Desperately seeking structural change!

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The EPRG have had two great events in the past two weeks, with a screening of ‘This Changes Everything’ based on the book by Naomi Klein, and a talk from Dr Clive Gabay, ‘Desperately seeking Gramsci: A personal journey through development policy 2008-2015’.

Fortunately Clive arrived in Aber unaware and unaffected by this week’s flooding, for a relatively dry and calm mid-Wales night. In his talk he explained his engagement throughout his career with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which this September developed into the next 15 year phase as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Clive was originally drawn to engage with the MDGs during his PhD where he examined hegemony and counter-hegemony in relation to the Global Call to Action against Poverty (G-CAP) initiatives in India and Malawi.

Within this context, Clive explored different conceptualisations of resistance. Following James Scott, Clive explored how certain acts, such as throwing defecated waste out windows of newly built apartment blocks in Mumbai, may not be understood as political, but can be seen as ‘resistant blockages of development projects’ (see also Gabay 2013). Throughout this engagement Clive has observed the ways in which the MDGs have acted as a disciplinary power, in certain contexts and in certain ways; from the exclusion of groups such as the elderly, not explicitly addressed in any of the 8 MDGs and resulting in limited access funding, to the ability of the MDGs to legitimise states simply by engaging with them on a relatively superficial level.

So what are the prospects for the SDGs over the next 15 years? Clive has explored the potential they have to create a different sort of conversation. The fact that the SDGs sought greater civil society consultation and the idea that they are ‘global’ in nature (i.e. would refer to the whole world, instead of being a set of goals devised by the North and imposed on the South) shows the pssibility of radical openings. Clive used the example of the discussion on obesity, which was a part of the consultation process, but did not make it to the final goals. This discussion explicitly targets the North and would imply questioning the policies of large food producers and the structural conditions of the global food system. However the extent to which ‘northern’ or ‘western’ states would allow themselves to become the objects of UN development is questionable, recently witnessed in another context when in 2014 the UN special reporter on housing released a report calling for the suspension of the coalition government’s bedroom tax, which she assessed as contravening many international treaties. The backlash against the UN from the British government exposed what we should expect when they become the target of development policy and advice. Therefore the openings offered by the SDGs for now remain just sporadic new conversations, but carry within them the potential for future rethinking of development paradigms.

IMG_0562In the discussion following the talk some critical questions were asked regarding the radical potential of the SDGs. Is ‘development’ as conceived through the MDGs/SDGs possible? What is ‘development’ anyway? While the language of the SDGs is more inclusive and comprehensive than that of the MDGs, it is still comfortably situated within a neoliberal discourse. They talk of a concern for ‘access’ to energy, housing or food, but notably don’t refer to ‘the right to’ these things. Access can easily be interpreted as market access, so does this mean that ideas of the right to land or the right to affordable and green energy remain too political to make it into UN discussions?

In many ways, Gabay’s talk and last week’s screening of This Changes Everything formed an interesting balance as both argued attention needs to be paid to the structural causes of both poverty, inequality and climate change. Naomi Klein makes a big step towards a new form of environmentalism by explicitly stating that our economic system is to blame for climate change, and working within the capitalist system will not provide any long term solutions. Instead of despairing when faced with such a great enemy, Klein sees the various local mobilisations around the globe, which have fought against tar sands in Canada, gold mines in Greece, and pipelines in the US, as an opportunity to rebuild our communities away from the global capitalist system. In this reading, the climate crisis becomes an opportunity for a radical rethinking of our way of life and its alternatives.

Whilst global initiatives like the ones advocated by the UN may contain potential radical openings, within them a focus on localised responses to global crises might show us ways to progress that are not necessarily conceived through or in relation to a global growth oriented development discourse. The crucial question then becomes, what is the relation between local practice and agendas constructed at global level? Are local practices aimed at, for example, poverty alleviation, supported and reinforced by global development agendas such as those contained within the SDGs, or do they undermine them? If the latter, then the democratisation of international institutions and their country branches should become an absolute priority.

Gabay, C. ‘The MDG legacy: social, cultural and spatial engineering’, International NGO Training and Research Center (INTRAC), Briefing Paper 36

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