News, 17 June 2016

Painting a new picture of development

Can the Sustainable Development Goals trigger a new approach to development in the world's Least Developed Countries? A dialogue event explored the potential.

Mobile phones being sold in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Access to information and new technologies will be key to help delivering transformational change to the world's poorest countries (Photo: ConDev Center, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Least Developed Country experts from around the world gathered in London for a dialogue event to discuss how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could provide a framework to reimagine development in their countries.

Organised by the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group, IIED, and the ESRC's STEPS Centre, the event discussed the challenges and opportunities created by the SDGs, and asked whether the momentum created in 2015, with international agreement on the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change, could help deliver real transformation.

Opening the dialogue, Ian Scoones from the STEPS Centre said the SDGs represented an opportunity to open up a new political space and have a radical conversation about what transformation required. Andrew Norton from IIED asked what did "leave no one behind" mean when it came down to the reality of budgets.

Chime Paden Wangdi, an IEG member from Bhutan, pointed to the need to change the development paradigm. The SDGs must not be about the sustainability of business as usual.

How many farmers know about the SDGs?

In a keynote address, Dipak Gyawali, from the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, questioned how much the SDGs actually mattered to people on the ground.

He pointed to the failures of government action in Nepal, yet communities and organisations working at the grassroots were delivering improvements in people's lives – providing access to electricity and rebuilding homes destroyed in the earth quake.

He said it was time to move away from the "church of economics" and recognise other values. Development needed to be defined at the grassroots – and power needs to be devolved to the grassroots level.

Debrapriya Bhattacharya from the Centre for Policy Dialogue argued that it was an inhospitable moment for achieving change – with economic uncertainty, security concerns and new pandemics driving conservative tendencies rather than ambition for change.

But Farhana Yamin from Track 0 pointed to the success of the Paris Agreement, despite the best efforts of fossil fuel and industry lobbyists to kill off international action on climate change. Paris and the SDGs provide an opportunity to create discussion and challenge power.

Powering the transformation?

The SDG on energy illustrated some of the difficulties facing Least Developed Countries. Youba Sokona, a member of the IEG, highlighted how energy was central to all of the goals – but limited access to energy across many countries in Africa means everything, from irrigation to accessing the internet, is a problem.

Peter Newell from the STEPS Centre raised the challenge of ensuring the clean energy revolution reached the poorest people – and not just elites or large industrial consumers.

Listening to voices from the grassroots

Other discussions focused on the challenges of water and sanitation, of disability and of urban growth – which are often ignored, or not addressed by politicians. Could the SDG agenda provide an opportunity to listen to the voices that were not normally heard?

IEG member Farah Kabir said achieving transformational change would require collaboration, research and increased advocacy (Photo: Nathan Oxley/STEPS Centre)Jane Clark from the UK Department for International Development (DfID) recognised that this was a huge challenge for governments, but argued that the organisations in the room could help governments to do that. New ways of monitoring and collecting stories could perhaps help.

There were questions about the role of data, of who got to decide what data counted – and whether new technologies could be used to give greater control to the grassroots. 

Summing up, IEG member Farah Kabir, from ActionAid Bangladesh, said that the Millennium Development Goals had helped to drive incremental change, and so perhaps the SDGs could provide the drive and push to achieve more transformational change. Achieving that would demand collaboration, research and increased advocacy. 

  • This paper provides a summary of the event and outlines four areas of action.
  • You can follow the dialogue event as it happened by viewing a round-up on IIED's Storify site
  • To explore the potential and the challenges of how the SDGs could be the catalyst for radical transformation in the world's poorest countries, IIED has published a series of blogs and interviews with LDC leaders, experts, and civil society representatives.