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Prosperity, People or Planet? Eco-Social Priorities for Sustainable Development

13 Oct 2016

Prosperity, People or Planet? Eco-Social Priorities for Sustainable Development
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development constitutes a major shift in the way development is addressed in international governance. While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused the development community’s attention on the need to end poverty in the most marginalized regions of the world, the 2030 Agenda reconnects international governance with the unequitable and unsustainable nature of the global development path and underlines the imperative to shift towards sustainable development.

Agenda 2030’s innovative nature rests principally on three characteristics:
  1. integrative ambition to (re)set the need to address three dimensions of sustainability (ecological, social and economic) in a balanced and integrated way;
  2. universalist and inclusive ambition for countries to collectively engage in a global project for change while respecting national aspirations and assuming national responsibilities, as well as the way the Agenda intends to leave no-one behind; and
  3. participative ambition to ensure that the claims expressed during stakeholder consultations prior to the adoption of the Agenda continue to influence its implementation.

However, Agenda 2030’s integrative ambition is problematic in the way it is conceived within a conceptual framework that presupposes no hierarchy or supremacy between the different dimensions of sustainable development. This position raises two related issues:
  • it does not see economic activities, human activities and the natural environment as a united whole in which the economy is a subsystem operating within, and fundamentally dependent on, a viable environment;
  • it does not reflect the normative hierarchy which subordinates social and environmental considerations to the imperatives of growth, profitability and competitiveness in the decision-making processes of economic agents in a business environment.

Smoke screens and power constellations

By neglecting the fact that economic activities can be directed towards different, potentially conflicting objectives (which may be economically, socially or environmentally driven), the conventional approach to sustainable development maintains ongoing confusion about whether economic activities are mobilized as a means to an end, or as an end in itself. This confusion can become a smoke screen preventing any serious questioning of the purpose of economic growth, profitability and competitiveness, or about who benefits from these processes and who bears the costs, not to mention the underlying structures of vested economic interests and power constellations.

An international context driven primarily by the imperatives of economic growth and competitiveness, then, does not tally well with the normative aspirations of Agenda 2030 and the concrete constraints that countries face. Policy makers may have agreed on what needs to be done, but interests, ideology, institutional path dependence and structural impediments often get in the way when it comes to designing and implementing policies that work for sustainable development.

Treating the symptoms or the root causes?

The risk in the current approach is that we treat the symptoms of the social, economic and environmental crises without addressing their root causes, which has little chance of reorienting global development towards a socially inclusive, equitable and sustainable path. To be truly transformative, policies and practice to implement Agenda 2030 must address the structural underpinnings of inequitable and unsustainable practices, such as excessive wealth accumulation and concentration through commodification and capitalization. Such powerful drivers self-expand if unregulated.

The UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report expands on these issues at the heart of the success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its chapter on governance and politics Driving the Eco-Social Turn stresses that sustainable development implies a shift in the normative hierarchy of decision making, moving away from a model where social and environmental issues are often the consequences of economic policy choices, to one where economic choices are conditioned by and supportive of sustainable and just social and ecological outcomes. But how are countries dealing with the tensions inherent in such eco-social decision making? Find out in the chapter on governance and politics in the Report, now available!

Pascal van Griethuysen is a former UNRISD Research Coordinator.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.