The ‘Transformative’ SDG Moment for Rethinking Sustainability

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The 76th UN General Assembly has kicked off this week with the ‘SDG Moment’- a call to renew momentum for the SDGs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had profound impacts on how governments manage global social and environmental policies. It’s clear that an approach that promotes universal growth-oriented Goals is simply outdated.


Several scholars and experts have called for the need to revise the SDGs for a post-COVID world – one which will be profoundly different to the world in which the SDGs were designed.


Transformation often happens through crisis, and right now the entire planet is living a climate crisis, a social crisis, and a health crisis. This tells us that business-as-usual will not suffice to overcome the challenges we are living right now. To achieve environmental and social ‘transformation’ the SDGs will need recalibrating to include a contextual, community-led, and wellbeing-oriented alternatives that embraces holistic visions of wellbeing.


The SDGs call for ‘transformation’, yet as a perpetuation of the idea of mainstream development, they are doomed to fail if we do not abandon the people-above-nature-growth-above-all-else mindset and align 17 Goals with community-based, grassroots, alternative approaches. The way the SDGs have been conceived is simply not feasible, realistic, sustainable nor attainable.
Opening the 76th session, the President of UNGA 76, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, said we need a “new narrative” for the SDGs. The UN itself has admitted that “to get the SDGs back on track and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, a profound shift in economies and societies everywhere, is now needed.”


Our Common Agenda” contains 12 points for action, agreed on by member states.

Member states concluded that our challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism with the United Nations at the centre of our efforts. While collective action is crucial, especially with crises like climate change and COVID-19 that transcend national boundaries, it is equally vital that this high-level multilateralism better incorporates community-led action and capacity for transformative change.


One way to do so is to reprioritise five fundamental dimensions: people, planet, peace, prosperity, and partnership to ensure that ‘people’ refers to shifting power to allow for bottom-up approaches to environmental and social change. It is also imperative in that respect that the five dimensions do not perpetuate the anthropocentric vision that has dominated global sustainable development approaches so far, and that it reintegrates ‘planet’ to include people as part of nature, not a dominant force upon it. By shifting the power from a universal approach to the SDGs to proliferating plural community-led approaches, we incorporate the aspect of ‘partnership’ to achieving change. Here, the keywords are connection, reciprocity, and plurality.


What is needed is a framework that appeals to both the SDGs calls for ‘transformation’, as well as for a more citizen-empowered approach to achieving sustainability by aligning the global Goals with a local, community-led and biocentric approach to social and environmental wellbeing: the Latin American framework for Buen Vivir.


In my book, I discuss how Buen Vivir can allow governments to rethink the way they approach sustainability and align the global goals with contextually-appropriate community-focussed action. You can find a copy of my book here. The chapter titled “Rethinking Sustainability: Making the Global Align with the Local” is available for download on the SDG Online portal.

Howarth (2012) argued, “A sustainable future will emerge if we build institutions that, on a practical level, sustain the natural environment and the social and technological conditions that will empower future generations to define and pursue their own conception of the good life”. Buen Vivir will require rethinking sustainability, in particular the SDGs as a plural albeit community-led approach, requiring cooperation from local, national and global actors for rapid and genuine transformation.