Erin Beck

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Erin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. Her main interest fields are: Latin American politics; comparative politics; social movements in comparative perspective; international development; gender and development; gender politics in the developing world; and non-governmental organizations in the developing world. 

Erin Beck
12 June 2017

What stands in the way of sustainable development?

There are many obstacles but some of the most important have to do with entrenched interests, political power and our (un)willingness to challenge a view of development based in consumption-fueled growth. When we discuss development, we tend to think of how to address poverty in the global South or make poor countries richer, but rarely do we think of fundamental changes that are required in the global North or redistributing political power/voice - including the power to define development and set priorities. That's because the latter options involve challenging our way of living in the global North and our power on the international stage.


Should there be a distinction between growth and development in order to achieve sustainability?

Yes! If sustainability is not just about environmental impact but also social impact in terms of levels of equality, quality of life, political voice and community "buy-in" in development, then focusing on macro-economic growth is not enough and may actually distract from more worthy goals. 


Does sustainable development have any bearing on socioeconomic inequalities?

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.


What should every policy-maker have at the front of their mind when working on sustainable development? 

This is the question I struggle with the most because I am actually pretty pessimistic about policy-makers' likelihood to engage in deep learning - not because they are malicious or willfully ignorant but because they are human beings that engage in cognitive shortcuts, are influenced by their own experiences and knowledge and see the world through those eyes, and have multiple goals beyond development - including feeling like they are making a difference, keeping their jobs, attracting funding, maintaining prestige, etc. This reality makes meaningful learning difficult in the sphere of development.

There are two organisational sociology concepts that Alnoor Ebrahim uses in his work on development institutions that I leverage in my work on NGOs - single-loop and double-loop learning. Single loop learning is about learning to improve projects or standard operating procedures so they are slightly better in the next round - so failure might actually inspire more projects in the future rather than discontinuing them. Double loop learning is about questioning the underlying value of the project itself or power dynamics that are at its foundation. Development as a global industry is very good at single loop learning, but pretty terrible at double loop learning. We need to start thinking about how to change that, but it'll be difficult because it means people admitting they might not have the expertise to address a problem, and that they should, in essence, be put out of work. That's an uncomfortable reality and a level of cognitive dissonance most people are not able to deal with. So I guess rather giving policy-makers a "fix" or concrete piece of advice, I'd like to leave them with a couple of questions with which they should grapple: How can we encourage "deep" or double-loop learning in development? When there are disappointing results or gaps between policy and practice, how can we encourage scholars and practitioners to question the value of a project’s fundamental goals, meanings, and even its existence, rather than merely ask how that project can be improved? How can we encourage funders, policy-makers, workers, and even researchers to incorporate diverse categories and modes of evaluation, derived from the multiple perspectives inevitably involved in any given development projects, as messy as this process may be - and even if it puts them out of work? How can we encourage policy-makers to realize that their knowledge, worldviews, and skills might not be relevant, as uncomfortable as that might make them?

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