentalism, linked to a universal commitment to an internationalised solution amongst the community of nations, gives the UN a pivotal role. As a new Secretary General is sought, I hope that whoever is appointed will keep these visions central and push member states to match their signing up to the SDGs with consistent financing and concerted action in line with the goals. This will not just mean carping at the failures of so-called developing nations, but will mean keeping developed nations to their word. As the UK imposes yet more austerity measures that affect poor people and ethnic minorities most harshly, at the same time as cutting support for transitions to green energy, will David Cameron, a great supporter of the SDGs, take note?

Green transformations involve politics, and require both high level goals, but most crucially organised collective action. As we discussed in the book The Politics of Green Transformations these may occur through a variety of processes, being led by technology and innovation, state intervention, market reforms or citizen actions. Lessons show that sustained transformations to sustainability require political coalitions between groups through mobilisation across sites and scales. If the SDGs are to have meaning it is this new politics that will make the difference, and not getting hung up on the many goals or targets.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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