International agreements and frameworks are often seen as an effective antidote to nationalist populism, but what if they were found to be succumbing to the latter instead? This is what we found to be the case when studying whether religious actors and organisations in India and Ethiopia were included in the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Far from enabling a broad and universal coalition for about sustainable development, the SDG process fell prey to government capture and populist politics, while Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) – arguably a key partner for finding sustainable, localised solutions – were left out of the process altogether. This, we argue, shows the need to rethink internationalist approaches toward populism in development cooperation: Global governance and monitoring systems need to be flanked by concerted grass-roots initiatives to mobilise development resources and civil society engagement against narrow populist politics. In Ethiopia and India, Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) are a key constituent for such an approach.
Adopted in 2015 on the heels of the largely successful Millennium Development Goals, the UN SDGs are currently the foremost framework for implementing and measuring the impact of development policy worldwide. In seventeen goals and 169 targets, the SDGs set out a universal ambition that moves beyond a basic-needs approach and includes indicators for economic, social, and ecological improvement in countries of the Global North and Global South alike. The language of sustainability is key. It signals the need to situate development in local cultural contexts and their respective values. Accordingly, the UN claims that it arrived at the SDGs through the largest civil society consultation ever held and suggests that this broad consultative approach to setting the goals, as well as a localised process of their implementation, is key to their success. At the international level, FBOs and other religious organisations were involved in the process of setting the goals, among many other civil society stakeholders, while at the local level it was unclear whether similar processes were happening.
As researchers studying the intersection of religions and development, we were interested to find out whether this global framework of the SDG and its language of sustainability connected with the work of FBOs ‘on the ground’ in India and Ethiopia, two countries we had been studying for decades. A research networking project, funded by the AHRC, enabled us to conduct interviews and host workshops in both countries, which brought together academics and representatives of all the major faith-based organisations operating in each country. (We also included the UK for comparative purposes.) What we found, diverged markedly from the official rhetoric of the SDGs as a locally rooted and sustainably implemented development framework.
In both countries, none of the assembled representatives of large and small FBOs had been actively involved in setting the goals, and many participants had only just begun to hear about them. Their organisations also were not engaged by their national governments in the process of translating the SDG targets into local indicators. Few participants expected for the SDGs to make a difference in their day-to-day work, but they were expecting the goals to affect their reporting structures and advocacy material. In other words, from the vantage point of most FBOs, the SDG process seemed like little more than a rebranding exercise of their development efforts. One interviewee remarked that with global and local structures of aid and development remaining unchanged, the SDGs would present little more than ‘new wine in old wineskins.’
This is not to say that our participants dismissed the SDGs off-hand. In fact, some of them even saw them as an opportunity to hold their government to account in light of their commitments to the targets and indicators set out in the process. This view was particularly pronounced in India, where several participants hoped that the SDGs demand for disaggregated data on development would help them make visible the differential treatment of the country’s religious communities.
To date, however, the SDG process is not set up to empower civil society constituents in such a way, because its implementation and reporting structures rely predominantly on state actors. This leads to significant government capture of the entire SDG effort. In India, the SDG slogan ‘leave no one behind’ is also employed by the Hindu-Nationalist government for a very different development agenda, one that repeatedly glosses over and marginalises the relevance of religion in the formation of communities and their access to the country’s resources. For the Ethiopian government, development successes have been a key justification for overarching state control of much of the economy, and recently this narrative has taken another turn in PM Abiy Ahmed’s religious framing of Ethiopian prosperity. In both countries, therefore, populist and quasi-religious rhetoric monopolises development efforts, while the local scope of FBOs and religious communities are sidelined in the implementation of the SDGs or are even subjected to government interference in their work.
Given this marginalisation of the SDG framework in practice, it is important to re-examine the idea of populism being a narrow expression of politics can be kept in check by global accountability frameworks. If one follows the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, a different theory of populism emerges. Here, populism – understood as the ability to galvanise multiple different interests under a common sign or slogan – emerges as the essence of successful politics. From this vantage point, the SDG framework and its notion of ‘sustainability’ are not a natural antidote to the Hindu-Nationalist development politics or Abiy Ahmed’s invocations of divine favour, but they are competitors on the same political terrain. Each of them seeks to gather and mobilise the ‘people of development’ under their banner. This is why an over-reliance on state actors in the implementation of the SDGs is so counterproductive: instead of broadening their own platform of ‘sustainability’ in mobilising the people of development, the SDGs are subsumed under different sets of interests.
For Laclau and Mouffe, signs have to become ‘empty signifiers’ in order to represent a social entity, that is, they need to lose their specificity so they can stand for the multiple demands of a differentiated group. This is why the often-criticised vagueness of the notion of ‘sustainability’ is not the main issue. Rather, it may need to be broadened further, beyond notions of sustainable practices that primarily make sense to economically affluent contexts. Similarly, the overarching ambition and comprehensive approach of the SDGs and their targets does not need to be a problem but can offer a suitably extensive platform for widening engagement. The missing link is rather an effective grass-roots mobilisation for the goals, which would allow various civil society actors to see their struggles and development aspirations reflected in the SDGs and the process of their implementation.
FBOs can be a key ally in in such an effort. In Western development discourse, FBOs are often addressed as representatives of a particular religious tradition, and there is much discussion about the suitability and the limits of engaging FBOs in development because of potential conflicts with various doctrinal positions. However, the representatives of major FBOs we encountered in our research did not see themselves as representatives of a particular religious tradition or dogmatic position, but rather first and foremost as development practitioners engaged in translating global development demands and resources of development into local values and processes. More than many others, they understand and live amid the various tensions between global values and human rights and local religious positions and practices. Furthermore, FBOs and the religious institutions they partner with boast a local infrastructure and trust second to none.
Therefore, we argue, a concerted effort in engaging FBOs for the SDGs is vital if a wider mobilisation around the goals is to be achieved in order to evade capture by narrow state interests. This requires additional and well-targeted efforts alongside the national implementation and reporting frameworks overseen by the UN, and arguably a more dialogical approach that enables religious actors to see their communities’ values and aspirations reflected in the goals and targets. Workshops like the ones we hosted in the course of our project can offer a first line of contact and help identify strong local FBOs that are prepared to provide a balanced viewpoint and broad mobilisation platform. This is just a starting point and further avenues of engagement will need to be developed from there. But if the SDGs are going to be more than ‘new wine in old wineskins,’ broadening their implementation beyond state actors will remain key to keeping faith in what the SDGs can achieve by 2030.
About the authors
Jörg Horstein is Lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
Emma Tomalin is Professor at the University of Leeds.