Depoliticizing and repoliticizing SDGs

Raúl Velasco-Fernández

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become an important political reference for all kinds of institutions, whether public administration, multinationals or NGOs. However, there are still important debates about the appropriateness, consistency and the underlying interests which led to their definition. Advocates of SDGs indicate that they represent a unique global covenant for development, emphasizing  they are the result of a deliberative and public decision-making process building on expert knowledge and considering a plurality of moral arguments about human dignity. In this view, the SDGs have a discursive consensus with strong universalist legitimacy that, even being a non-binding soft-norm, give them a strong symbolical power (Sanahuja, 2016). SDGs are also seen as a step forward from Millennium Development Goals providing a more extensive, comprehensive and integrated global development strategy. Those sceptical about SDG point out that without identifying the interaction among goals (the unavoidable side effects they have on each other) and a prioritization among them (when considering trade-offs) it is impossible to have an effective implementation (Weitz, Carlsen, Nilsson, & Skånberg, 2018). Moreover, this translates into an excessive discretionality given to the current power structures when choosing among the various policies justified by SDGs. This is a situation that can depoliticize[1] the international agenda.

There are different ways to deflect attention from critical aspects of the current power structure, e.g. declaring global wars against poverty or climate change while disregarding the fact that they are generated by the current status quo. Narratives that become “hero stories” such as the need of growth and technical innovation to “leave no one behind” and achieving “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future become unquestionable (Weber, 2017). Since the SDGs (the justification of the policy) are clearly identified and the targets are set (the expected results of the policy are already measured by indicators) such a strong framing of these “hero stories” does not leave space for discussing sustainable development using alternative narratives – i.e. noticing that in sustainability, optimal or win-win solutions do not exist.

Depoliticization is still a political action. It is a tactic for eliminating certain issues from public debate, or reducing discussion about them (Schulz & Siriwardane, 2015). This is precisely what Weber (2017, p. 399) points out when indicating that the SDG agenda “is designed to promote and consolidate a highly contested neoliberal variant of capitalist development”, which “may be aimed in part at undermining political struggles that aspire for more socially just and ecologically sustainable approaches to development” by privileging “commercial interests over commitments to provide universal entitlements to address fundamental life-sustaining needs”. Other authors as Ashukem (2020) flag the use of the SDG agenda inside the “green economy” policies promoted by the EU. Ashukem indicates that SDG can be used to promote the practice of land-grabbing in sub-Saharan Africa by foreign governments, companies and multinational financial institutions to produce biofuels crops. These practices will create more pressure on local impoverished populations, while richer countries will sell themselves as greener and more sustainable [the nexus problems of biofuels production and EU policies are discussed in MAGIC]. 

This concern about the risk of greenwashing conventional neoliberal policies is confirmed by the clear power asymmetry in the ability to endorse ‘purpose specific’ narratives. We can easily find many narratives about how to implement SDGs that are proposed by multinationals. It is more difficult to find narratives proposed by social movements fighting hegemonic globalization (e.g. World Social Forum). As Weber (2017) points out, this alternative view over the implementation of SDGs exposes the risk of reinforcing the dynamics that generate poverty and inequality. Even if SDGs are not binding, they provide important symbolic power to the actors that can mobilize and endorse action using them. This point is especially important given that public funds are available for SDGs, but their use by public and private actors is conditioned to the endorsement of the “official” SDG strategies.

To address some of these critical points it is important to repolitcize the discussion over SDGs, going beyond prescriptive interpretations of normativity that unnecessarily polarize the debate, but also avoiding depoliticization through the use of sociotechnical imaginaries often promoted by self-referential institutions (Jasanoff & Kim, 2015). In that sense, MAGIC uses Quantitative Storytelling to challenge the uncritical acceptance of rosy scenarios and simplified political framings.

Summarizing, there are a few issues that should be considered when dealing with the governance of SDGs: (i) the implications of the nexus (side effects and trade-offs) should always be acknowledged when discussing the implementation of SDGs to avoid the silo-governance syndrome, and openly addressing the political dimension of the prioritization among goals (Weitz et al., 2018); (ii) the weaknesses and opportunities given by the process of implementing the SDGs should not be ignored but considered useful inputs for the discussion (Sanahuja, 2016); (iii) power relations (and power asymmetries) exist in any status quo and therefore it is important to explore how they can affect policy choices related to SDGs (Weber, 2017); (iv) the hegemonic conceptions of development and justice based on the narratives selected by existing international institutions should be critically reappraised (Menton et al., 2020); and (v) inconsistencies and problems generated by current applications of the SDG framing should be identified and discussed in the form of case studies (Ashukem, 2020). None of these issues taken in isolation will solve the problem of how to properly implement the 2030 Agenda. However, continuing to ignore the conflictive nature of the process required to achieve a more sustainable development on this planet will not help the cause and will contribute to the growing mistrust in institutions.

[1] Depoliticization is used here as the “deliberate tactics that are deployed by political actors to maintain the status quo of existing power relations and to deflect attention from specific aspects of risks and vulnerability that stand in conflict with their desires, values and interests” (Schulz & Siriwardane, 2015).



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