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Reflections on Place, Context, and the Idea of Global Development Goals



Adventino Banjwa, PhD Fellow, MISR

Keynote Speech, Okere, Okere SDGs Summit

Theme: The Meaning of Sustainability (in Practice)

January 24, 2023

Venue: Okere City, Otuke District.


Introduction

Okere City and partners have brought us together this week to summit on SDGs. All the credit to our visionary, Comrade Okello Ojok, and all those here with whom the pursuit of an imaginative and actualization project is nothing but ongoing, for having turned this land and community into what has attracted all of us here today! In the course of the week, we are going to reflect and engage in presentations crafted around a common theme: The Meaning of Sustainability (in Practice). As it will become evident in the course of the week, this is an important theme. But what does it mean to think of “The Meaning of Sustainability (in practice)”? What role does the bracketing of ‘practice’ play in this whole formulation? This is important to think about as we prepare to engage the theme throughout the week. Is it meant to raise questions relating to the practical implications of theoretical formulations on the subject of sustainability? Is it intended to signal a critique of the commonplace binary opposition of theory and practice, in which it is often thought that theory-making is a preserve for a few located in specific spaces in the West, meant for consumption by those of us in the Rest of the world as we do the ‘practice’? Or, is the idea of the meaning of sustainability (in practice) meant as an opening to think about place-specific social practices and struggles, and their corresponding context-specific conceptualizations, through which translation may render the idea of sustainability, and the broader conceptual ensemble around which SDGs are crafted, meaningful?


Whatever the case, I would imagine that bracketing practice in a call to think about sustainability signals an inherent uneasiness with, and thus the need to contest in some ways, the dominant assumptions on the question of sustainability.


Global Development Goals

Our conventional story suggests that we are officially seven years away to the expiry date of the second phase of global development goals, which we know as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we all know, the first phase, launched in 2000 when the Earth’s human inhabitants were about 6 billion, was implemented under the banner of MDGs between 2000 and 2015. Keen observers on this subjects within the global South, key among these Samir Amin, had earlier on insisted that the Eight MDGs (on poverty, primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, diseases, the environment, and partnership for development) were not really conceived as global in scope (as in for everyone on the planet), but rather as sort of neoliberal development commandments imposed on poor states by a few powerful ones. This view was advanced quite early in the life of MDGs, around 2006, by renowned African scholar Samir Amin[1].


Worth noting is the fact that the idea of organizing global action, in fact, global political action, around some mutually agreeable objectives in form of “goals” has been, in itself, a welcome idea even to scholars like Samir Amin. What they objected to, and still do, are what they consider to be the underlying quite dogmatic ideological assumptions with which the idea of global development goals was envisioned. Thus, Samir Amin would go on to argue that “[e]ach of these goals is certainly commendable (who can disapprove of reducing poverty or improving health?). Nevertheless, their definition is often vague. Moreover, debates concerning the conditions required to reach the goals are often dispensed with. It is assumed without question that liberalism is perfectly compatible with the achievement of the goals.” (p.3). On the question of poverty reduction, he insisted that “this is nothing but an empty incarnation as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analyzed, denounced, and alternatives proposed.” (Ibid.). One can perfectly imagine that Samir Amin, thinking as he was from a global South location, had in his mind the Structural Adjustment regime since the 1980s, which re-oriented the relationship between the state, the market, and society, by subjecting both the state and society to the dictates of the market.


In an important sense, therefore, it appears that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) had a double challenge. First, to take further the stated ambition of fighting global poverty sketched out in the phase of MDGs. And second, addressing the most serious pitfalls of MDGs while at the same time responding to visibly serious challenges, particularly those emanating from the limitless advancement of economic growth in a world with actual limits, some of which were earlier brought to the fore in the ‘70s by what came to be known as the ‘Club of Rome’[2].

In this era of SDGs, one of the pitfalls of MDGs was formulated around scope and legitimacy. The 17 SDGs were thus projected to the world as the global goals, meaning their scope covered all the Earth’s 7.4 billion human inhabitants in 2016. As a graduate student of development in Sweden around this time, I remember participating in and promoting an UN-initiated campaign dubbed My World Survey, which was meant to mobilize global participation, ownership, and popular legitimacy of SDGs. It only occurred to me later that at stake was also the process of formulating the 17 goals, which the survey was asking global participants to rate in terms of priority.

Thus, considering the language of ‘development’, it is not wrong to refer to our current SDGs as the historical second phase of global development goals. But if you stretch this nomenclature a little a bit, and see both phases (of MDGs and SDGs) as embodying ‘a global design’ (àla Walter Mignolo[3]), then you begin to see that actually, both phases are in an important sense anchored on earlier global designs, including modern colonialism, which produced the nation-states in whose name we fight and kill each other today.


Universalized Categories, Local Realities

When talking with Ojok Okello on the possibility of my contribution today becoming a reality, I thought the most potentially engaging way, given our conference’s theme, would be to reflect on what it means to engage in locally/contextually-meaningful initiatives, such as those taking place here in Okere, under the tutelage of conceptual categories rendered universal through a different linguistic medium. This thought was encouraged by the understanding that the conceptual categories we are using in the Sustainable Development endeavor (concepts such as “poverty”, “development”, “sustainability”, name it) are first and foremost rendered in the English language. To come to terms with this reality is to realize that these concepts have histories rooted in place-based historical struggles and practices.


Yet, the language of global development goals is rendered possible by the assumption that the concepts (around which these goals are crafted) are timeless, all-embracing, and universal. This makes it extremely important to think about the meaning acquired by such conceptual categories (development, poverty, literacy, environment, etc.) embedded in global development goals when such goals are pursued in a context like Okere. What implications does such an encounter (between universal[ized] categories and local realities) have on pre-existing place-based conceptions and practices designed around these issues? For all this to make sense, we have to always remember to take the realities of place/location seriously.


We then ask: Is there such as thing as a “universal conceptual category”, one through which practices can be standardized across all global cultural and political spaces in the same way we consume standardized industrial products? If all conceptual categories derive meaning from local realities and struggles, what then does it mean to stretch locally-conceived categories to a universal status? What happens when such categories are teleported into new contexts? These and related questions may not have a straightforward answer, but deserve the attention of anyone seriously interested in global development goals.


Let me give you a rather conveniently chosen example, perhaps on this you may add some others. Where I come from, our orientation to economic modernity has resulted in a disturbing reality where many people now relate ‘modern poverty’ to the local concept of Obwavu. In everyday speech, many have come to consider the two as perfectly interchangeable. The same has also happened to the local concept of Enkulaakulana, which many think gains full meaning in the modern notion of “development”. Yet any careful Luganda speaker would not miss a point to realize that it would be totally nonsensical to call someone Omwavu without clearly specifying the sense in which you are considering that person Okuba Omwavu (to be “poor”). Because Obwavu was historically invoked in relation to particular considerations (such as empisa (manners), okumanya/amagezi (knowledge), etc.), Luganda language historically imposed a requirement that its user must at all times specify the sense in which reference to Obwavu becomes meaningful – such as Obwavu bw’empisa (or the “poverty of manners”). I am here not denying the existence in our societies of deep-seated destitution as a result of modern economic impoverishment. My point is that if you engage the subject with the concept of Obwavu, the economic dimension immediately becomes just one aspect, however important it is today, which also alters significantly the imagination of the overall socio-political initiatives on the question. Similarly, I am also here not blind to the fact that the concept of “modern poverty” is increasingly depleting concepts like Obwavu of all other contextual meanings save for that which resonates with the logic of the existing economic system: economic poverty!


As I conclude, here is my broader point. We know today that all conceptual categories, including those trading as universal, come into existence through place-based practices and struggles. From a location such as Okere, we can provisionally think of two possible modes of engagement with a global programme such as SDGs, and the conceptual/epistemic categories that render it possible. Each of these two modes of engagement will definitely have different social and political implications.


The first, which we seem to be perfecting, is to consider the SDGs as an end product and to conceive our task as that of a consumer. This involves an uncritical translation of concepts trading as universal into our different languages for the sole purpose of implementation. While this is convenient and politically palatable, what it actually does is to further entrench the colonization of local conceptions of reality via a reckless reductionism whose aim is to standardize meaning and practice.


The second option requires that we think of SDGs as the beginning, not the end. It requires that we engage from within our different contexts. There are fundamental shifts here. Rather than implementing pre-conceived notions of development, sustainability, etc., we ask how to engage these ideas from the vantage points of our locations. With this, projects like Okere City cannot be thought of as mere ‘implementation centers’ of programmes conceived elsewhere, but most importantly as engaged in thinking and generating new knowledge and ideas on what it means to engage ideas of sustainability, development, poverty eradication, and so on from a location such as Okere. I had a brief chat yesterday with Comrade Ojok, and we realized that the old dictum suggested that we act locally and think globally – that is, to know and appreciate that our local actions, such as planting trees and switching to solar panels, have global implications. We both agreed that it is high time we rethought this! Much as we are all interested (and definitely should be!) in interacting and engaging with the rest of the world, we have to imagine locality (the local) as a place at which thinking also takes place, not just action (implementation). Let us think locally, but engage globally.


Thank you!

[1]See: Amin, S., 2006. The millennium development goals: A critique from the south. Monthly Review, 57(10). [2]Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. and Behrens, W.W., 2019[1972]. “The limits to growth”. In: Dabelko, G.D. and Conca, K. eds., 2019. Green planet blues: Critical perspectives on global environmental politics. Routledge. [3]Mignolo, W., 2000. Local histories/global designs: Coloniality, subaltern knowledges, and border thinking. Princeton University Press.

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