Post-2015: SDGs & “local” implications



Two major events occurred in 2015 in order to outline the next 15 years of the world’s environmental agenda:

  1. September 25-27, 2015: UN General Assembly which adopted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  2. November 30 – December 11, 2015: The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

In this post, I focus on the SDGs and conceptualizations of their “local” implementation. I do this by looking at a critique of the MDGs by David Satterthwaite, unpacking some complications when considering “the local,” and revealing how the SDGs may address both of these concerns.

To begin with, for context, the video below by This Week in Global Health gives a short but insightful comparison between the MDGs and the SDGs:

In the early 2000s, David Satterthwaite highlighted contradictions of the MDGs, urban development, and development “experts.” I would like to consider his past insights to see how they may be relevant to the current SDGs. Satterthwaite (2003) wrote a paper titled, “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” One of his arguments is that “the institutional structures and processes of international donors and national governments can be incompatible with the effective achievement of poverty reduction.”

According to Sattherthwaite, the problem with institutional structures and processes include the disconnect between foreign “expert” planning and local implementation; the difficulty of monitoring local progress from far off international headquarters; and dumping of large funds versus the slow, discrete, and diverse allocation of funds needed on the ground. This highlights what seem to be classic tensions between top-down and bottom-up approaches and between the global and the local.

Satterthwaite is most likely not simplistically or blatantly saying that local is “good” and global is “bad.” His statements, however, hint toward this conclusion, making his arguments somewhat problematic.

Gillian Hart (2010) considers the evolution of “the local” as a concept in development rhetoric:

… the rhetorical focus of the [Basic Needs thrust of the 1970s] was on the relative efficiency of small-scale forms of production, what Mohan and Stokke (2000) call “revisionist neoliberalism” is marked by a convergence on “the local” as both more efficient and more democratic. The turn to “the local” has gone hand in hand with the invocation of “civil society” understood—in good liberal fashion—as a distinctively separate sphere from “the market” and “the state”, and a key site for the production of social capital.

Hart is not saying that a “convergence on ‘the local'” is necessarily bad or evil, but that there are contradictions, nuances, and complexities that need to be unpacked if the goal of focusing on “the local” is to be equitable poverty alleviation.

First of all, what is meant by “local”? As Henri Lefebvre has said, “The space that homogenizes has nothing homogenous about it.” One example of this is the phenomenon of elite capture in community-driven development projects, resulting from the heterogeneity of power in “local” spaces. Satterthwaite does not unpack this.

Second (and I believe Hart is emphasizing this), the focus on “the local” is at times coupled with a conceptualization that “the state” is inefficient and the process of “the market” naturally optimizes benefits. The state’s job then is to get out of the way and foster the growth of markets. Local areas then should make themselves appealing to businesses, like flowers are to bees. Those which are the most attractive become developed. There are multiple problems with this type of regime; the most blatant being that this kind of “development” does not consider social equity nor environmental sustainability.

So, this brings us to the SDGs.

No matter how much the United Nations (UN) reached out to “local” groups during their formation, the SDGs, like the MDGs, are inherently top-down when it comes to implementation. In this sense, Sattherthwaite’s arguments against the MDGs are relevant for the SDGs. I have two questions concerning this: Does there continue to be a tension between the global and the local in the SDGs? And, do the SDGs address Hart’s arguments about “the local”?

The above video has pointed out that the SDGs are more “horizontal” than the more “vertical” MDGs. What do they mean by this?

“Horizontal inequality” is inequality between culturally defined groups, while “vertical inequality” is inequality between individuals. Stewart (2002) argues:

Unequal access to political/economic/ social resources by different cultural groups can reduce individual welfare of the individuals in the losing groups over and above what their individual position would merit, because their self-esteem is bound up with the progress of the group.

A UN “Development Issues” report (Winkel 2015) states:

Much of the discussion of [horizontal inequality] is centered on issues of conflict between groups, whereas [vertical inequality] has risen as the much more common lens through which to view issues of inequality. Interestingly, a considerable part of the discussion of inequality in the SDGs actually concerns horizontal inequality, as there are many issues related to access and equal opportunity as well as a number of provisions against discrimination.

The SDGs focus a lot on being “inclusive” as well as equality for certain groups:

  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
So, what does this have to do with “the local”?

The SDGs’ focus on inclusivity can lead to a stronger need for global institutions to engage more intimately with local governmental and non-governmental institutions. This partially addresses some of Satterthwaite’s concerns. “Experts” from these global institutions would be compelled to move beyond simple models of utility optimizing individualized “Econs” (Thaler 2015) and tap into local knowledge about the dynamics between groups — and, first of all, what groups are important and why are they important in each context? This requires a dialectical process between global “experts” and local knowledge holders (à la Sangtin Writers and Gramsci).

The focus on more “horizontal” equality also addresses some of Hart’s concerns in two ways: (1) Since the focus is on groups and not individuals, heterogeneity within “the local” will become more apparent. For instance, instead of simply counting the increase in the number of individual children who go to school, for a more “inclusive and equitable quality education,” it must be asked from which social group does this increase come from and which groups are being excluded? (2) Goal 8 and 10 partially address some of the concerns related to “revisionist neoliberalism,” or the reliance on the natural process of “the market” for the development of “the local.”

In conclusion, the SDGs are an inherently top-down agenda, yet their success relies on their realization at the local level. Satterthwaite highlights this concern for the MDGs and Hart complicates the notion of the “local.” I believe that the SDGs address both their concerns, but of course not fully. What is not addressed I’ll leave for another blog post.



  • Gramsci, Antonio. “Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1-3.” (2011).
  • Hart, Gillian. “D/developments after the meltdown.” Antipode 41.s1 (2010): 117-141.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The production of space. Vol. 142. Blackwell: Oxford, 1991 as quoted by Merrifield, Andy. Henri Lefebvre: A critical introduction. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
  • Sangtin Writers Collective and Richa Nagar. “Playing with fire: feminist thought and activism through seven lives in India.” (2006).
  • Satterthwaite, David. “The Millennium Development Goals and urban poverty reduction: great expectations and nonsense statistics.” Environment and Urbanization 15.2 (2003): 179-190.
  • Stewart, Frances. Horizontal Inequality: a Neglected Dimension of Development. WIDER Annual Lecture 5. (2002) Helsinki: UNU-World Institute for Development Economics Research.
  • Thaler, Richard H. Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
  • Winkel, John. Inequality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Rep. no. 4. United Nations, 21 Oct. 2015. Web. <;.
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