September 16, 2015

Sustainable Development Goal 0.0 – Rethinking Development

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Thoughts on Next Steps as the United Nations Moves to Adopt the Sustainable Development Goals.

We Officially Have a To-Do List! …Now What?

I like to-do lists. They give me a sense of clarity, a direction and an initial feeling of accomplishment to kick-start some productivity. Developing a to-do list at the United Nations, however, is a truly herculean feat. The upcoming adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the end of this September, therefore, represents an understandably noteworthy accomplishment. To-do-lists, however, quickly become meaningless unless they are acted upon. And taking action presents its own challenges.

This was the subject before the participants at the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) panel on the “Road to New York: Keeping the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda in Focus” September 2nd at IFPRI’s headquarters in Washington DC. Panelists included Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, Claudia Ringler and Shenggen Fan of IFPRI, Francisco Ferreira of the World Bank, and Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute. The speakers discussed a variety of obstacles, opportunities and actions that are presented by the coming implementation of the SDGs, but the central theme focused on moving from planning to implementation of the SDGs.

The Fallacy of Trade-offs

Arguably one of the most difficult challenges to implementing the SDGs is presented by the apparent contradictions between some of the goals. As Claudia Ringler described, the goals include targets that deal with both “sustainable [ecological] development and the ones focusing on human development.” This dichotomy will require what Claudia described as “balancing” of the “clear trade-offs” presented by the goals. Arguably the best example of such trade-offs comes from agriculture.

The complexity of ecological systems has encouraged agriculture research in the past to focus on simplifying the growing process rather than on creatively managing ecological systems. This has given rise to mono-cropping, the use of synthetic fertilizers, and the application of chemical herbicides and pesticides, among other “industrial” techniques. These methods have doubtless increased global food production dramatically, evidenced by the effect of the Green Revolution. But agricultural growth in the past six decades has come at the expense of environmental and human health. We now find ourselves in a catch-22; SDG 15 calls for protecting terrestrial ecosystems (threatened in large part by agriculture), but SDG 2 articulates an aspiration to end hunger, which some estimates suggest will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural production over the next three decades. Despite the apparent “obviousness” of this trade-off predicament, the situation is not as bleak as contemporary development models would assert.

The trade-off perspective – that human wellbeing is necessarily in opposition to environmental wellbeing – rests on an age-old assumption that humans are somehow separate from the environment, the classic distinction between culture and nature. Given our ability to manipulate our surroundings far more than other creatures, this separation is perhaps understandable. However, the environmental historian William Cronon describes such views as dualistic, anthropocentric, incorrect, and ultimately harmful to our continued existence. Avoiding trade-offs, such as those in agriculture, will require changing our approach to development and the governing methods that guide them.

A New Type of Development for a New Set of Goals

The trade-off fallacy assumes that human improvements necessarily beget environmental harm. However, this is not the case. Researchers such as M. Kat Anderson have shown how traditional communities have effectively managed their local ecosystems to increase food production. John Ikerd, Michael Pollan, scientists from the Union of Concerned Scientists (and many others) have demonstrated how modern ecological knowledge and monitoring make it possible to increase productivity beyond even industrial methods using sustainable agriculture land management (SALM) techniques. Currently in Bungoma County, Kenya, SALM methods are being implemented to not only increase food production, but reduce carbon emissions, improve ecosystem biodiversity, and strengthen community resilience; trade-offs averted.

Examples from Bungoma and around the world testify to the possibility of reducing or eliminating the trade-offs that are seen as facts of nature by the current development paradigm. With these examples growing in number, it is worth questioning whether the “clear trade-offs” described during the panel are actually clear or whether they are products of the past century’s flawed development philosophies.

The SDGs offer an opportunity to proliferate non-tradeoff development methods globally. Doing so, however, is going to require banishing the underlying dualistic human-nature assumption embedded in development knowledge that was explicitly and implicitly acknowledged by the speakers at Wednesday’s IFPRI seminar. Additionally, it necessitates that we throw out the one-size-fits-all approach to development that has characterized much of the last century. Though best practices can provide guiding principles, each location will utilize solutions unique to its ecosystem and its people.

Avoiding trade-offs requires creativity, local knowledge, and local ownership of development goals. International agencies still have a role to play in this local development. But as Andrew Steer remarked during the panel discussion, agencies need to “not hog” the implementation process, but rather act as facilitators of local empowerment. Before we are to begin checking off all of the to-do items on the SDG list, we need to add a new goal before the other 17; SDG 0.0 – fundamentally change the way we approach development.

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