Not just bins: what is sustainability all about? 

What does ‘development’ mean in Sustainable Development and how can we disentangle it from western ideals?  

Most people associate Sustainable Development (SD) with bins, single-use plastic, pollution, and our oceans. While these are indispensable aspects to SD, there is so much more to the concept. For this article, we’ll look more closely at one aspect of SD: development.  

Development is an odd word. The general definition you find from Cambridge Dictionary is “the process in which someone or something grows or changes and becomes more advanced”. This gives the idea of change over time, towards a specific goal, and, in particular, towards a positive outcome. This general idea is applicable to the ‘development’ part of SD as the concept refers to the growth and advancement of countries, and traditionally their economic growth. However, this is highly problematic as the approach is based on western understandings of living and economy.  

Development was conceived in a post-World War II world according to Hart, who argues big, organisational development is ‘done’ to people without their inclusion or participation. The problem we face then is how to fundamentally change the way we look at development and find a solution that will be to people’s benefit and help achieve sustainable development.  

Of course, the environmental aspect of SD is imperative as human influence causes the rapid destruction of ecosystems. For instance, environmental racism is a huge problem. The effects of the climate crisis are felt disproportionately on the people who contribute the least towards the crisis. This creates the false assumption that the problem and responsibility of the solution lies in these places, not the West where consumerism, pollution, and unsustainable lifestyles originate. Listening to others, taking on board indigenous knowledge, and having inclusive decision-making will help to detangle the Western superiority that has formed over the last century.  

However, this is precisely the problem; the people most affected by climate disasters, and who development is aimed at, are silenced. Gayatri Spivak (1999) writes extensively about subalterns and the way the West silences them. Spivak argues that the West is captivated with being the subject of global discourse. When investigating the Global South and development, western writers always pivot the conversation to fit their perspective. Logistically, this means development is viewed through a western lens and has harmful consequences.  

Vandana Shiva (1988) complements this argument by suggesting poverty is created by Western culture. She asserts that the “ideology of development declares” people as poor or rich according to Western values of commerce and market participation. Arturo Escobar (1995) agrees, arguing that the West ‘discovered’ poverty and produced discourses that justify foreign interference in the Global South. In essence, the West understands one way of like, knowledge and economics, and therefore prescribes a certain way of life onto people, in the name of development.  

So, what do we do? Escobar suggests we “unmake and unlearn development”, a phrase that has become equated with the term ‘anti-development’. Anti-development takes on a decolonial lens that aims to reject all forms of Western knowledge and power and fundamentally change the way we look at development – either by restructuring it or tearing it down completely.  

Dambisa Moyo (2009) offers up a practical solution. Her theory is named ‘Dead Aid’ and proposes a radical cutback in international aid sent to Africa. Her argument is based on the idea that the constant stream of aid flowing into Africa only perpetuates the problems and reinforces dependency on the West. By reducing the aid flow over 10 years or so, African countries can instead focus on investment and growing their industries, so they are self-sufficient, and able to shake off the West’s grasp.  

I understand the irony in me making the argument; I am a white, English, privileged person. I am completely entrenched in Western society, and I expect the majority of my ideas still fit within Eurocentric ideals. But I’m trying to decolonise my mind and the way I think, and I would urge everyone else reading this to do the same: challenge the way you see the world, development, and SD in general. If we do this, if we reject western knowledge as a universal truth, then achieving a more sustainable earth will become a lot clearer. 

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