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Why we should stop discussing the SDGs in terms of economics and start engaging the issue of power relations

Jannemiek Evelo | 08 July 2016

When studying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the first question we must ask ourselves is ‘What is development?’ The problem is, we still tend to think of development in economic terms, the SDGs being no exception (despite putting the word ‘sustainable’ in front of ‘development’). We think largely in monetary terms to the exclusion of more controversial topics. This is unfortunate because we miss the opportunity of expanding our thinking on development in general, and the SDGs in particular, to include those who might need it most. 

This expert opinion was elected winner in the CSDS - The Broker Student Blog Competition on SDGs

The most profound example of this is SDG 5: ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. What could be wrong with gender equality, you might wonder. But this is exactly the point. SDG 5 formulates targets on gender equality in such a way that everyone agrees with them, which makes sense when you realize that the SDGs are the result of compromises made with people all over the world. However, by mainly attributing value to gender equality in relation to economic development, the issue of power is thrown out of the window completely – and if gender is about anything, it is about power relations. Issues of gender inequality produce and reproduce power relations around the world, and while power relations are not a zero-sum game, achieving gender equality cannot be reached without some redistribution of power.

The absence of power brings us to my next point. Why, when we talk about gender, do we only mention women and girls in SDG 5? Men have a gender too. We need to understand that gender issues are always relational. Talking about gender while excluding half of the global population from the discussion does not make sense, neither will it get us anywhere if we want to improve the situation for the other half. On top of that, by focusing on women in the way the SDGs do, we not only exclude men from the conversation, but also those who cannot place their gender in one of the two standard boxes: male or female. While the absence of LGBTIs from the SDGs is probably simply the ‘safe’ option, we should not underestimate the effect of omitting these people from the SDGs. It implies the acceptance of a discourse in which LGBTIs are indeed seen as non-existent, which unintentionally contributes to worsening the situation for those already living in a hostile environment.

Moreover, focusing on girls the way SDG 5 does genderizes young people as well. We talk about girls (even if only in terms of protection), but omit young men completely as a target group. In doing so we ignore both the problems they face and the potentials they offer. Not only are young men often involved in the issues we want to protect young women from (child marriage, for one thing), they also make up the world’s biggest group of migrants and possess a large set of potential and actual labour skills. Young men are incredibly important for global development, which makes their involvement in the SDGs and local decision-making processes crucially important. Young men, and young people in general, know what they and their peers regard as important, know why they take some risks and not others, and are therefore more suited than anyone to be engaged in matters affecting them. Again, when we want to involve young people, we have to face the issue of power. To give young people a real say in decision-making, older people need to hand over at least a tiny bit of their power to the younger generation.

Returning to the question ‘What is development?’, we can come up with many answers, but one thing is clear: what it is not, or rather what it is not limited to, is economic development. If we want the SDGs to be the development goals of all people – and I think that it is indeed what we want – we cannot remain stuck in our safe discourse in which empowering women is only seen as valuable in economic terms and which for political reasons excludes many people around the world. We should dare to speak up, and dare to disagree. This is the only way we can make the Sustainable Development Goals the inclusive Global Goals they should be: for all people, regardless of their sex, gender or age. 

The session on Gender Equality at the Conference on 'Critical Perspectives on Governance by Sustainable Development Goals' inspired Jannemiek to write this blog.

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection (via Flickr)