Development, Government and governance, Science and technology | South Asia

31 October 2018

The Sustainable Development Goals are being decoded by governments around the world, and many are too focused on technological solutions, Ritwika Basu writes.

The year 2015 was a strategic milestone for global governance around key development issues. Addressing sustainability and development at large, the international community crafted and instituted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda consists of 17 ambitious goals – known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Current sustainability discourse is largely guided by the SDGs. In practice, their implementation has become heavily focused on a top-down framework that is not only removed from context, but is also at times lost on people.

The SDGs employ a global framework in which goals are purposefully generalised. The problem is that this risks its cultural assimilation by a people whose trademark is diversity. Globally shaped normative development trajectories often overlook tradition and culture, instead encouraging modernisation and assimilation.

‘Smart’ obsessed, technocentric approaches could be fracturing sustainability in our minds, potentially affecting how we think and therefore act.

Policy discourse may be expansive, but sustainability is still stuck in a ‘Silo Mentality’. The SDGs are married to competitive national goals around technological innovation, upgradation, and skills, while people-centric dimensions – including social, economic, and cultural aspects – remain stuck in rhetoric.

In India, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) oversees the implementation of the SDGs. The backbone of their approach is mainstreaming. Each goal is aligned with a centrally sponsored scheme, and each of these schemes is managed by a relevant Ministry.

More on this: Putting the Sustainable Development Goals to work at the local level

Local indicators map progress against each SDG and open the schemes to debate and further changes. Likewise, state governments have been encouraged to undertake mapping exercises and provide blueprints for achieving the goals. So far seven states have proposed working models for implementing the SDGs, while others are still working on it.

A few states have proposed Vision 2030 documents to give shape to key indicators. These suggestions are guided by regional priorities such as health in Kerala, and decentralised planning and promotion of green growth in Haryana.

Others have proposed sectoral plans around one or two major themes. Tamil Nadu focuses on infrastructure, Maharashtra on sustainable livelihoods and balanced growth, and Punjab on setting up dedicated SDG support units.

Granted, this provides independence at a state level, and it also streamlines monitoring and evaluation.

Individual states draw on bureaucratic channels and organised consultation processes to devise plans. The planning process is inclusive to an extent, but the framing of ‘sustainability’ remains ambiguous. While local solutions may focus on local problems, their approach is still coming from the top down – and technocentrism rules.

For instance, a closer look at Haryana’s Vision 2030 document reveals an overemphasis on resource mobilisation, privatisation and infrastructure-heavy pathways to sustainability. Advocating for the development of material resources to combat material dependence is mind-numbingly paradoxical. Resource dependence is often justified by a ‘leave none behind’ argument, but pays little attention to traditional approaches to sustainability as it steamrolls towards industrial development.

The pre-SDG era was not a pre-sustainability era. Customary norms and cultural practices within communities achieved sustainable development goals with robust monetary logic, far before the concept of ‘global sustainability’.

The tension between global and local approaches is a conundrum. ‘Glocal’ might look good on paper, but in reality the discourse is fractured.

More on this: Balancing global fish depletion against human livelihoods

Sustainability advocates may find this argument completely pointless. We have come this far, where every Ministry website and strategic vision document unequivocally claims to be working towards sustainable development. But uniform articulation and a lack of local representation implies a global set of objectives around sustainability – a set that does not represent the drive toward sustainability that motivates many communities.

Sustainability is the only way of life for the frugal majority of India’s impoverished landscapes. By necessity, many communities make use of their resources with long-term environmental goals in mind. Yet this fact remains elusive in the national discourse.

While the SDGs are engaged in the complex process of ‘strategic mainstreaming’, sustainability is already a lived reality for many. Although the end vision is the same, the two approaches run parallel to one another. One is planned, monitored and reported, while the other is internalised and passed on through lived traditions. The two approaches seem unable to converge.

Some countries are looking to bridge the gap by bringing the SDGs closer to people.

The Swedish city of Malmo actively draws on local health practices in its Action Plan for Culture. To improve access to art, Spain’s Barcelona and Colombia’s Bogota have fostered engagement between urban art groups and schools of diverse economic profiles. Their goal is to build peace, solidarity and resilience for underprivileged children. In Puno, Peru, local festivals and customs are being revived to strengthen advocacy and action around the SDGs.

Sustainable solutions need more than just frameworks, compliance, and technology. Like most global matters – such as climate change, terrorism, and the refugee crisis – reinforcing plurality in discourse is pivotal. While for the good of humanity it is crucial for nation-states to band together, at the granular level it is equally important to ensure that local responses are not downgraded or overlooked.

The contours of global discourse may change with time, but the concerns themselves will remain. We must not discredit the many solutions offered by tradition and custom. The SDGs need to move beyond technocentrism.

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