Agenda 2030 Graduate School blog

Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School is a global, cutting-edge research school and collaboration platform for issues related to societal challenges, sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. The 17 PhD students from all faculties at Lund University enrolled with the Agenda 2030 Graduate School relate their specific research topics to the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog the PhD students of the Graduate School discuss topical research and societal issues related to the 2030 Agenda.

The wisdom of the fool

Wood sign and track in forest. Photo.
Photo: private

Posted on 19 March 2020 by Juan Ocampo

It has been sometime since my last post, but things have been busy around here. The reason for my delay is that for the last couple of months I have been trying to make sense of what collaboration and interdisciplinarity could mean. I think that in order to tackle complex problems we need to broader our perspectives, so in this quest for interdisciplinarity I got myself looking into different departments and institutes around Lund. One of the result of this search was a workshop with Sakiko Fukuda-Parr who was presenting her work:  “Knowledge and Politics in setting and measuring the SDGs”.

It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on some of the questions I started this blog series with: Paradigms and Governance mechanisms. To prepare for Sakiko’s workshop, I had a look into some of her articles and got myself reflecting on the “politics” of measuring. In the article “Keeping Out Extreme Inequality from the SDG Agenda – The Politics of Indicators”, Sakiko describes the discussions that were held when defining the targets for the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) related to Inequality (aka SDG 10). My interpretation of Sakiko’s example goes as follow: When defining development goals, politics and ruling paradigms are interweaved in the why and how of what we measure, sometimes even leaving the technical rigour aside.

Unsettled by this finding, I started studying the story of other development goals, and let me tell you that these tensions are present in many SDGs. Another example of these ideological tensions in the SDGs can be found in in the construction of SDG 8, specifically in regard to what economic growth is. In their book “Transforming multilateral diplomacy: the inside story of the sustainable development goals,” Chasek, Kamau, and O’Connor write that developing countries had economic growth as one of their priorities, while other countries “viewed unconstrained economic growth in potential conflict with sustainability (…) such a goal should highlight economic benefits of greener development (…) and avoid environmentally unsound technologies” (Ibid, pg . 178). However, if you analyse SDG 8, the green environmental perspective is not the main point in the goal’s targets and indicators. Coming from Colombia, I can understand the need for economic growth but most developed economies are moving towards greener development, and not embedding a green economic growth in our policies will once again leave developing countries dragging behind.

Not being an Economist limits my discussion about how to measure inequality or economic growth. However, the “wisdom of the fool” allows me to question, for example, why inequality is measured based on income, rather than access to quality education, for example. I believe that having some dollars in a bank account could ease the life of many, but does not necessarily eliminate the problem of classes that inequality entitles. This discussion is about the paradigms we accept and the realities we want to create.

The SDGs are built on paradigms that reinforce certain realities while eliminating others. Advocating for the SDGs without a thoughtful analysis of the assumptions and paradigms that are reinforced in these goals, is inconvenient, almost irresponsible, since financial investments, public policies, research initiatives, and people’s actions are being guided by the SDG agenda. This is problematic, and not only because you could agree (or not) with some of the paradigms, but because we are probably not aiming at the causes of the problems, we are not transforming what needs to be transformed. Sometimes we spend more time watching the signboards, rather than exploring the forest.

We could argue that the SDG agenda is a way in which ruling organisations (e.g. UN, World Bank) are aiming for a different world. However, others could argue that whoever sets the agenda are the ones in power so the 2030 Agenda is just a mode in which certain institutions maintain their domination over society. It is up to you to judge, but “institutions not only depend upon the activities of individuals but also constrain and mould them, this positive feedback gives institutions even stronger self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating characteristics”[1]. So, today I invite you to question the paradigms that we sometimes accept without reflecting; allow yourself to be the fool in the room, and remember that it is in times of crisis we have the opportunity to reinvent our society. To do so, we have to identify our paradigms and reflect on the values we want to embrace.

Finally, I want to tell you about my second attempt for interdisciplinarity and collaboration, a podcast. Advancing Sustainable Solutions Podcast  is a show hosted by Sofie and Steven, two colleagues at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) here at Lund. For two seasons they have been discussing trends in sustainability solutions and in their latest episode I have been talking about Digital Financial Inclusion, so have a look and let me know your thoughts!

Juan Ocampo is a PhD candidate within the Agenda 2030 Graduate School at Lund University School of Economics and Management.


[1] Hodgson, 2004: 656 cited by Gómez, G. (2019). Monetary plurality in local, regional and global economies. London: Routledge

March 19, 2020

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