It is time to abandon “development” goals and demand a post-2030 Utopia

By Julia Schöneberg and Mia Kristin Häckl

These are troubled times. Times of multiple, interrelated crises that bring to the fore the injustices, inequalities, and racisms that are not new, but continue to persist and become increasingly hard to ignore.

The SDGs started off ambitiously and claimed to set a mark for a new era in which all countries would be unified in a universal – shared but differentiated – quest to develop. Much has been critiqued in terms of how the goals are formulated and implemented.

While there is certainly value in some aspects of the SDG logic (e.g. no longer an exclusive focus on the Global South; the environment as an important pillar), the core problem remains untouched: ‘development’, as a discourse and practice, with its colonial past and present, and its adherence to a Eurocentric yardstick to which all societies need to measure up.

The crisis of modernity

Agenda 2030 might have made attempts to be greener and more inclusive, but essentially it remains a technocratic checklist of modernist politics. Formulated in quantifiable terms and oriented along a linear timeframe of progression towards economic growth and globalised capitalism, it perpetuates the same embodied exclusions, institutionalised supremacist structures and violent extractivisms as before.

Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2015: “we are the last generation that can put an end to climate change”. But, as Jason Hickelargues, the SDGs try to reconcile the irreconcilable: growth and sustainability. We cannot have both. We cannot continue to treat the non-human world as a resource to be exploited and try to green-wash the imperial mode of living.

The end of the SDG period is already in sight and bureaucrats gear up to formulate the follow-up agenda. But yet another set of goals, continuing to meddle around the edges and stuck in the quantifiable universalism of measurements and indicators, will not do anything to fix the multiple crises we are facing. Crises that are in fact all symptoms of a one fundamental one: the crisis of modernity.

A post-2030 agenda cannot be goal- and indicator based, especially if we question the concept of development as the only viable path. Critiques and contestations of development in past decades have questioned the means and instruments, but not the paradigm itself, failing to recognise that, in the words of Miriam Lang, it remains one of the key “devices for cementing and expanding capitalism and its colony-producing logic, which equates well-being solely with people’s capacity to consume.”

Whose knowledge counts?

We must work towards bold and radical alternatives to development, as multiple, complementary, paths towards a more just world system, each path accounting for the specific contexts from which it originates.

Of course, that also means that any suggestions we are making in this blog can only be a localised contribution. In that sense, rather than formulating a universal agenda applicable to all, the first step is defining the ‘problems’ from non-universalist perspectives.

During an online discussion, organised in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni cautioned that the same knowledge that led to current and ongoing crises cannot be the knowledge that leads us out of those crises. He asked: “Which knowledges do we listen to? Whose knowledge counts?”

In that sense, while a post-2030 utopia can be oriented along the lines of redefining social, political, and economic realms, it must avoid falling back to the hierarchical division of the world in “developed” and “un(der)developed”.

A utopia that starts now

Let us propose a post-2030 vision that is utopian in its outset, and likely also uncomfortable for some. Recently, the German feminist writer Theresa Bücker spoke about the need for more daring demands, for utopias.

Utopia, famously featured in Thomas More’s satirical essay from 1516, has a double meaning: from its Greek roots it can mean “nowhere”, while the etymologically related term Eutopia means “good place”. Essentially a utopia is a perfect place that does not exist.

But why shouldn’t it? Bücker urges us to think about a utopia not individually, but collectively, a good place for all. The common denominator for a global utopia is simple, yet complex at the same time: A good life must be possible for everyone (human and non-human beings), in different locations, at different times and according to endogenous definition of needs.

Obviously, in an interrelated world, this means that not everyone can live as they please. We cannot continue to externalise costs through space and time. There’s no right to a cheap flight, to give just one example.

Inevitably, for many of us, this implies to closely checking and giving up privileges, from the realisation that the imperial mode of living with its extraction of labour and resources is denying countless beings their right to a good life, and inevitably damaging to all.

We are careful here not to put forward universalist proposals, but we want to outline possibilities from our very contextualised positions in the Global North. In line with Burkard, Treu and Schmelzer, we want to start imagining an end to capitalism, growth and domination, a utopia that starts now.

Undeveloping the North

For an alternative to the imperative of economic growth, demands of degrowth provide a useful basis – at least for the global North. Not “sustainable growth”, as an alternative of growth, but degrowth, as an alternative to growth.

Degrowth is not a blueprint for socio-ecological transformation, but provides a common framework for activism and collective action ranging from the local and regional transition towns, repair cafés, community gardens and food-sharing initiatives, to more global and systemic alternatives such as a care and conservation revolution, demonetarization and solidarity economy, food sovereignty, universal basic income, commons and climate justice.

All of these visions are not exclusive, but rather inevitably interlinked, and are formulated here from a perspective of the global North. The key is that the North must start to undevelop itself.

Ending dependency and exploitation requires different economic systems, independence from unequal flows of global capital, and the connected development-aid transfers. Overcoming domination means that agency lies in the hands of the oppressed and marginalised. It means that there are no universal goals, but rather shared values.

The Indian Vikalp Sangam movement formulates these as 1) ecological wisdom and ethics, 2) social well-being and justice, 3) direct and delegated democracy, 4) economic democratization and 5) cultural diversity and knowledge democracy.

Towards radical democracy

Development is inevitably political and so are any deliberations about alternatives to development. This is not the same as prescribing a goal or need. It is not about controlling the world from above, but to think it from below, to consider the possibility of transcending nation states while thinking in local autonomous communities and collectives.

A post-2030 utopia might outline a basis for living together with decentralized power structures, for example in communal councils, and could provide a basis for rethinking nations, decentralizing power, and practicing radical democracy.

A post-2030 utopia needs to realise, highlight, and respect its own contradictions and limitations: there is not one single way to see the world nor to change it.

System change is possible, but not unless power relations are fundamentally uprooted. This means eradicating governance through the goals-approach, as embodied by the SDGs. We need to bring power back to the roots, where new ways of living in community and harmony can flourish.

Mia Kristin Häckl is a master student in the international program ‘Global Political Economy and Development’ at Kassel University in Germany. She studies World Bank projects from a post-development perspective, and social and solidarity economies.

Julia Schöneberg is a post-doctoral researcher at the chair for Development and Postcolonial Studies at Kassel University and former colleague at the EADI secretariat. She focuses on the theories and practices of post-development, and is a co-founder of the collective Convivial Thinking.

Image: Reinaldo Emilio Cortes Carrasco under a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr

This post was originally published by the Ghent Centre for Global Studies

One Reply to “It is time to abandon “development” goals and demand a post-2030 Utopia”

  1. This article is so challenging that I don’t know where to begin… Just two remarks.

    (1) While sharing the view that utopias can be useful in order to set a frame of reference, the authors’ question “why shouldn’t it exist?” has to be answered negatively. As the German-Costa Rican philosopher Franz Hinkelammert has asserted in his ‘Kritik der utopischen Vernunft’ (1994), the idea of realising any utopia leads to authoritarianism, because it sets an absolute goal, precluding any debate.

    (2) The idea that ‘development’ activities and proposals frequently continue an existing system of unequality is valid. But I draw the line at the statement that we “must avoid falling back to the hierarchical division of the world in “developed” and “un(der)developed.” Give it any name you want, but to deny that there are rich/powerful countries and poor/powerless countries is to deny, even obfuscate reality. Use of these concepts does not imply that one adheres to a hierarchical division, rather that one rejects it.

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