Workshop 3: Sustainable development goals: a tool for systemic change on feminist principles?

What are the potentials and constraints of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to realize women’s rights and transform unequal gender relations? The workshop will offer a space for critical reflection, provide elements for systemic change, as well as for strategizing on feminist advocacy at European level.

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Marion Sharples, Coordinator at the Gender and Development Network (moderator)
Abigail Hunt, research officer at Oversees Development Institue (speaker)
Krishanti Dharmaraj, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (speaker)
Tessa Khan, international human rights lawyer, director of the Climate Litigation Network (speaker)


Tessa Khan
This talk centers on the lack of a shift in trajectory that we see in the SDG agenda, particularly focusing on concerns around accountability, financing and monitoring of the SDG’s. Although there are some promising elements of the SDGs such as – they were negotiated in a participatory and transparent process, they have broad and universal nature, and there are multiple targets related to gender and a standalone gender goal, as well as a goal on inequality, we face multiple challenges within the women’s movement with regards to the SDGs and the 2030 agenda that we are seeking to address. There seems to be systemic crises in the ways our societies operate – we are facing extreme poverty, a concentration of wealth continues to soar and this inequality actively undermines the enjoyment of human rights. In addition to that our economic system supports a net flow of resources from the global south to the North, one in which women’s work is massively devalued. What’s more, we are consuming the Earth’s resources at a rate that is pushing planetary boundaries.

Given this scenario, Tessa Khan insists the SDG agenda starts to look inadequate because it fails to challenge the dominant economic paradigm. For instance – there will be no economic justice for women without value to unpaid care work and while there is a target about the former in the new agenda, the indicator for that target is simply the amount of time women spend on unpaid care work, that means that provision of public services required for the redistribution of unpaid care work still go completely unaccounted for.  Furthermore the goal on reducing inequality within and among countries in ineffective because it fails to promote policies that actually lead to the reduction of inequality such as; strengthening collective bargaining, increasing membership of trade unions or redistributive taxation. Its almost as if, the more potential the target has to bring about substantial change to the current economic system, the weaker the indicator that accompanies it is!
Furthermore, the SDGs make no allusions to address armed conflict or militarization, which in the current geopolitical scenario seems like a massive omission. There is also no effort to challenge the conflation of economic growth and social progress – which lies at the heart of the critique – while there is a persistent emphasis in the agenda on high rates of economic growth as a driver of sustainable development, ignoring the fact that we cant simply continue to grow, extract and industrialize as a means to reduce poverty especially at a time when the climate crisis worsening every minute.

The problem Khan suggests, lies in the lack of political will to challenge current economic and social structures that we are bound by and is revealed by the current arrangements that have been made for financing and monitoring the agenda. The cost estimated to achieve the SDG is 5 to 7 trillion USD and governments have decided to rely on none other than the private sector. The private sector in turn has reacted with enthusiasm of course – one CEO of a big private firm referred to the SDGs as being ‘a big catalogue of investment opportunities.’ Khan reminds us that while it is necessary to take into account the role that private sector – particularly small and medium enterprises – can play in this, this agenda primarily focuses on transnational businesses, large conglomerates because they are the ones with the sophistication and know how to engage with the government. However they are also the ones who have a far less consistent track record on contributing to human rights and sustainable development. These players are more interested in goals around energy and telecommunication and less so on goals that affect the most marginalized. And research has showsn that most times public private- partnerships lead to an exacerbation of inequality and access to services. Governments are also relying on foreign direct investments and trade, despite the track record of this on sustainable development.

Tessa Khan concludes with a question as to how serious are our governments really are if the rely on the most powerful economic actors who stand to gain everything with which the model currently functions? Our role is more important than ever. Despite participation of civil society, we currently have an extremely weak accountability and monitoring framework and accountability for the private remains insufficient. Therefore it is imperative that we within the women’s movement play a role in ensuring accountability, for example through shadow reporting, and keep constantly reminding governments about the commitments they have made in order to make sure that the SDGs don’t remain merely an attempt to bring about change.

Krishanti Dharmraj
This presentation centers on how the SDG agenda can be used to operationalize feminist goals and changes and how we can go above and beyond the agenda.

  1. A masters tools will not dismantle the masters home.” Audre lorde
  2. “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it” Einstein

Dharamraj sets the stage with these quotes. She urges us to tackle the two elephants in the room: 1.The fact that the national system of accounts decides what is good for growth and what the success of economy is. And 2. The SDGs were formulated by five security council permanent members who were brought together because of a war and it is to their benefit that wars exist. She says that it is in this context that we need to talk about Europe and North America.

She questions the room full of European feminists about their role as feminists? How do we talk about sustainability when we are benefiting from this system?

Dharamraj suggests that we have to be realistic; even if SDGs are achieved to the fullest measure it is not going to solve the problem. So what can we do? She alludes to three spaces that we have where can affect change – 1. We are attempting to utilize CEDAW and CERD to pull in the goals of SDG and ensure that they are included 2. The other is around ESCR covenant – again to do the same. The pressure and responsibility lies on civil society. 3. The Universal Periodic Review, a space where governments hold each other accountable. She insists that we must so everything in our capacity to ensure that these three spaces are used effectively to ensure accountability of governments towards the SDGs. Especially in the global North; because, often when we talk about SDG implementation and accountability, everybody looks to the global South, but it is as important, if not more to ensure accountability in the global North.

Going back to Einstein’s quote – if we cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it, we need a new consciousness – we need a feminist consciousness. Dharamraj suggests that instead of trying to fit ourselves into existing mediocre standards we need to make our own. She suggests making feminist standards. The Post- 2015 coalition, which is now called Feminist Alliance for Rights ( FAR) is already making head way on this. Instead of ‘ reacting’ we need to be proactive and engage in building feminist standards to hold others accountable to. This is the collective challenge she poses to the feminists from Europe and around the world.

Further she encourages European feminists to engage in solidarity with feminists from the global south. Often, we have a tendency from there is to bring women from the global south and make them a mouthpiece for what we want to happen. Krishanti insists that if we are serious about change, let’s look at the basic definition of human rights and then integrate that into the leadership of the global South. People’s whose humanity is threatened must be able to decide what it means to be fully human. So we in the global north need to make space and not articulate at other people’s demands.

Abigail Hunt

This talk is about policy coherence between SDGs at the global and regional levels and practical tools for monitoring.  According to Hunt, SDGs are the only game in town especially in international development and therefore this is our starting point with regards to policy coherence. But how do we localize? How do we translate global SDG goals into local level targets that are achievable and coherent. Hunt suggests that we use other policies related to the SDGs as implementation plans. Her case  in point – the EU Gender action plan which was launched around the same time as the SDGs. While the SDG target on gender equality calls for women’s participation it target says nothing about women’s decision making at household level or about collective participation in civil society organizing. The Gender Action Plan ( GAP)  goes further than the SDGs, so the SDGs can be seen as minimum standards and the GAP can be seen as an actual implementation plan of this. However there are some shortcomings; for instance both SDG and GAP call to recognize women’s unpaid work however, it doesn’t say anything about how this will be done in practice and especially how this might be done by the governments?

In this case, Hunt suggests that there is room to push and to interpret more and add to the policy documents within the next 5 years. She urges us to engage in an ongoing analysis of where progress has been made in the implementation documents and use these as hooks to tie into the SDG targets. In terms of practical solutions Abigail suggests that we use international processes to name and shame underperformers but also encourage the governments who are doing well. And while she acknowledges the many challenges even within the women’s movement and NGOisation of the international space where collaboration is not so easy, she insists that strategies for solidarity are more important than ever before. This can be done through something as local as making international documents and SDGs accessible through different types of workshops or toolkits that help strengthen civil society and build a movement for change.

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