Exploring the ‘Development’ in ‘Sustainable Development Goals’

Submitted by DPP on Friday, June 19, 2015 - 23:39

Richard Pinder, Qualification Director for the MSc in Development Management, looks at some of the ways in which Open University teaching engages with arguably the biggest issue in development: the creation and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the foreseeable future, and indeed beyond, the development industry will be preoccupied with the establishment and achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The process, which was set in motion at the 2012 Rio Conference on Sustainable Development, will reach one landmark at a United Nations Conference in New York this September. At the conference, member states are expected to agree the draft set of 17 SDGs – ranging from ending poverty through to promoting sustainable economic growth and creating peaceful and inclusive societies – with a view to starting implementation in January 2016.

The process has been, and will continue to be, driven by debates, many of them furious. These include debates over funding, the nature of sustainable development (and its compatibility or otherwise with economic growth) and the merits and demerits of a goal- and target-driven approach to development. There are debates even over the appropriate number of goals – serious debates, related to the inclusion or not of goals relating for example to good governance and women’s empowerment.

Beneath these debates, however, are a number of basic questions, the answers to which will serve to shape the ways in which the struggles to achieve the SDGs are played out over the coming years. Amongst the most basic are: What should drive development? How does development take place? Can development be managed? And, if so, who should be the ‘managers’? 

These questions provide the starting points for much of the OU’s postgraduate teaching related to development in both its international and sustainable forms. They resonate with our students, many of whom are involved in development management, or are planning to be. 

To the first we have a simple answer: development should be driven by a desire for social justice. It is this that has informed our postgraduate teaching since the establishment of our MSc in the mid-1990s – before the creation of the SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have been similarly contested.

More specifically, our most recently introduced module, Conflict and Development (T879) , takes as its starting point the inevitability – perhaps even the valuable necessity – of conflict in any development process. Wherever and whenever development processes take place, they involve conflict: over interests, values, meanings and goals. T879 goes on to explore ways in which conflict can be managed to bring about development goals. Early feedback, from students in Kenya and Uganda, indicates they find it ‘highly relevant to their work, sparking all sorts of new thoughts and reflections’ (as reported by Associate Lecturer Rachel Wrangham, who has just returned from teaching in Nairobi and Kampala).

One consequence of the centrality of conflict is that development has to be negotiated, a point we explore in another of our modules, Institutional Development (TU872). Here, an online negotiation and brokering activity helps students experience and explore something of the understandings, accommodations, and deals that have to be achieved to bring sustainable development about, and something of the way power relationships unfold.     

The next module we will be introducing (in November this year) is a new version of our longstanding module, Capacities for Managing Development (T878), which requires students to ask questions about the role of a ‘development manager’. In so doing, it raises issues concerning legitimacy and authority, both of which are necessary for sustainability. T878 also looks critically at the tools used by development managers, asking if these are exclusive or inclusive, and if the way we typically do development brings the best possible – or even just good – outcomes.

Similar issues are addressed in the specific field of education, through Education for Development (ET821). SDG 4 looks to: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’ ET821 explores the relationship between education and development, and encourages analysis and action with respect to educational practices and processes in developing and transition countries.

As part of the development industry, I and my colleagues who teach and undertake research in this area share the more general preoccupation with the SDGs. But we judge that alongside the debates over the goals themselves, we need to ask – and encourage our students to answer – these more basic questions about development.

All the modules mentioned above can contribute to our MSc in Development Management or can be taken as stand-alone modules. The next presentations of these modules will be:

TU872: Institutional Development: November 2015

T878: Capacities for Managing Development: November 2015

ET821: Education for Development: November 2015

T879: Conflict and Development: May 2016

You can also access some free tasters of the OU’s teaching on international development, view podcasts of our recent international development seminar series, find out how you might try to prevent civil war by playing Saving Setrus, an interactive game that allows you to explore the complexities of humanitarian intervention and the use of force in international law, or take an adventure through the Amazon to see how your choices will impact on the future of the rainforest.