UN's Sustainable Development Goals as Paradigm Change?

Deconstructing a World Consensus with (Critical) Discourse Analysis

Literature Review, 2019
21 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical framework

3 Methodological framework

4 The status quo

5 Conclusion

6 References


1 Introduction

In late 2015, one of the most far-reaching consensuses in the world was unanimously agreed upon by the 193 countries of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Set out to fulfill ambitious development targets by 2030, ranging from the complete eradication of poverty in all its forms everywhere (Goal 1) to strengthening the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (SD) (Goal 17), this framework is part of the so-called Post-2015 Development Agenda respectively '2030 Agenda' (eponymous by the main document constituting the SDGs passed by the UN in 2015). As the intended outcome of this process, which was initiated in 2012, the SDGs are the legitimate successor of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight goals that were promised to be reached by 2015 by the UN Millenium Declaration (passed in 2000). Facing manifold shortcomings of the MDGs, which were measured by a mere 18 targets, the SDGs were extended to 17 goals measured by 169 targets (UN 2015).

Unsurprisingly and especially regarding their abundance, the SDGs faced harsh critique from most diverse commentators. In one of its issues in March 2015, the internationally renowned weekly newspaper The Economist, for example, portrayed the SDGs as even worse than useless. Due to their presumably bloated nature as a “myriad of top-down targets“ (The Economist 2015), they would not only distract from poverty eradication as the potentially most important goal but also overlook the importance of local contexts, ultimately resulting in “cookie-cutter development policies” (Ibid.). However, the majority of publication organs and stakeholders in the international development community did not articulate an equally harsh (and narrow) critique, as the goals of the SDGs seem difficult to contradict – at least on first glance.

Attempting to contribute to filling this research gap, in this paper I strive to provide an overview of the critical academic engagement with the SDGs. This literature review is structured as follows: Firstly, a short introduction to the key terms facilitated in this paper will be given: 'development' and its distinction to 'sustainable development'. Secondly, the underlying methodology of critical discourse analysis (CDA) and its differentiation from discourse analysis (DA) will be presented in order to embed the subsequent overview. Finally, before summarising this paper and giving an outlook on further research gaps, I will also briefly compare some of its main findings with the more general contribution of (C)DA to the discipline of development studies.

2 Theoretical framework

Only a few social scientific terms are as disputed as the presumable catch-all phrase 'development' that is also occasionally called an 'empty signifier' (Ziai 2009). Arguing from a similar point of view, Cornwall and Brock (2005) trace how the concept historically went hand in hand with other well-intended terms such as 'participation', 'empowerment' or 'poverty reduction', ultimately resulting in a depoliticised form of one size fits all-development recipes. Its increasing depoliticisation is also stressed by Ferguson in his widely read monography Anti-Politics-Machine (1994). Summarising Ferguson's understanding of the term, Ziai (2012, p. 4; italics by the author) states that “'development' is the name not only for a value, but also for a dominant problematic or interpretative grid through which the impoverished regions of the world are known to us.” In this paper, although everything but exhaustive, I follow Ferguson's understanding since it exceptionally demonstrates the point of reference of other development-relevant terms (e.g. 'under-developed', 'development problem') and opens the etymological door for related concepts.

The term 'sustainable development' (SD), in turn, as it was coined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987) is almost canonically understood as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” and is based on the three subdimensions of social, economic and ecological sustainability. However, as it is frequently criticised (e.g. Siemiatycki 2005; Kallis 2015), SD does not represent a paradigm change regarding what counts as 'development' and what does not – even though it stresses the responsibility of so-called developed countries (which, in contrast to the MDGs, are also affected by the SDGs). In contrast: Sachs (1997, p. 293) stresses that SD “promises nothing less than to square the circle: to identify a type of development that promotes both ecological sustainability and international justice.” Sachs also notes that this definition works as an all-purpose cement, glueing both friends and foes of the concept together. Therefore and unsurprisingly, many more definitions of SD were elaborated in the last few decades, each mirroring the diverse interests among the stakeholders (Ibid.). For the sake of analysing current discourses surrounding the SDGs, however, which themselves are not provided with an explicit definition of SD, I follow the definition of the WCED (1987). I will now turn to the methodology of (C)DA in order to shed more light on how exactly the SDGs can be critically analysed.

3 Methodological framework

In the last few decades, the 'development discourse' has progressively merged with the 'globalisation discourse' (Ziai 2010). Against this background, one might wonder how exactly 'discourse' can be defined in the first place. Dating back in its current understanding to the French Philosopher Michel Foucault, it is quintessentially understood as the limit of what can be said (' Feld des Sagbaren'), including strategies of denial, relativisation and de-tabooing (Jäger 2006). Moreover, every kind of communication, which is necessarily part of a specific discourse, is guided by rules and pervaded by power relations (Blatter et al. 2018). Unsurprisingly, many more criteria exist to define the nature of 'discourse' as a social construct in its own right (e.g. Blatter et al. 2007). In this literature review, however, because of its promising applicability to discourse analysis, I follow Ziai's (2010, p. 42) equally Foucault-inspired understanding of discourses as “powerful and meaningful systems of representation that interlink the production of knowledge with material practices that are in turn justified and thus substantiated.”

Reconstructing a certain discourse adequately is simultaneously the object of discourse analysis (DA) as a “collective name for a number of scientific methodologies for analyzing semiosis, namely how meaning is created and communicated through written, vocal or sign language” (Cummings et al. 2017, p. 727) as well as one of its biggest difficulties (Blatter et al. 2018). Although many guidelines exist how to conduct DAs (e.g. Diaz-Bone 2006; Jäger 2006), the proposal of Hajer (2006, p. 73-74) deems most promising for DAs of policies, which the SDGs can be considered to belong to (Niklasson 2019). The proposed steps, as compiled by Hewitt (2009, p. 12), are illustrated in Table 1:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In this paper, I will mainly focus on studies facilitating critical discourse analysis (CDA). This is since, according to van Dijk (2001, p. 352), CDA is predominantly known as

a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted, reproduced and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context. With such dissident research, critical discourse analysts take explicit position, and thus want to understand, expose and ultimately to resist social inequality.

Although this definition, at least on first glance, seems to fit neatly with the SDGs' own approach, the subsequent overview reveals that, proverbially spoken, all (the SDGs) that glitter is not gold. Before turning to it, and coming back to van Dijk's (1998) definition, it must be stressed that CDA in distinction to DA is no method in its own right, but rather an explicitly transdisciplinary methodology (Fairclough 2012). This becomes particularly clear if one considers that its diverse disciplines of application (e.g. feminist theory, postcolonialism, cultural studies) touch upon questions of social theory rather than the more cognition-oriented DA (Keller 2011). Moreover, understood as a rather political research programme, CDA also follows different stages, starting with focussing upon a certain social wrong and concluding with identifying possible ways past the obstacles (Ibid.).

4 The status quo

In his only recently published book, Improving the Sustainable Development Goals: Strategies and the Governance Challenge, Niklasson (2019) stresses that academic scrutiny mostly deals with the design of the SDGs (and formerly the MDGs), with a focus on country-related reporting. Hence, they are predominantly descriptive and criticise the same only to a limited extent. Consequently, only a handful of studies conducting (C)DAs of the SDGs were published so far. Before turning to the central question – which points of critique against the SDGs are elaborated in studies facilitating (C)DA? – a few more words need to be said about their emergence. As Fukuda-Parr (2016), among others, points out, the SDGs most importantly address several of the MDGs shortcomings. They not only reverse the MDGs' focus on the presumably desirable beliefs of simplicity, concreteness and quantification, they also set out a more transformative agenda that reflects the 21st century's complex challenges more adequately – ultimately resulting in the 17 goals illustrated in the appendix. Against this background, it seems fruitful to start with presenting (C)DA-based studies that analyse the emergence of the SDGs as part of the broader development framework of the UN before turning to two studies on particular SDG-issues in more detail.

Firstly, in his historical analyses of UN development policies, Protopsaltis (2017) argues that the notion of SD shares at least one crucial element with its UN-predecessors (the 'modernisation paradigm' and the 'human development approach'): They define inputs and outputs by quantifying targets in relation to financial resources to achieve goals of economic or human development, relying on state interventions. Hence, the author (Ibid., p. 22) derives that “using the old tools for the achievement of new goals may be due to a lack of imagination or indicate a reluctance of the UN – or the developed donor countries […]” to critically evaluate their own understanding of 'development'. According to Ziai (2016a) in his CDA of the key documents elaborating the MDGs, this common element of the input/output model presents the meeting development targets as a technical rather than political problem – and thereby constitutes a first storyline. The other two storylines are (1) poverty reduction, development and growth – which are frequently interchangeably facilitated, pointing to a focus on (Western-kind of) modernisation trajectory – and (2) globalisation, security and development – which point together towards a form of global economic liberalisation. Moreover, “[d]evelopment seems as a consensual, non-conflictive goal to be achieved by technical processes to which no one can object.” (Ibid., p. 160) Similar to Ferguson (1994) and Kallis (2015), the author comes to the conclusion that the MDGs had a rather depoliticising character, which itself is not uncommon for UN documents, as he demonstrates by comparing the Millennium Declaration of 2000 with the UN's International Development Strategy for the Second Development Decade (1971-1980). Based on this comparison, the author notes a shift between the 1970s and 2000 towards more market-oriented measures and 'big push'-concepts to counter poverty. However, and providing a starting point for the later SDGs, for the first time they portrayed non-economic factors and poverty reduction as their own means to economic growth (Ziai 2016a).

Rather than of discussing the continuities between the MDGs and the SDGs further, Ziai (2016b) then broadens his focus in the same monography by conducting the first historical DA of the 2030 Agenda. Most importantly, he notes that between 1949, when the former US-American president Harry S. Truman gave his inaugural address touching upon many questions of development, and 2014, when the Report of the UN High-Level-Panel on the SDGs was published, some discursive continuities remained strikingly similar. Part of them are, among others, the common credo of the harmony of objects, the problematisation of global poverty as well as the recipes of technical knowledge and economic growth (besides the dichotomy of donors and givers). According to Ziai (2016c, p. 204; italics in original), these discursive structures “can still be identified as the same structures which were used after World War II to achieve acceptance for the practices designated as development in a capitalist world order.” However, some new issues which were not foreseeable in 1949, also took centre stage in development debates, particularly issues of sustainability, climate change and, linked to them, a higher obligation to change production and consumption patterns. Regarding the issue of poverty eradication, the author (supported by a claim of Hickel 2014) argues that, between 1985 and 2008, the World Bank substantially decreased the numbers of the severely poor by simply changing the international poverty line, a questionable practice that Apthorpe had previously criticised in 1996. This holds true even for the advanced 2010s, as Jerven (e.g. 2013; 2016) shows by indirectly suggesting the term 'political economy of development statistics'.

Before turning to two CDA-based studies of particular issues within the SDGs in the next step, it deems promising to shift our attention briefly back to the well-studied transition of the MDGs into the SDGs. Briant Carant (2017), tracing this phase of evolution via a CDA, focusses on the influence of dominant economic discourses in the development paradigm, neoliberalism and Keynesianism (of which the latter was seen abandoned in the MDGs by Ziai (2016a)), in order to compare how 'poverty' and 'development' are constructed in particular documents. Starting from the point that diverse concerns and problem-solution frames were articulated by participants in their creation, Briant Carant (2017) also evaluates the evolutionary process by drawing two viewpoints of critique: Liberal feminist critique focused mostly of these economic discourses, whereas the World Social Forum (WSF), an annual convention that was first held in 2001 and which opposes capitalist globalisation, criticised mostly the construction of poverty within the MDGs and SDGs. While the author (Ibid.) notes that liberal feminists points of critique were particularly easily implemented in the SDGs by facilitating either of the two dominant economic frameworks, the UN failed to listen to voices such as that of the WSF (hence her paper's title 'Unheard Voices'). Although some methods were designed with the intention to consider marginalised voices, their ambitious inclusion would have been necessary to undergo a transformational shift towards a long-term, sustainable and equitable change for all. Briant Carant (2017, p. 16) sums it up:

Both the MDGs and SDGs are branded as agreed-upon documents representative of the UN as a whole. Yet the UN approach to poverty abatement is one programme among many possible. Alternative programmes also exist but critics allege that they are under-represented as a result of particular power configurations and voting patterns within the organisation.

Besides the elaboration of her own critique, the author also devotes a chapter of the same study to critically discuss the negotiation of the SDGs themselves. Most importantly, she finds striking evidence that they fail to represent the global populace targeted for development adequately. Particularly the report of the UN-Development Group A Million Voices: The World We Want, published in September 2013 as a summary of the consultations to formulate the SDGs, but also the polls of the UN-Website WorldWeWant2015.org fell short in actually allowing a million diverse voices speak. The latter even showed significant response biases, e.g. in favour of those with higher access to the internet. In addition, the low levels of voting, particularly in its second poll, can be attributed to lack of awareness and the limited access which is crucially linked to the unequal spread of NGOs and their partners. Briant Carant (2017, p. 27) strikingly captures that “the current voices represent individuals with greater levels of education who are less likely to be affected by the perils of poverty.” Ultimately, the author argues, both the MDGs and the SDGs should be viewed as solely persuasive rhetoric due to their failure to adequately represent marginalised voices and their entrenchment in “power-laden hegemonic frameworks” (Ibid., p. 34).

Only one study known to the author digs deeper (in fact: at all) into the post-2015 negotiations before they were finished, i.e. before the 2030 Agenda itself was passed. This study by Brolan et al. (2015) was part of a research project to advice the European Union and discusses the notion of the right to health as part of the SDGs. Based on thematic and discourse analyses, the authors elaborate six key reasons for why the right to health was not adequately represented in the post-2015 negotiations. While three of them were related to broader issues surrounding the position of human rights within the international relations discourse, the remaining three dealt with the problem of transforming health as a human right to a single post-2015 health goal. Illustrated by this case example, but speaking more generally, Brolan et al. (2015, p. 9) arrive at the following conclusion:


Excerpt out of 21 pages


UN's Sustainable Development Goals as Paradigm Change?
Deconstructing a World Consensus with (Critical) Discourse Analysis
University of Leipzig  (Institute of Political Science)
Application-oriented introduction to qualitative methods of political science
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Sustainable Development Goals, Critical Discourse Analysis, Qualitative Methods
Quote paper
Max Schmidt (Author), 2019, UN's Sustainable Development Goals as Paradigm Change?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/502727


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