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.

Transforming the Future, Forgetting the Past: The Risk of Non-accountability for Historical Failures in “Sustainable” Development

Close-up of Kenyan tree branch with thorns. Photo.
Kenyan tree branch with thorns. Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

Posted on 30 September 2020 by William (Billy) Jones (Division of Ethnology)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 ambitious global goals that aim to transform the future of our planet, create an inclusive society and a sustainable global economy. In 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the goals and promised to do everything in their power to lay the blueprint for a sustainable future by 2030. After a five-year adjustment period that allowed us to come to terms with this aspiring new world order, 2020 marked the beginning of a decade of action.

About the Sustainable Development Goals on the UN webpage.

With much fanfare, the UN secretary-General called on all world leaders and global citizens to “accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges” to reach the future we want in 2030.

The decade of action is hoping to create an “unstoppable movement forward” and “supercharge ideas to solutions”5 to propel us toward the future we want. Sounds exciting, right. But with all this focus on the future, all this emphasis on moving forward, we risk forgetting one minor detail: the past.

About actions to deliver on the SDGs – unwater.org

A History of “Solutions”

Since the “First Development Decade” in the 1960s, the United Nations and global development partners have been working to eradicate poverty and improve economic, social and environmental conditions for all.

The development of the United Nations – research.un.org

Even within these narrow parameters of “International Development” (not to mention pre-UN times), there has been 60 years of efforts to create a better future. Throughout this period, International Development has been dominated by the World Bank and a few key UN organs including IMF, UNDP, and FAO. Considering these organs are still some of the biggest players in the International Development, it begs the question: what solutions have they offered in the past and why are these not being “supercharged”?

Where is the Accountability?

The answer lies, in part, in the lack of accountability structures. Development, be it of the ‘Sustainable’ or ‘International’ variety, is a complicated world in which multinational organs, governments and NGOs converge, all bringing their own political agendas and expectations. Because there is such a complex mix of actors, no single actor wants to take full accountability for a project or solution. Accountability structures often get diluted in the negotiations. The SDGs were no exception: the initial ‘monitoring and accountability’ section got diluted down to ‘follow-up and review’.

Blog post about Accountability and the SDGs by the Center for Economic and Social Rights – cesr.org

The same can be said for individual interventions (or “solutions” if you will). The history of development is littered with failed interventions funded by these big players. And thanks to the lack of accountability, the “beneficiaries” of the intervention are left with the burden. Given most of these interventions target impoverished communities in the Global South, the burden just compounds the factors already keeping them in poverty.

Invasive Species and Precarious Lives

Let’s take a case in point. In the 1980s, the FAO introduced a new species of tree, Prosopis Juliflora, to the arid region of Northern Kenya.

Article about Prosopis juliflora Invasion and Rural Livelihoods in the Lake Baringo Area of Kenya – conservationandsociety.org

Brought in from Chile, this hardy tree was supposed to be a miracle cure that would reverse deforestation, degradation and provide a crucial source of fuel-energy. In reality, this invasive species spread like wildfire, suffocating the indigenous flora and malnourishing the livestock that were left with no alternative food source. The invasive species is still proliferating today causing a serious impediment to the livelihoods of local pastoralists.

Article on Impact of Prosopis juliflora on Kenya’s semi-arid and arid ecosystems and local livelihoods – tandfonline.com.

And the FAO is nowhere to be seen. Because of their lack of accountability structures, there has been no follow up and corrective measure for this injustice; the local community has been left to suffer the consequences whilst the FAO marches onwards into its new role as SDG custodian.

Article on SDG indicators under FAO’s custodianship – fao.org

Moving Forward but Looking Backwards

With such a blinkered focus on finding new solutions and accelerating them into the future, there is a real risk of ignoring the past. Of course, not all interventions have been failures; the world has never had more people not in poverty, which can be partly attributed to the work of UN organs. This cannot be ignored either.

Article on why the world has never been a better place – weforum.org

History can teach us important lessons, it can show us what has been done well and what we ought to avoid going forward. But more than that, our present and future are alive with the actions of the past; the world we live in today is a construction of the world we created yesterday. We cannot leave the actions of the past in the past. Accountability for past interventions needs to be addressed before we supercharge into the future. And, if we truly want to leave no one behind, they need to be addressed today, as an integral part of the current global agenda.


This blog post is part of the series Accountability and the SDGs.
On 14 October at 17.00-18.30 we continue the discussion on this topic in a panel discussion, which is part of the Lund University Future Week.

Join the panel discussion on Accountability and the SDGs – via Facebook event.

September 30, 2020

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