Does sustainable development have any bearing on socioeconomic inequalities?

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12 June 2017

Erin Beck

In some ways, I'd like to reverse this question and start thinking about the ways that addressing socioeconomic inequalities at the national and international levels might lead to a development that is more sustainable. Inequality in economic and political power increases the likelihood that those setting development priorities and defining development itself will reproduce the status quo rather than challenging structural inequalities because in many ways they benefit from that status quo. Those whose voices are most marginalised are likely to have very different definitions of development and priorities, and are more likely to be affected by environmental degradation, weak political institutions, the negative externalities of macroeconomic policies, etc. So in many ways, addressing power imbalances on the international stage and within countries and addressing socioeconomic inequalities may lead to very different development goals and practices that are likely to be more sustainable and transformative.


Patrick Heller

Definitely. Because our resources become more scarce in the absence of sustainable development, which further exacerbates inequality. Why? Because those who are in a privileged  position, in an unequal system, capture a large portion of those resources, and the poor invariably will pay the higher price of the negaitve externalities associated with unsustainable development.

And the losers are the usual suspects. In the work I've been doing on urban development, it's striking to see that cities, which are meant to be places of opportunity are actually creating entirely new forms of social exclusion. For example, the prevalence of informal modes of housing - slums - in much of the developing world is also associated with increasing exposure to pollution, contamination and toxins. There are just tremendous environmental problems associated with slums, and it's something we forget about until you do field work there. You see things like medical waste being dumped in the slums, and kids hanging out in piles of these stuff. That's a rather graphic illustratation, but poverty and environmental degradation do intersect rather dramatically.


Sri Suryani

It does. The case of Jakarta's green and blue area provision shows that the sustainable development agenda has created socio-economic inequalities, as a result of the 'sustainable development' discourse having been interpreted with an exclusionary element to it. The future of the city is built around the Jakarta City Plan 2010, and projects such as those reclaiming green areas for flood-risk management. The relocation of people, particularly the urban poor, and the production of green space to meet 'urban green space coverage' targets have been rationalised under the 'sustainability' narrative.

This justification has raised questions of equality in the relocation and displacement process, as well as post-resettlement rehabilitation and adaptation. This has always been an issue in Jakarta, where the notion of inequality itself is also politically constructed under the logic of land markets and subjectification - essentially, that there is not enough land for the urban poor in the most beneficial, and attractive parts of the city. When capital accumulation is the ruling logic in land markets, and while the government has limited provision of land for social housing, the only option for the urban poor who live in the city center is to relocate to far-off districts with no opportunities to establish a livelihood. Then, they are subjected as beneficiaries of newly built social housing that is better than their flooded neighborhood in ‘kampung’, yet actually they are isolated from their network and relation to the city. So, we have this challenge: how to re-imagine the discourse of sustainability, and change the way we develop and build our environments to take these socioeconomic inequalities into consideration.


Kathryn Hochstetler

It has a total bearing on it! In fact, it’s a cyclical relationship – the problems of sustainable development are made worse by inequalities, and inequalities are made worse again by the lack of sustainable development. I think it goes back to the question of who development is for? You realise that we have these fundamental inequalities, not only socio-economic, but gender, and life experience, and a long list, that I don’t think we can really address sustainable development.

One of the routes to sustainable development is through the mobilisation of local communities., for example, to resist a big hydroelectric dam. But I've been spending a lot of time in recent years talking to planners and development agencies, and I've come to realise that if a 3,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam is blocked in one place, they're going to go and find somewhere else where it will affect another community.

So, people need to think beyond the individual projects, but in much broader terms, such as the national planning process. Activists are beginning to think like this, and in Brazil, the environmental justice movements have been tracking projects as they leave places like Sao Paulo and Rio, and then go and support these communities. But while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we electrify everything - because it's the one thing we know how to decarbonise - these big hydroelectric dams are going to keep showing up somewhere. These are the trade-offs I'm talking about.


Max Spoor

Socioeconomic inequalities are a key factor in not obtaining sustainable development. Reaching sustainable development (whatever definition one would use) will therefore have a positive bearing on these inequalities, in particular when this means more equitable and sustainable resources access and use.

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