Putting people at the centre:
the political agenda for sustainable development

This post is by Mareen Buschmann, Senior Research and Advocacy Adviser on Financing for Development, and José Manuel Roche, Chief Researcher.

It’s almost 30 years since the launch of the iconic first Human Development report. It challenged the dominant idea that the main objective of development progress was the pursuit of economic growth.

Instead, the report argued that economic growth is just a means to an end. The ultimate objective of development should be to improve people’s wellbeing in the multiple dimensions they value – from health and education, to dignity and empowerment.

Today that message resonates more strongly than ever. Evidence shows economic growth is not enough: we need people-centered development policies.

That idea came across powerfully at the recent Human Development and Capabilities Association’s conference. Drawing inspiration from that, here are our top three take-aways on a political agenda for sustainable development today.

1 Oneness versus the top 1%

We were moved by the opening address by Dr Vandana Shiva, scientist and eco-activist, who spoke about increasing inequalities and a global trend of separation rather than oneness. It’s a topic she has studied throughout her career, be it in physics, ecology or human nature. Oxfam research shows that in today’s world 26 people have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. The pie is growing, but ever fewer people benefit from it.

By deregulating the economy, according to Dr Shiva, the “1% system has managed to separate itself from the 99% of humanity”. The same trends experienced in economies all over the world are now taking place in politics, polarising society.

Take interventions into politics by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Through emotion and sentiment analytics, behaviour is manipulated, with the objective of maintaining or increasing wealth and power. “The economy of greed and wealth for only a few is maintained by politics of hate,” says Dr Shiva. By treating migrants as a threat and through misogynistic and racist messages, political outcomes are influenced to keep the 1% in power. We’re now at a point where we see MPs in the UK facing death threats over their political stance on Brexit and, while public attitudes about migration harden, refugees and migrants are risking and losing their lives in their quest for safety and a better future.

But we have a choice. A choice between oneness and separation. And between whether or not to use the vibrancy of democracy to shape our world in a way that serves us all.

2 No policies without understanding politics

Growing or persistent inequalities are a significant barrier to achieving human development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Our own research at Save the Children shows that, unless inequalities are tackled front and centre, on current trends 4 million children will die under age five in the year 2030. Tackling inequalities and putting the systems and actions in place to drive convergence will help give every last child the chance to survive and to thrive.

At the conference, a panel put together by Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr looked at the politics behind the SDGs and related this to the need to tackle inequalities.

New evidence shows there have been three levels of political dispute as part of the SDG process:

  1. The discourse. The dispute here was evident in the discussion about the text of the 2030 Agenda declaration – including controversy over the wording for the iconic Leave No one Behind pledge. After a long debate about what labels to use to refer to different economic and social groups, including opposition to naming the elephant in the room – reducing inequalities and closing the gaps – consensus was finally reached on a progressive wording that emphasises reaching the furthest behind first.
  2. How to measure progress. The UN established the Inter-agency Expert Group on SDGs indicators with the mission to develop and implement the global indicator framework. This process had a veneer of objectivity, suggesting that the experts should be allowed to do their job and leave out the political debate. However, research presented at the conference showed that agreeing the set of indicators was far from a purely objective process, moving from a strictly technocratic issue to a sensitive political debate. Finally, specific groups that are at risk of being left behind were agreed, with a call for data disaggregation by gender, age group, disability, geography, ethnicity just to mention a few. A major political success.
  3. Country-level implementation. In the Voluntary National Review reports, countries make a choice on how much to disaggregate data. Evidence shows countries tend to mention the pledge to leave no one behind in their reporting but fail to propose a concrete national policy strategy to realise it. The political challenges involved in agreeing the SDGs mean that we made gains at the discourse and measurement levels, but have lost momentum when it comes to country-level implementation. If we want to realise a more prosperous and sustainable world that leaves no one behind, we need to understand the politics to better influence them – and take urgent action to get back on track.

3 No time for complacency – the urgency of the climate crisis

As global warming exceeds the most dire warnings, action to tackle the climate crisis change is no longer an elephant in the room. It has broken free and is parading down the street. Greta Thunberg’s campaign, Fridays for Future, has seen millions of people demand political action urgently.

Yet political proposals remain insufficient to contain global warming at sustainable levels. Tackling the climate crisis is part of the Agenda 2030. If we don’t do this urgently, we won’t achieve any of the SDGs.

Climate-related crises destroy lives and livelihoods, as demonstrated earlier this year by the devastating impact of Cyclone Idai. Some improvement can be achieved by investing in resilience – for example, when El Niño struck Somalia in 2015, preparedness programmes helped save more than 4,500 households from displacement and destruction. But structural change – which puts in place systems for sustainable production and lifestyles – is needed too.

That message was amplified throughout the human development conference: Climate breakdown is happening now. It requires immediate action. In the words of Dr Shiva, “The infrastructure of endless industrial growth is incompatible with a sustainable way of living, and the 1% economy is incompatible with oneness.”

Our shared challenge

We have plenty to celebrate over the last three decades. In the panel on policy and human development, Dr Sabina Alkire described how the SDG agenda has acquired the language and purpose of the human development approach in ways that were unimaginable when the first human development report was launched in 1990. Luis Felipe Lopez Calva gave a snapshot on progress in measuring human wellbeing – from the dominance of economic growth measures to the multidimensional approaches we use today. John Hammock spoke about the multidimensional poverty index and the policy success of this human development approach being adopted by governments all over the world.

But worryingly, emerging narratives are calling once again for the centrality of economic purpose, increasingly focusing on growth, economic prosperity, building infrastructure and markets, often at the cost of investing in citizens’ rights to universal health coverage, good-quality education and a sustainable lifestyle. And this is happening at a time when the world is witnessing unprecedented levels of global warming, a widening gap between the rich and poor, ever longer and increasingly protracted crises, and many refugees and migrants – children as well as adults – dying before they find safety and the chance of a better future.

This cannot be a choice of growth or people. Yes, economic growth is needed. But alone it’s not enough to keep our commitments on bringing about a more prosperous, peaceful and equal world for all by 2030.

Achieving this vision requires a sharp focus on tackling persisting inequalities; urgent actions to tackle the climate crisis; and a focus on capabilities and people – especially young people, because they will ultimately shape their societies’ future.

We need people-centered development policies.

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