What are the biggest challenges facing the research community looking at sustainable development?

by Paul Jackson

6 Mar 2017

In Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz said: “Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies.” This transformation in the lives of people is at the centre of the British Academy’s approach to the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the Sustainable Development Programme (SDP).

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 associated targets represent an ambitious agenda to tackle some of the pressing challenges facing our world such as poverty, climate change and conflict. Within this framework, the UK Government’s aim is to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and the GCRF is an integral element of that strategy.

The SDGs place significantly more pressure on the research community than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals. Addressing climate change, poverty and conflict requires co-ordinated international monitoring and measurement of several complex social, economic, environmental and political factors. This requires complex metrics to both measure individual phenomena and the linkages between them. The application of fertiliser could have a positive effect on food production locally, but could also have a negative effect on climate change at the global level. Climate change causality and mitigation tend to happen at the local level but the consequences are global.

In this context, it is perhaps worrying that our current understanding of which policies work remains limited. There is a need for well-informed, evidence-based policies and the articulation of potential alternatives. The societal transformation called for within the SDGs is mirrored in the GCRF’s emphasis on stepping out of the traditional research silos and its encouragement of research approaches that mix methodologies, subjects and researchers across disciplines. The role of research in this transformation should be to provide reflection on fundamental assumptions, the provision of clear and robust evidence and the creation of space for democratic discussion on approaches to international development that are informed by real evidence and that incorporate a range of alternatives. The SDGs provide a useful framework both in terms of stimulating debate but also encouraging reflection on the scope and scale of the societal transformation and also the direction that such a transformation should take.

High quality research can play a critical role in shaping this transformation but I want to outline four core challenges facing the role of research within the current development agenda.

Firstly, British Academy research can help in building partnerships against discrimination through promoting knowledge and evidence regarding human rights, cultural diversity and the rule of law. This incorporates critical views of international policy practices that are not contextualised and better understanding of how local social, cultural and political systems interact within international ideas and approaches. Such an approach can empower the excluded and those with less of a voice. By increasing our evidence base and our understanding of people and contexts we can encourage inclusive approaches to international development.

Secondly, research in the social sciences and humanities can shape attitudes and interpretation through providing understanding and voice for cultural expression. Historically undervalued within more economic focussed development strategies, the SDP recognises the value of local heritage assets, cultural practices and expressions, as well as historical memory. The experience and interpretation of globalisation, migration, conflict and development shape the political topography of those experiencing all or any of these deep processes. As we have seen recently in the US and UK, not everyone’s interpretation of processes like globalisation is the same. Understanding the reactions to rapid transformation or humanitarian crises is critical to understanding the nature of resilience within those societies.

Thirdly, it can also develop tools and strengthen capacities. The SDGs require support in terms of devising metrics to measure progress and avoiding vague goals like ‘substantial’ or ‘sustainable’; establishing monitoring mechanisms and analysing progress or lack thereof; evaluating progress through meaningful indicators; enhancing relevant infrastructure to ensure global comparative measurement; and standardising and verifying data produced. Good decisions are based on good evidence and good evidence is based on good data. The SDP approach should also ensure the development of significant capacity amongst partner research organisations.

Lastly, British Academy research is in an excellent position to address one of the biggest challenges to the achievement of the SDGs, namely governance. Governance underpins our ability to get things done in society and yet the world is beset by government failure. The transformation envisioned by the SDGs involves consideration of how government, business, non-governmental organisation, civil society and the research community can work together. Engaging with the right people, making difficult decisions and trade-offs between alternative policy choices, understanding the competing interests and interpretations within decision-making and then building in accountability for those decisions are all core activities of the social sciences, arts and humanities.

Making decisions for everyone requires excellent evidence and knowledge of how those decisions will affect different people; and that is the challenge that is addressed within the SDP.

Paul Jackson is Professor of African Politics, International Development Department, University of Birmingham. He is the Programme Leader of the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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