Contending Regions? A geographical approach to the 2030 Agenda

What are the most crucial changes brought about by the SDGs? Where does the Agenda 2030 leave Latin America and Africa? What can we as researchers do? And do we need new economic perspectives such as degrowth to achieve sustainable development? 

The panel session at the recent EADI Directors’ Meeting in Cordoba raised more questions than it provided answers – which did not come unexpected, given that the SDGs are far from being implemented in any country of the world. At the same time, all discussants agreed that the world requires more than typical business-as-usual approaches. But as always, the devil is in the detail…

When assessing the major changes in the transition from the MDGS to the SDGs, everybody agreed that the integration of development and environmental issues is a large improvement, as highlighted by Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda in Spain. She also emphasized the increasing importance of public-private partnerships, municipalities, regions and cities, as well as the vertical acceleration of public policies from local, regional, national to continental levels.

Jorge Mario Martinez Piva, Chief of the International Trade and Industry Unit, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), added that the SDGs entered the stage at a time when multilateralism is increasingly challenged, which makes them a litmus test for multilateralism itself. In his view, the SDGs imply the need to redefine development and change patterns of consumption and help to activate different actors in society and facilitate bringing together different people.

EADI President Henning Melber pointed to the agenda 2030 as being the first global agenda that shares responsibility and tasks different societies to contribute to one agenda, including clearly defined steps. He warned, however, that this rather technological approach of including a high number of concrete indicators might just as well become counterproductive. As further points of critique he mentioned the frequent use of the word “voluntary” in combination with a lack of concrete monitoring – in addition to ambiguity in the SDGs and lack of consequences in case they are not applied.

Continents’ fear to be left behind 

Referring to the panel title “contending regions”, Martinez Piva voiced Latin America’s concern towards the shift of the focus of development attention to other regions, despite the continent’s serious problems. “Although mainly constituted by middle-income countries, its states and societies have not been able to close gaps in society and between regions, which makes the continent the most unequal of the world. On the other hand, Central America and the Caribbean will be among the most affected regions by extreme weather events in the world. In this sense, this new roadmap presents a historic opportunity, as it includes priority issues for the region”. Martinez Piva sees a legitimate doubt, however, on how the SDGs agenda may dilute national development plans by moving from focused actions toward more general ones.

Melber, mainly speaking from an African point of view, where the realities and perspectives are different, sees a limited bargaining power of poor countries and global asymmetries and heavily criticized the widespread notion that global poverty is decreasing: “The fact that in China and India many people have been lifted out of poverty leaves the impression that global poverty has been reduced, but this is clearly on the expense of Africa.”

Money, SDG 8 and Degrowth 

As soon as SDG 8 – sustainable and inclusive economic growth – came in, the discussions started becoming more controversial: In response to a question on financing the implementation of the SDGs, Melber said “We should not believe that money is everything: SDG 8 states sustainable inclusive growth. But is growth sustainable? Shouldn’t we rather follow a degrowth-agenda in the rich countries? Despite overall economic growth, inequality is growing too.”

While admitting that growth has neither been sustainable nor inclusive so far, Gallach heavily disagreed saying: “Shouldn’t we better change the way we are growing instead? Never before we have seen as many commitments as we see now, for example from international corporations: The 20 biggest food companies in the world have voluntarily committed to issues of biodiversity. There are ways to make growth inclusive and sustainable. Let’s ensure that we push our national leadership and establish layers of mobilization of the private sector.” 

Martinez Piva pointed to the ECLAC position, which considers the common pattern of consumption and production no longer valid. Starting from there, he supported Melber’s critique of growth: “Development must get away from the growth basis and get more into innovative areas. For me, degrowth is an innovation, an innovation in theory, which gives us hints and ideas to discuss. We have to develop a different paradigm, a fundamental discussion”. Coming back to the initial question on financing the SDGs, he called the absence of a provision for increases in international cooperation flows in the SDGs a “serious limitation”, especially with regard to Latin America and the Caribbean, which receives fewer resources from international cooperation. In line with Gallach’s optimism what the SDG’s opportunities for public private partnerships is concerned, he admitted that the possibility of collaboration with the private sector might have been too little explored.

The Greta Thunberg effect and an optimistic note

What improving the impact of research is concerned, Henning Melber is sure that we need more than policymakers and academics for this: “Greta Thunberg for example has achieved more impact in only one year than all scholars who have done lifelong work on climate change. You need the researchers and you need the Greta Thunbergs who pick up the research, inform social movements and raise awareness. If potential voters raise their voices in a meaningful manner, maybe supported by research, this may have more impact that writing the 100th policy paper on the same issues.”

Martinez Piva places his hope in the young generation, also among the political leaders, where he sees a large capacity for change. Gallach sees the greatest chances in the motivation of non-state actors such as the private sector and civil society organisations. Melber, in turn, makes the case for unforeseen paradigm shifts: “Would anyone have predicted that a Papal Encyclical such as Laudato Si speaks of degrowth and voluntary sufficiency as self-limitation? If we are serious in finding a way, this needs to become an integral part of the survival of the whole humanity”

Summary: Christiane Kliemann


Cristina Gallach, High Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda, Spain

Jorge Mario Martinez Piva, Chief of the International Trade and Industry Unit, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)

Henning Melber, President of EADI

Moderation:  Iliana Olivié, Elcano Royal Institute

The EADI Directors’ Meeting was organized in cooperation with ETEA Foundation, Instituto Elcano, ICEI and REEDES