Development can’t be sustainable AND strive for growth

Next year, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire with victories seen in too few of the eight milestones set.

In their place, the United Nations will put what are being called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a new set of global milestones (there are currently 17, but my fingers are crossed we’ll narrow the focus) aimed not only at ending global poverty, but doing so in such a way that preserves our Mother Earth and holds both ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries accountable for achieving them at home.

This means that under the goals, it will be just as important to address the child poverty epidemic in Toronto, Canada, where 29% of children and rising live in low-income families, as it will be to ensure that the ~2.5 million residents of informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya have access to basic sanitation and housing infrastructure.

That’s a great thing.

But I’m worried – and not just because the SDGs appear on track to define goals even more ambitious than the MDGs, which we didn’t achieve.

I’m worried because we still seem to be defining development as growth.

For example, I just started reading Jeffery Sachs’ new book, and in the first chapter he says: “SDGs call for socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth.” (Sachs, The age Of Sustainable Development, p. 13)

Continued growth at the rates we see today is the opposite of sustainable.
I’ve said this before.

The 1972 book Limits to Growth warned us of this, and recent research illustrates that we’re well on our way to fulfilling their predictions.

If we really want the SDGs to guide us towards economic, social and environmental sustainability every one of us needs to eliminate the tired and dangerous idea that development = growth from our lexicon, so we can get down to the vital business of making room for a new definition of development – and then working to achieve it.

GDP is bunk.

The global conversation about poverty and development has started to shift:

We’re (slowly) moving from a notion of “us” (developed countries in the Global North) helping “them” (developing countries in the Global South) end extreme poverty “there”, towards a narrative that frames most countries–regardless of what continent they’re on–as experiencing a deeply devastating (and widening) gap between the rich and poor.

This new way of framing the story was stamped in headlines in recent weeks, driven by the release of economist Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the 21st Century adding much-needed analytical meat onto its largely theoretical bones.

I believe this change is vital, because we need to redefine “development” (and change how we approach it in practice accordingly) to have any real hope of one day ending global poverty and conflict.

But before a new story of shared global struggle requiring a truly global solution can fully take hold, there are a few things we need to unlearn.

One big one:

Economic growth ≠ development

Continue reading →

Avoiding a Train Wreck & Pulling Words Off Paper

As I mentioned in my last post, a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to hear Dr. John Ruggie speak about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (aka the Ruggie Principles), which he authored.

Here are a couple reflections from that talk, and the discussions I had afterwards:

Continue reading →

Protect, respect, remedy: 3 pillars for business and human rights

This Thursday, I’m excited to have the privilege to hear Dr. John Ruggie speak.

A professor of Human Rights & International Affairs at Harvard, former United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights and a Canadian, Ruggie is a force pushing businesses to assume greater responsibility for the people and planet on which they have a huge impact.

With the upcoming talk in mind, I figured I ought to brush up on Ruggie and one of his most widely-known achievements: the 2011United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – also called the “Ruggie Framework”.

Continue reading →

Four ideas about advocacy evaluation

Advocacy is an art of advancing a cause, idea or policy within political, economic and/or social institutions. It requires an ability to deftly navigate power dynamics, build influence, collaborate with (sometimes unlikely) allies and think on your feet.

Continuous, rigorous evaluation of advocacy is vital to ensure we’re learning from past experiences, pivoting as the ground shifts beneath us and investing our time and energy where it’s most likely to have the biggest return.

But applying traditional evaluation tools to advocacy work tends to miss the mark. At best, approaches like log frames and pre-fixed metrics provide imperfect and incomplete insights into advocacy results. At worst, these approaches can clip the wings of advocates by binding them to static indicators that become increasingly less relevant as the context inevitably changes.

Evaluation approaches for advocacy need to be as adaptive and contextually aware as advocacy work itself. I haven’t quite figured out what this looks like and, while there are many smart people who have been talking about this, I don’t think anyone else has either.

It makes this sandbox an exciting place to play.

Continue reading →