Whose ‘Sustainable Development’?

By Angelo Balagtas, GLOBUS Correspondent

Born in the Philippines, raised in Singapore, and now currently studying in the United Kingdom, now, more than ever, am I hyper aware of diversity, and, therefore, the different sets of belief systems, cultures and traditions that should be respected within an inclusive society. Studying Global Sustainable Development, the question of “whose definition of ‘sustainable development’ are we following?” has guided my research and understanding of the concept. Needless to say, different perspective are inextricably linked to one’s culture or traditions – and it may be these cultural dichotomies which inhibit efficient progress and/or collaboration between nations.

Yes, the UN has its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but from its conception, the idea of ‘Sustainable Development’ has been heavily criticized. Tracing it back to “the aftermath of the 1992 Earth Summit, according to Becker and Jahn, the adjective ‘sustainable’ became a must in […] political theories, both in the South and the North […] to which people attach different meanings” (1999: 25). Herein lies the problem of difference in meanings, entailing conflicting approaches concerning sustainable development. It “attracted growing criticism, mainly from Third World activists, as a means of domination of non-Western societies and cultures” (Becker and Jahn,1999:1). Power then came into play as a determining factor. That, to accede to someone else’s definition may mean to surrender to their authority. 

Having been born and raised in Asia, and now currently studying in a Western-dominated space, I understand this fear of losing one’s roots, or one’s history to the Western World. Indeed, it feels paralyzing for me to attempt to pursue a sustainable lifestyle, yet continue to question whether this aligns with the values that I was raised with, or if the decisions I make mean that I have completely been consumed by Western ideas. To simply hear from a television show something like: “eating organic is such a white privileged thing”. That, to me, surfaces this idea of privilege that comes with being what many would deem “sustainable”. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore if an issue is right or wrong, for that has always been subjective, therefore context becomes extremely important. Though this may seem obvious, there are specific instances where the nuances are taken for granted, take the case of Target 5.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals ‘End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.[1] Who defines what this “discrimination” is, or what counts as “discrimination”? Not to suggest that gender-based violence, or the gender-pay gap is should be overlooked, but what one may consider discriminatory may be culturally accepted for another. Having a mother raised in the Philippines, I’ve heard her say the most sexist of comments, or so I thought. I then began to realize that she never meant to say anything discriminatory but, rather, it was the way she was raised, and those were the values that she was taught.

Again, I’d like to emphasize that this article is NOT suggesting that the strides towards sustainable development are in vain, or a rejection of Western ideas, but simply that there are fundamental issues with defining certain concepts, especially with regards to social issues in sustainability. Now, with immediate action needed to remedy the repercussions of our ‘unsustainable’ practices, is this a necessary discussion to be had? Personally, yes, for it is in division that there is no communication, no efficient progress. We must tackle this issue first and foremost in order to ensure that it is a global effort, that everyone’s views and values are considered.

As for a solution for this problem, that I do not have. Thus, I will end this article with a question that came to me as I wrote this:

“Is diversity sustainable? Would it not be easier, faster even, to simply have one power to decide everything?”


Becker, E. & Jahn, T. ed. (1999) Sustainability and the Social Sciences. New York: UNESCO and ISOE

[1] Taken from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

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