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Post-Development and Sustainable Development Goals Reflection

Post development theory is founded upon the notion that development practice, prior to 1980s, was politically motivated and led to western-northern hegemony over the rest of the world (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Gustavo iterates that development was just a ‘slogan’ used to establish neo-colonial structures, which were economically and politically driven and eventually resulted in patriarchal, Eurocentric, racist and capitalistic modernity (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). The reason why development had (and still has) economic and political nuances is because historically, development was driven by state power and state competition (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Gustavo and Escobar reflect on post-development theory and how can we strive to ‘live beyond development’.  This essay argues that SDGs are reformative instead of transformative. The SDGs continue to perpetuate the idea of universalism and have a very clinical approach to development practice. However, SDGs do take upon the human rights approach, which we cannot overlook. Human rights approach helps establish political institutions, governance, participation, empowerment, and transparency. This is a precursor to achieving ‘autonomia’ and solving pertinent issues relating to security, racism, sexual discrimination, debt, unemployment and homelessness etc.

Gustavo and Escobar theorize that development is deeply rooted in colonial discourse that depicts global North as superior to the global South (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Development was synonymous to modernism, which perpetuated the idea that North is ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ whereas the South is backwards, degenerative and primitive (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). This idea also gave birth to the concept of underdevelopment (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Gustavo said that because of the universalization of western notions of the ‘good life’, the global South would be perpetually categorized as ‘underdeveloped’ (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). The idea is that the North will always be one step ahead and more ‘advanced’ than the South (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). The neo-colonialist created a false perception that the Global South needs to be ‘saved’ by its own ‘backwardness’ and wants to pursue the western model of development (Esteva & Escobar, 2017).

By 1980s, scholars like Escobar, Gustavo, and Wolfgang started arguing that development was linear, universalist, based on western models of industrialization that were unsustainable and majorly ignored the local, cultural, social and historical contexts of people and their needs (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). This type of development was inhospitable. People, especially at grassroots level had started reclaiming the way they wanted to live via autonomous emancipation (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). The ‘underprivileged’ wanted to define their own path and establish their own development alternatives (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). They wanted to be defined by their own capacity, use their own tools and have autonomy over resource allocation (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). During this wave, Jeffery Sachs theorized that people should have access to the basic needs even though he had capitalistic ideologies (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Wolfgang states that it is the mental structure of development intellectual landscape that has resulted in a hierarchy between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ nations because in actuality, “the experience of billions of ordinary men and women are beyond development’ (Esteva & Escobar, 2017).  

Given the ontological frameworks of development described above, Gustavo and Escobar reveal several different post-colonial approaches to development (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). The first concept is ‘autonomia’. This Latin American word attempts to re-localize development practice (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). It derives from the grassroots approach and attempts to create conditions from existing through ‘contemporary art of living’ (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). However, Escobar asserts that autonomy is not just a concept for periphery countries; it applies to the centers as well (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). In his experience, many grassroots communities started establishing their own development path. For instance, Zapatistas are autonomous and self-sufficient because they don’t rely on the market or the state to live their life. They have access to basic technologies. However, they are not extremely dependent on them (Esteva & Escobar, 2017).

The second concept is development alternatives. According to Gustavo, development has become ‘an obsession’ and ‘an addiction’ (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). It is a tool that perpetuates state control and hegemonic power dynamics (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). Thus, in order to contest these power dynamics, we must look for alternatives (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). These alternatives can be initiated by international institutions, NGOs, academia and governments (Esteva & Escobar, 2017).

The last approach to post-modernism is ‘civilizational transitions’ as iterated by Arturo (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). He poses a transformative strategy to development by stating that we need to recognize that ‘we are all in this together’ and our aim is to ‘liberate mother Earth’ (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). He says that we need to acknowledge not only the non-dominant, peripheral and alternative form of modernity but also, acknowledge the non-dominant west that exists within the West (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). We all need to exercise development practice without reinforcing patriarchal, Eurocentric, racist and capitalistic modernity (Esteva & Escobar, 2017). He proposes that by re-localizing all systems such as food, energy, health, transportation and society, we can achieve ‘autonomia’ and practice a sense of being through contemporary art of being (Esteva & Escobar, 2017).

It is of supreme importance to investigate and critique the role of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the context of post-development theory. Precursors to SDGs were the MDGs, which were corroborated in 1970s (just before the emergence of post development theory in 1980s) (Sengupta, 2016). The MDGs followed a ‘needs based’ framework perpetuating the idea that having access to basic needs is synonymous to a good standard of living (Sengupta, 2016). Similarly, the SDGs are not transformative in nature rather, they are reformative (Sengupta, 2016). The SDGs don’t promote Wolfgang’s thinking – transformation and change in resource patterns. SDGs are problematic in that is still promotes a universal idea of the good life which still follows the ontological development framework and is highly inhospitable (Sengupta, 2016). The SDGs still have an extremely clinical needs based agenda. It assumes that once we have mitigated the effects of hunger, education, food insecurity and inequality, only then we will live in a ‘developed’ society (Sengupta, 2016). However, this is not true. SDGs are not going to have a lasting improvement and won’t really change the wider society (Sengupta, 2016).

While SDGS are clinical, universal, and don’t capture the complexity of sustainable development, they do help in deconstructing power, privilege, western hegemony, and establishing governance and equalitarian playing field (Sengupta, 2016). One of the biggest criticisms that MDGs got was the fact that MDGs had been devised in a top-down manner by international civil services in New York rather than a democratic process of consultation with civil society (Sengupta, 2016). Given the undemocratic beginnings, the UN was careful in its approach when devising the Agenda 2030 (Sengupta, 2016). The secretary general Ban Ki-Moon claimed that the UN had consulted over 5000 civil society organizations working in 120 countries (Sengupta, 2016). The UN even incorporated comments from extensive online global surveys. It was because of the global alliances and international cooperation that decided to put sustainable development at the core of the 2030 Agenda (Sengupta, 2016). The huge shift in decision-making during MDGs, which was top down, to SDGs, which was participatory shows that SDGs are reformative (Sengupta, 2016). SDGs help in increasing international participation, strengthen participatory nature of institutions and build better global governance (Sengupta, 2016).

It is also important to acknowledge that MDGs were merely just promoting economic growth as a solution to development issues. Whereas, SDGs go beyond poverty, low literary rates and mortality rates; SDGs focus on meeting the needs of future generations while maintaining ecological resilience and maintaining the socio-ecological systems (Sengupta, 2016). The inclusive and interconnected nature of the SDGs is a huge step forward in addressing key challenges because they are not working towards development with standalone goals, they have an integrated framework which captures the interconnectedness of development concerns (Sengupta, 2016).  

Lastly, the SDGs don’t perpetuate the idea that development just needs to take place in global south or ‘underdeveloped’ communities. The language used to describe the SDGs and its targets has been chosen in a way that the goals are applicable to all countries; rich or poor (Sengupta, 2016). 

Coming to effectiveness of SDGs in India, SDGs do not do justice to navigating between the complex interconnectedness amid multiethnic society and sustainable development. Like most countries, India is a country that has a lot of cultural diversity due to copious multiethnic communities. Further, all economic, political, social, cultural and religious arenas suffer from complex web of hierarchical systems. The SDGs hardly try to navigate between the complex interconnected frameworks, deconstruct hierarchical power dynamics and promote a just way of living for all. Overlooking the complex social systems that exist in any community, society, and country is problematic as it hinders development. For instance, SDG 5 aims to achieve gender equality and power all. However, it doesn’t recognize gender as a spectrum. In India, a LGBTQIA++ person is not recognized as a person due to section 377 which criminalizes gender and sexual orientation and activities that are ‘against the order of nature”. Thus, a person who is public about their sexual orientation cannot be empowered. Discriminatory laws such as 377 hinder the achievements of SDGs. Therefore, it is quiet important to first focus on equipping population with social, political, and cultural rights which will result in equal access to justice for all, provision of legal identity and access to information.

That being said, it is important to not overlook the fact that SDGs are guided by human rights and have dedicated an entire goal (16) to peace (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). Goal 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). This is especially pertinent to today’s society given the growing hate, terror and intolerance in the world. Even Gustavo mentioned that we are living with issues such as “racism, police violence, sexual discrimination, chronic debt, unemployment, and homelessness” (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). He further mentions that we need to resist these horrors by taking “better measures, policies, decisions, behavior and language to construct a better society – more humane and sensible. This is the time to come together, to hold each other tight; both inside every country and between people of different countries” (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016, p. 7). Making human rights the core of development practice democratizes governments, decentralizes development work and increases participation (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). The human rights approach places the recipient at the heart of the development project (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). This opens a dialogue between the different stakeholders instead of using a top-down approach. As a result, all development practices are based on principles of empowerment, accountability, transparency, equality and participation (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). Human rights approach challenges the ontological development logic that solving poverty and economically empowering the underprivileged will lead to automatic promotion of rights (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). Making human rights the core of development strategy take a departure from this neo-classical development logic and empowers people of all economic, political, social, cultural backgrounds (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). It addresses the inequalities, discriminatory practices and unjust power relations to some extent, which are open deeply rooted in development issues. Further, human rights approach will also result in political pluralism, effective political institutions and governance. These are the factors that are going to help combat that issues that Gustavo mentioned (racism, police violence, sexual discrimination, chronic debt, unemployment, and homelessness). Additionally, it is this human rights based approach that is going to help oppose “patriarchal, Eurocentric, racist, and capitalistic modernity” as iterated by Arturo. Effective political institutions, governance, and human rights based development programs are factors that are precursor to empowering communities to be autonomous and implement their own hospitable development strategies, practice development alternatives and “re-exist within the contemporary art of living”. (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2016). 


Miha Alam

She is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Development Practice and Sustainability Management at University of Waterloo. 

Work Cited:

Gustavo Esteva & Arturo Escobar (2017): Post-Development @ 25: on ‘being stuck’ and moving forward, sideways, backward and otherwise, Third World Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2017.1334545

Icelandic Human Rights Centre. (2016). Human Rights and Development. Retrieved from: http://www.humanrights.is/en/human-rights-education-project/human-rights-concepts-ideas-and-fora/human-rights-in-relation-to-other-topics/human-rights-and-development

Sengupta, M. (2016, Jan 18). The Sustainable Development Goals: An Assessment of Ambition. E-Intenational Relations. Retrieved from http://www.e-ir.info/2016/01/18/the-sustainable-development-goals-an-assessment-of-ambition/


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