Tag Archives SDG

Are CSOs really involved in the SDGs, as promised by the international community?

CSOs are recognized as key partners in the collaborative pursuit of the SDGs, which provide a positive framework for action and dialogue. However, a recent study found that those CSOs who manage to become and remain engaged are mainly part of the aid system and operate in urban locations. Does the inclusion of these powerful CSOs mean that civil society is included in the pursuit of the SDGs, or is the opposite the case?

Task Team SDGs Header

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be made possible by strong global partnerships and cooperation. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are recognized as key partners in the successful implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

In the face of this increasingly urgent global agenda, the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (Task Team) commissioned a research study focused on the identification of ‘factors that help and hinder the engagement of CSOs in the implementation of the SDGs’. The study was undertaken by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) under the leadership of ISS scholars Kees Biekart and Alan Fowler. Key findings discussed here are derived from the Synthesis Report, summarizing evidence from 21 case studies in six countries: Costa Rica, Ghana, Hungary, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Tanzania.

Enabling environments required

Advancing the role of civil society in development requires two things: an enabling environment for CSOs operation and CSOs’ commitment to their own effectiveness. CSO enabling environment refers to an environment that supports the establishment and operation of CSOs, including multi-stakeholder dialogues, legal frameworks, as well as policies and actions of donors and governments towards CSOs. CSO development effectiveness is concerned with what CSOs themselves can do to address their effectiveness, transparency and accountability in order to effectively engage in development.

The crowding out of non-dominant CSOs

Unfortunately, one of the main findings in this study is that there is a lack of diversity of types of CSOs engaged in SDG processes, with those CSOs that are part of the aid system and in an urban location at an advantage: “This six-country study sees not only an urban bias in CSOs pursuing the SDGs, but also an intellectual class bias that is globally connected,” the study shows (Biekart, Fowler 2020).

This finding is confirmed by the 2018 Global Partnership Monitoring Round of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) as well as the OECD publication ‘Development Assistance Committee Members and Civil Society’ published this year. During the GPEDC 2018 Monitoring Round, CSOs reported that “…these consultations are not systematic, which hinders their ability to provide quality input. Results indicate that these engagement opportunities by both partner country governments and development partners could be more regular, predictable and involve a more diverse set of actors” (GPEDC 2019). Similarly, the OECD study concluded that “systematic dialogue with CSOs is much more common at headquarters level than at partner country level. Dialogue does not necessarily meet good practice standards such as inclusivity, joint agenda setting, co-ordination among members, accessibility and timelines” (OECD 2020).

From this study, it becomes clear that there is a wide array of local, traditional and/or informal civil society being ignored. CSOs’ SDG-related knowledge is diminishing at local, rural areas, which also means that those CSOs’ skills, interests and areas of influence are not being used as powerful resources towards the realization of the SDGs.

Possible explanations

The lack of diversity of CSOs engagement in the SDGs is explained by the fact that governments play a main role in deciding which CSOs to include or exclude in such dialogues. It can also be explained by the finding that the SDGs have not led to any significant change in the way donors within the official aid system support CSOs. There is no significant increase in coordination like a common SDG funding pot or an effective national platform for donors’ dialogue with CSOs. Traditional competitive bidding and short-term support to CSOs remain the norm. Donors’ support continues to benefit large (inter)national urban located CSOs. The OECD 2020 report confirms this finding by concluding that most of member funding favours member countriy and international CSOs.

Donors may need to consider different funding mechanisms and requirements, which can be met by those CSOs that have less experience with and access to international funding. This is an opportunity for donors to encourage cooperation between CSOs and provide capacity development support, which can improve CSOs’ chances of being included in development processes in the future.

A step backward?

Governments are generally interested in the additional resources that CSOs bring to the table, but with narrower rules that limit their autonomy as independent development actors. The study shows a variety of mechanisms used by governments to constrain civic space, like limiting information access, selective CSO inclusion/exclusion, and stringent laws inducing self-censorship. It is important to stress that this study found that the implementation of the SDGs does not by itself lead to an ‘opening’ of civic space. The GPEDC 2018 monitoring round also confirmed that the enabling environment for civil society organizations is deteriorating. CSOs’ engagement in pursuing the SDGs provides insights into whether or not civic freedoms are respected, but it does not necessarily mean that a country is complying with international civic freedom agreements.

The need for continued engagement

All these findings demonstrate clear non-compliance with existing international commitments to ensure that CSO contributions to development reach their full potential. The work of the Task Team is, therefore, pertinent and urgent: bringing together donors, partner country governments, and CSOs to engage in open and inclusive dialogue to find common ground; recognizing the role of civil society as a shared responsibility; and helping implement the SDGs.

About the author:

Vanessa de OliveiraVanessa de Oliveira is a Senior Policy Officer at the Task Team Secretariat. The Task Team Secretariat is hosted by ISS.

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EADI/ISS Series | Why gender matters to social movements by Stacey Scriver and G. Honor Fagan

There are right and left, radical and conservative social movements at work in today’s volatile and unequal world. Whether directed towards a transformative social justice agenda or not, social movements themselves do not exist outside of the structures of power. Even among social movements directed towards deep social justice, gender inequality remains a key concern, since gender-related inequalities persist, both within the movements themselves, as well as in their recognition, support and the response to them.

There are right and left, radical and conservative social movements at work in today’s volatile and unequal world. Whether directed towards a transformative social justice agenda or not, social movements themselves do not exist outside of the structures of power. A growth in populist politics, a resurgence of religious movements with conservative agendas on gender and sexuality, and new male supremacist ideologies remind us that gender justice is an extremely challenging and ongoing struggle.  Even among social movements directed towards deep social justice, gender inequality remains a key concern, since gender-relatedinequalities persist, both within the movements themselves, as well as in their recognition, support and the response to them.

The Sustainable Development Goals represent the blueprint to achieving a better and more sustainable future. SDG 5 is particularly relevant to considerations of gender and social movements. It is clearly recognised that to achieve sustainable growth, gender equality is necessary. This includes the removal of barriers to women’s empowerment, such as the common and pervasive experience of violence against women or gender-based violence. It also implies re-shaping power structures through the inclusion of women in leadership roles, both within government and in economic activities.

Social movements can be powerful actors in efforts to protect and expand human rights, including gender inequality. Further, social movements are vital training-grounds for leadership and political engagement: many who ultimately take up positions of power within societies initially learned skills in negotiation and communication and built their reputations through work with social movements. They thus also offer a pathway for women to achieve political and economic status.

Gender in Social Movements for Economic, Environmental and Social Justice

Despite the potential of some social movements to contribute towards a gender-just world, inequalities persist within the structure and organisation of many. Leaders are most often men, and often men who ascribe to a culturally acceptable form of masculinity. Women often take on the ‘house-keeping’ roles within social movements, such as organising recruitment and developing campaigns, or ‘soft’ activism, such as maintaining relationships behind the scenes. Consequently, those whose voice are heard most and who consequently benefit most from such public profiles are more likely to be men, limiting the benefits of participating in social movements for women. In short, the working culture of these movements and their pedagogical methods do not create gender parity in membership and decision-making unless they are ‘engendered’.

Many social movements neglect to address the question of gender. For instance, in movements for peace and reconciliation, concerns perceived as relating only to women are often relegated to a secondary status. Peace movements may perceive conflict-affected gender-based violence, including the propensity for increases in intimate partner violence in the context of conflict, as being a second-class category of concern. That is, to be addressed once the ‘bigger’ issues of, for instance, organised violence by paramilitaries, are resolved. This is despite gender-based violence affecting more individuals than organised violent attacks.

The failure to apply a gendered approach to social issues and to create equality within social movements may thus replicate inequalities within the movement itself. This undermines the potential for social movements to be a space wherein women can develop key skills in leadership, shape demands for justice, and develop trust with publics. There is a crucial role for feminists and gender justice activists to create change within social movements, even those advocating social or environmental justice and sustainable development.

Gendered Social Movements                                         

While women have historically taken on important, if often under-recognised, roles in social movements, with examples including the labour movements of the 19th and 20th Century, ‘women’s movements’ have also been active in combating gender discrimination, from suffrage movements to Violence agains Women (VAW) movements. There have been notable successes. The Global Campaign of the early 1990s, and the organisation of the Vienna Tribunal, achieved a significant shift in the human rights agenda, with the explicit recognition of violence against women as a human rights violation.

However, women’s or gender movements also face particular barriers due to gender bias, stereotypes and inequalities.  Being perceived as having particularist goals or lacking sufficient political allies in positions of power has limited the successes of often vibrant women’s movements in terms of translating knowledge raising and public activism into direct political and/or economic gains.

Gender justice is too important to be siloed as a ‘women’s issue!

Put simply, social movements are critical components of thriving democracies, and even more critical where democratic accountability is on the wane. However, persistent gender inequalities within social movements, mean that social movements themselves may not be representative of the needs of its members. Social movements need to engage in critical reflection and restructuring to ensure that they are themselves gender just.

Moreover, adequate recognition that equitable social change and sustainable development requires gender equality must be central to the organising principles not only within social movements but also across those seeking social justice.  Additionally, gender justice is too important to be siloed as a ‘women’s issue’. Allyship between explicitly gendered movements and those focused on other kinds of social justice change is needed. Transformative social change is necessary for long-term and sustainable development and social movements have an important role to play; gender justice, within and between social movements, is a prerequisite.

If you are you interested in discussing gender and social movements further, consider submitting to our harvest panel “Gender Movements and Social Justice” at the EADI/ISS General Conference 2020

Our panel seeks to deepen understanding of the role of gender movements, and gender in movements (including gender solidarity), working towards peaceful, equitable and just communities and societies. We welcome papers that engage with the issues of gender justice and social movements through a variety of perspectives and approaches. Contributions from early career researchers, established academics, and practitioners, including empirically and theoretically-based draft papers, are all welcomed.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

Image Credit: Molly Adams on Flickr. The image was cropped.

About the authors:

s200_stacey.scriverStacey Scriver is co-convenor of the Gender Justice Working Group of EADI. She is also a lecturer in Global Women’s Studies in the School of Political Science and Sociology and Director of the MA Gender, Globalisation and Rights at the National University of Galway, Ireland.honor-g-fagan-hme

Honor Fagan is co-convenor of the Gender Justice Working Group of EADI. She is a Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University, Ireland. Her research interests focus on human security and international development, water, waste and social sustainability, and gender and governance. She is currently leading the Social Science component of two Horizon 2020 research programmes on water sustainability.


Reclaiming the space for feminism in development practice: the role of ‘femocrats’ by Clara Mi Young Park

In spite of international pledges to gender equality and development that leaves no one behind, the current wave of populism and autarchy is materializing in the form of resurging patriarchy, oppression and exclusion. This has spurred a counter movement of feminist activism across the globe. At this juncture, this article discusses the role of feminists in development organizations that can and must also do their part to promote change that is premised on gender and social justice.

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, the international community committed to transformational change that puts gender equality, human rights and leaving no one behind at the center of sustainable development.

At the same time, with the rise of populist, fundamentalist and extremist politics, not only has the space for democratic civic expression and engagement shrunk, but women human rights defenders are also increasingly the target of violence and oppression. The recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders highlights the rise of “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by prominent political leaders in recent years, normalizing violence against women and gender non-conforming people”. Equally worrisome are the spread of “gender ideology” advanced by certain groups as a threat to morals, religious and family values, widespread militarization and use of violence and force, and globalization and neoliberal policies that disempower women and exacerbate power and social inequalities (United Nations General Assembly 2019, 7).

The current political scenario calls for an urgent action and convergence among those committed to social and gender justice. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action in 2020 with a gender equal world still a chimera, we need to step up our efforts and “push back against the push back” on women’s rights, as the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Gutierrez said in opening the 63rd Committee on the Status of Women in March this year.[1] Testament to that is the new wave of feminist activism that is spreading across the globe. Feminists working in development can and must also play their part.

The role of feminists who embrace gender as a profession in development bureaucracies – referred to as ‘femocrats’ (Goetz 2004, 137) – has not always been fully appreciated by feminist activists and academics, although there have also been genuine attempts to recognize the contribution of and the hardship faced by femocrats (Goetz, 2004). In the past, this divide reflected critical feminist reflections on the heels of the gender mainstreaming project. On the one hand, gender equality had become an integral part of the development agenda and sustainability discourse, opening the door for feminists to engage in high level political fora and processes (True 2003). On the other hand, by coming to mainstream, gender lost “its political and analytical bite”, sometimes leading to simplification and essentialization of the feminist project (Cornwall 2007, 69).

This juncture, however, requires alliance building and bridging rather than dividing. For those like myself who navigate multiple positionalities, as feminists, gender and development professionals, women and men from different cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, the question is: How can our work make a difference while being apparently more acquiescent to different interests, including of bureaucracies that are slow and/or reluctant to change?

Despite the challenges, the present moment is ripe with opportunities. While not perfect, Agenda 2030 opens the way to tackling a broad range of structural gender inequalities, including violence against women and girls, unpaid care work, sexual and reproductive health and rights, access to productive resources, and women’s access to decision making (Razavi, 2016). Increasingly in development, the call is for feminist and gender-transformative action. Action that transforms and subverts the traditional structures that perpetuate gender, social, power hierarchies and, injustices – be it in environmental, agricultural and rural development or climate change policy and praxis. Such transformation implies moving beyond technical and technocratic approaches and fixes to addressing gender inequalities. It implies grounding the design of development action on a thorough understanding of the power and social dynamics at play in a specific context. It calls for recognizing the intersectional and compounding nature of inequality and oppression.

Within this context, femocrats can advocate for stronger political commitment and for policies and programmes that take the Agenda 2030 pledges seriously and address the structural barriers to gender equality and the realization of women and girls’ human rights. Femocrats can also push for increased accountability towards international instruments and conventions. Importantly, femocrats can expedite the promotion of a re-politicized understanding of gender and the positioning of intersectional gender justice on the agenda of global policy fora, where social justice-based approaches are easier to take forward. Finally, femocrats can play a unique role in opening doors while facilitating dialogue among parties and actors.

It is thus the special duty of any femocrat to fight from inside the system while creating alliances with likeminded people from different backgrounds. For example, femocrats can promote dialogue and create formal spaces and terms of engagement[2] of women’s groups, LGBTQI groups, social movements, farmers’ and fishers’ organizations and indigenous and minority groups with government actors, engaged researchers and other actors. This is needed to build the kind of sustainable coalitions that can bridge initiatives from below with initiatives from above, thus opening the space for more democratic participation and decision-making while advancing a vision of development grounded in gender and social justice.

[1] Opening remarks made at the opening session of CSW63, held in New York, 12 March 2019, which the author attended.

[2] As Jonathan Fox (2009: 489) notes, “balanced decision-making processes are especially difficult to construct, especially across cultural and organizational divides” but coalitions can become sustainable “when grounded in shared terms of engagement”.

Cornwall, Andrea. 2007. “Revisiting the ‘Gender Agenda.’” IDS Bulletin 38 (2): 69–78.
Goetz, Anne Marie. 2004. “Reinvigorating Autonomous Feminist Spaces.” IDS Bulletin 35 (4): 137–40. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00169.x.
Razavi, Shahra. 2016. “The 2030 Agenda: Challenges of Implementation to Attain Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.” Gender & Development 24 (1): 25–41. doi:10.1080/13552074.2016.1142229.
True, Jacqui. 2003. “Mainstreaming Gender in Global Public Policy.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 5 (3): 368–96. doi:10.1080/1461674032000122740.
United Nations General Assembly. 2019. “Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Human Rights Council. Fortieth Session. 25 February-22 March 2019.” A/HRC/40/60. Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development. New York: United Nations.

Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue on Flickr

ClaraAbout the author:

Clara Mi Young Park is the Regional Gender, Rural and Social Development Officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Office for Asia- Pacific. She has recently earned her Doctoral Degree at the International Institute of Social Studies with a thesis on “Gender, generation and agrarian change: cased from Myanmar and Cambodia”. This piece is partially based on self-reflections about doing feminist research included in the doctoral thesis.









SDG 12: a long way off from changing how we produce and consume by Des Gasper, Amod Shah and Sunil Tankha

The SDGs are a striking set of goals that potentially could facilitate major changes across the world. SDG 12—to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ (SCPs)—is fundamental and exceptionally broad. But both political and technical factors have contributed to a watered-down set of SDG 12 targets and indicators. These need to be revisited, deepened and added to in national and local level plans for the goal to live up to much of its promise.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, have many notable features. They apply for all countries. They link economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals’ narrower focus on poverty, education and health. And not least, they include an exceptionally broad Goal 12: to ‘Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns’ (SCP). How did this goal arise and what might it mean in practice? We have been looking at this as one part of a research project on the SDGs, coordinated from the New School University in New York and the University of Oslo.

To understand how the stand-alone SDG 12 and its targets emerged, we studied the 2013-14 discussions in the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs established by the UN General Assembly. The OWG proposals for SDG 12 were adopted in an unchanged form after further negotiations in the General Assembly in 2015. We explored, too, the subsequent work of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators in 2015-16. We conclude that both political and technical factors have contributed to a watered-down set of SCP targets and indicators, which need to be revisited, deepened and added to.

SDG-12-Ensure-sustainable-consumption-and-productionA stand-alone goal on SCP…

The successful push for a stand-alone goal on SCP represents a partial success for developing countries in trying to ensure application in the SDGs of the Rio principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR).[1] Richer countries implicitly bear primary responsibility for a SCP goal since they have, and have long had, the greatest environmental impacts per person.

The OWG discussions show that while wealthier countries argued for shared responsibility and for SCP to be only a cross-cutting theme across all SDGs, many developing countries emphasised CBDR and the duty and necessity for richer countries to act first and do more, and hence pressed for a stand-alone SCP goal. They argued, too, that any universal goal on SCP should not compromise their priorities of poverty eradication and socio-economic progress.

The eventual adoption of a stand-alone goal also reflects developing countries’ strong concerns about their ability to access green technologies. Many countries, not least India, were adamant on strengthening the visibility of rich countries’ responsibility to share technologies needed to produce energy and goods cleanly, and to counteract the bias in market-centered innovation whereby intellectual property rights help to motivate innovators but also limit diffusion, especially to poorer countries. The inclusion of targets on scientific and technological support to developing countries in SDG 12 (and on technology transfer in SDG 17) serve to heighten public attention to this issue, even though they are not directly actionable since they depend on the cooperation of patent-holding private corporations.

but with often vague and diluted contents…

The positions in the OWG discussions reflected deeper disagreements about the nature of SCP and the paths to reach it, including the ethical and production choices to be made and the distribution of costs and benefits of these efforts. The negotiations on targets brought considerable dilution of ambition; nearly all ‘targets’ are really sub-goals rather than specific targets and have often remained vague. They are universal in nature but practically all references calling on developed countries to ‘take the lead’ were removed. Removal, too, of almost all percentage references means that countries are not committing to specific quantified improvements. So progress will depend on the interest and priorities within individual countries.

Further, developing a set of strong and relevant indicators to measure and stimulate progress on SDG 12 will at best be a long process. The weakness as yet of many of the globally formulated indicators reflects the problems of operationalising what are sometimes vague and novel targets, and the limited political interest in a primarily technical exercise in which specialised UN Agencies and National Statistical Offices (NSOs) predominate. Moreover, the process of deciding upon the current indicators was highly compressed in time. In several areas, for example regarding corporate reporting, the indicators are mere publication counts.

While many targets under SDG 12 do not yet have very satisfactory indicators, enunciation of the targets may spur further work. Both the indicator specification and target monitoring need ongoing improvement, including at national level, where there will sometimes be scope for augmenting the targets too. Unfortunately, NSOs and other responsible parties typically do not yet have a clear and resourced mandate to collect the data required, let alone improve it. How far will national governments invest in the monitoring framework?

…and centred on technological innovation rather than consumption restraint…  

SDG 12 is not only extremely broad but, whereas most other SDGs have been achieved to more or less satisfactory extents in at least some countries, sustainable consumption and production (SCP) have not yet been realised anywhere.[2] So what is required is here perhaps even more open to debate. SDG 12 itself tacitly focuses on improving production and consumption, not reducing these processes. They can supposedly continue to grow indefinitely, as long as they become ‘smart’. Many researchers have argued, since the 1960s, that sustainability requires a fundamental rethink of not only production and distribution processes—to reduce waste, absorb by-products, and so on—but also of the culture of ever-growing consumption and the underlying systems of societal organisation and motivation, including by building an orientation towards consuming less while ‘living more’ and more equitably. The SDG 12 targets say little on such issues, apart from promoting ‘awareness for sustainable development’ (Target 12.8) through attention in formal schooling. Fundamental reorientation of consumer societies was a theme in many fora that fed into the SDG negotiations, but not into the outcomes.

SDG 12 continues, instead, the interpretation of SCP which emerged from ‘green business’ circles in the 1980s and 1990s (now sometimes called ‘eco-modernism’): that technical innovation will supposedly dramatically reduce ‘material footprints’ and allow production and consumption to grow endlessly. This perspective long ago became prominent also in UNEP, the coordinating agency for SDG 12 discussions, and in the Marrakech Process that followed up on SCP after the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. No major new pro-business lobbying or interventions in 2012-15 were needed for this perspective to dominate the formulation of SDG 12. The approach emphasises voluntary, informed consumption and production decisions, rather than regulation. It rests on hopes that existing and soon-to-be-developed technologies can obviate the need for restraint and politically difficult discussions.

…yet offering a space for increased attention and future mobilisation ?

At present SDG 12 does not adequately reflect transformative conceptualisations of SCP. The targets appear often diluted and vague, and the indicators further narrow the scope and ambition. There is little attention to moderating consumption. SDG 12 does, though, provide major spaces for attention to SCP from relevant agencies and publics, worldwide, while underlining to some extent the CBDR principle. In an optimistic scenario the goal and targets would induce domestic mobilisation and country-specific reform, that would lead to augmentation of targets, innovation in indicators for both monitoring and demanding action, and broader innovations in thinking-and-doing for real sustainability.

[1] The CBDR principle was adopted at the 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’, the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

[2] See e.g. V. Mignaqui, 2014, Sustainable Development as a Goal, International J. of Social Quality 4(1): 57-77.

Picture credit: John Henderson

Desmond Gasper_UN-2014-resized2About the authors:

Des Gasper
is Professor at ISS in Human Development and Public Policy.amod-photo


Amod Shah is a PhD candidate at the ISS, focusing on land acquisition-related conflict in India.039a9083bea074c4ac8332632eda82df
Sunil Tankha is Assistant Professor of States, Societies and World Development at the ISS.



Inclusiveness and the SDGs: Can income inequality be reduced? by Rolph van der Hoeven and Peter van Bergeijk

About the authors: 

rolph 1


Rolph van der Hoeven is Emeritus Professor of Employment and Development Economics at the ISS. He is also member of the Committee on Development Cooperation of the Dutch Government and of several other Dutch development organizations. Earlier he was Director Policy Coherence and Manager of the Technical Secretariat of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization at ILO Geneva. Other positions included Chief Economist of UNICEF in New York and policy analyst for the ILO in Ethiopia and Zambia. His work concentrates on issues of employment, inequality and globalization.

pag van bergeijk


Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS and co-editor (with Rolph van der Hoeven) of The Financial Crisis and Developing Countries: A Global Multidisciplinary Perspective.



Our recently published edited volume Sustainable Development Goals and Income Inequality1 can be considered a milestone for the ISS research agenda of Global Development and Social Justice, illustrating how social impact and academic rigour can go hand in hand. Contributors to this volume argue that the economic debate in the policy institutions and leading development studies institutions should definitely be informed by but not exclusively based on current statistics of GDP and other economic phenomena. A broader set of indicators including alternative measures of development such as the Human Development Index and greening economic progress is available to inform this debate2.


Toward inclusive development

Income inequality remains an important and highly relevant subject, as illustrated by the findings of the recently published World Inequality Report 20183, which shows that income inequality has increased globally and in nearly all world regions in recent decades, and highlights the important roles of governments in mitigating inequality. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), one of the major instruments of global governance and development in the period 2000 to 2015, did not consider inequality at all. Indeed, this was a great omission in an era of increasing inequality.

Source: United Nations

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as successors to the MDGs contain a goal to reduce inequality (Goal 10), the target related to this goal is insufficient, as it relates only to progress at the very bottom of the income distribution scale4. As a consequence, the SDGs do not pay sufficient attention to income inequality, because there is no sensible indicator to attest the growing importance of the growing cleavages between income of work, income of capital, the income of the extremely wealthy (the top 1% of the population in terms of income), and the average income level of the population.

This gap manifests itself in a much more visible form in emerging and in developed countries. Yet it is important to give attention to the behaviour of the rich, as ignoring their ascendency through ever-increasing wealth to the very top of the income pyramid will put the social fabric under strain, as is already evident in some Latin American, Asian and African developing countries, as well as in many developed countries. This is thus a highly significant weakness of the SDGs, because inequality in the end co-determines success and failure on many, if not most, of the SDG targets. The new publication Sustainable Development Goals and Income Inequality provides an in-depth analysis of the link between SDGs and measuring income inequality informed by different development studies perspectives (policy-making, econometric analyses, and discourses) and covers global trends with particular attention for Africa, Asia and Latin America. The focus is on the international community and its role in making development more inclusive.

The SDGs: Critiques and commentary

Source: Edward Elgar Publishing

In the volume, a number of authors provide interesting discussions of the SDGs and income inequality. Richard Jolly analyses the SDGs from the perspective of five fundamental objectives – universalism, sustainability, human development, inequality and human rights – linking these objectives to teaching and research in the field of development studies. Jan Vandemoortele provides a critical reflection on the SDGs. He points out the strengths of the SDGs in getting the message across to the public at large and is positive about the consultation process informing the development and selection of SDGs. However, Vandemoortele is critical about the inclusiveness of the SDGs, particularly due to their formulation in absolute numbers that reduces their universality and inclusiveness. Rob Vos focuses on financing the transformation process required to achieve the SDGs. Trillions of dollars are needed, he argues, as well as new modes of finance. Clearly this cannot be achieved with traditional instruments such as Official Development Assistance. However, it seems possible to leverage the large amounts of international reserves, which have great potential.

Rethinking income inequality measures

The issue of inequality on the other hand requires both a discussion of measurement (within countries and between countries) and of developments for specific regions and country groupings. Andy Sumner points out that the World Bank’s new poverty line and accompanying narrative on the successes of reduced poverty misses the point. He argues that income levels below US$10 per head do not provide sufficient certainty against a fall back into poverty. Furthermore, scenarios for future numbers and the location of the global poor point to many problems and uncertainties. Andrea Cornia, by focusing on developments in Latin America and using a political economy perspective, challenges the idea that recession by definition increases inequality. Tony Addison critically reflects on the African experience where structural reform did lead to increased growth, albeit such grown was unequal. He points out the futility of quick ideological answers to the continent’s problems related to inclusive development. Malte Luebker, citing experiences in Asia, argues that focussing only on employment and productivity results in growing functional income inequality and that strong labour institutions are needed to counter this trend. Focusing on the Next-14 (the top-14 non OECD countries, including the BRICS countries), Deepak Nayyar formulates two interlinked hypotheses that sum up one of the main threads of the book: Economic growth (catch-up) is essential to reduce inequality, but, at the same time, such growth will be unsustainable lest inequality is reduced.

Piecing together the puzzle

The volume  does not provide a panacea to tackle all of the income inequality problems that increasingly emerge, but brings together the pieces of a coherent puzzle. Importantly, the contributors propose innovative ideas that may strengthen the SDG approach. These ideas comprise of proposed new and better measures of inequality, new evidence-based policies, demand measures stretching beyond the design of some of the vaguely formulated goals and targets, and the active involvement of civil society in order to call governments in the Global North and Global South, as well as in the UN system, to task on growing national and international income inequalities. Indeed, (thus strengthened) SDGs could form the basis of a global social contract for an effective development partnership.

Elements of such a global social contract should include, firstly, the right to development, especially the economic, social and cultural rights and the basic elements thereof in the form of non-discrimination, participation and accountability. Secondly, the contract should include the introduction of a global social floor, which is financially possible, provided that the international financial system is reformed. Importantly, SDGs offer an opportunity to strengthen the coherence, at the national and international level, between social, economic and environmentally sustainable policies.

1The book is based on a seminar series on new modes of development cooperation that the authors co-hosted with INCLUDE, the knowledge platform on inclusive development policies of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (http://includeplatform.net/)
2In the use of any such measures, special attention should be paid to the bottom 40 per cent of the population in relation to the top 10 per cent of the population (the so-called Palma ratio).
3World Inequality Report 2018 (http://wir2018.wid.world/)
 4SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities focuses on reducing inequalities ‘within and among countries’, primarily  through poverty reduction (http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/inequality/)