The SDGs and the map of global development

This post originally appeared here on the Geographical Society of Ireland blog.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the need to rethink the dominant imaginary of the global map of development.

Through much of the 20th century, a classic macro-geographic division of the world into two, and according to standard of living, has prevailed. While the nomenclature has changed from First and Third World, to developed and developing, to global North and South lines, the territorial categorisation of the world into two has continued.

Under such an understanding, from the perspective of many in the global North, development was largely a challenge for far away countries in the global South. Aid was provided by rich countries to poor countries under a moral geography of charity, often justified by the aim of helping developing countries become more like developed countries.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which preceded the SDGs, reflected just such a geography. The MDGs were largely designed by rich countries. Their focus was almost exclusively on targets for poor countries. The SDGs, which apply to all countries in the world and present universal development goals, challenge this dominant map.

Of course, the SDGs highlight continuing major development challenges in lower-income countries. These include poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), health care (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), water and sanitation (SDG 6), energy services (SDG 7), decent jobs (SDG 8) and infrastructure (SDG 9).

Yet, rather than just relating to lower-income countries, the SDGs highlight major development challenges that are present in high-income countries too. Initial indicators of progress towards the SDGs point to sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), climate change (SDG 13) and ecosystem conservation (SDG 14 and 15) as high priorities for countries such as Ireland in the global North. Other major challenges in such countries include agricultural systems and malnutrition (related to obesity) (SDG 2), malnutrition (related to obesity), jobs and unemployment (SDG 8), and gender equality (SDG 5).

Although major development challenges, including those highlighted by the SDGs are present in all countries in the world, considerable geographic variation is present in the nature and severity of those challenges. It is not a flat world, but one characterised by vast inequalities.

As well as applying to all countries, the SDGs also had a very different process of formation from the MDGs. Brazil, in particular, as well as the G77 (a collective of the UN’s 130 ‘developing countries’), played prominent roles in converting the ‘post-2015 Development Agenda’ into the United Nations General Assembly-agreed Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs have been made within a very different context from the MDGs. New geographies of wealth, middle classes, poverty, health and environment have been observed this century. Patterns of global inequality have changed, with some fall in between-country inequality across a number of different indicators, while inequalities within many countries have risen. The Paris Agreement of 2015 requires climate commitments by all countries, not just ‘developed’ or ‘Annex 1’ countries. We are also living in a world of multi-directional development cooperation, justified by a morality of solidarity, rather than just aid from North to South justified by a morality of charity.

The SDGs also provide a challenge to dominant understandings of development trajectories. Rather than seeking to become like developed countries under a developmentalist logic, the SDGs seek to put forward a goal for all countries of transformation towards sustainable development.

Considerable debate revolves around the SDGs as to what effect, if any, they have in practice. Fascinating research has suggested that rather than setting development agendas, national and local governments in Ecuador engage with global goals which reinforce or serve their own interests.

While much more evidence is needed as to implementation, the SDGs do help point to a very different geography of contemporary development challenges facing our planet and global society. Instead of an earlier era of international development, we are now operating in an era of global development.

This blogpost draws on research on the changing geographies of global development, published in Development and Change:

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