Does sustainable development have an elephant in the room?
The inherently unequal relationship between the developed and developing world is hindering sustainable development.
This week, the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has begun deliberating on its resolutions. Sustainable development is high on the agenda. This year UNGA has had a record number of high-level meetings – most of them either on or related to the topic.
At the centre of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are the many disparities between the developed and developing world, including the unequal consumption and use of natural resources; the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation; economic sovereignty and opportunities; and the unequal power in international organisations and decision-making.
Still, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ recent progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals, disparities between the developed and developing world continue to grow.
CO2 emissions are on a trajectory towards disastrous tipping points and global material consumption is projected to more than double by 2060. In the last 20 years, climate-related disasters have led to a 150 percent increase in economic losses and claimed an estimated 1.3 million lives, the great majority of them in the developing world. Climate change-driven conflicts and migration are on the rise, too.
The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is clear that moving towards sustainability requires the broadest possible international cooperation, an ethic of global citizenship and shared responsibility. Crucially, this includes decreasing international disparities between developed and developing countries, such as in international decision-making, control and use of natural resources and unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.
However, there is an elephant in the room of sustainable development. Namely, the very relationship between the developed and developing world of domination and subordination and its historical roots in colonialism.
Today’s unsustainability is shaped by a history that includes the control and use of natural resources and cheap labour for the benefit and consumption of European and European colonial-settler states. It is a history where a bottom line of maximising profit and economic growth included colonisation of foreign lands and peoples, a transformation of landscapes and societies across the world, enslavement, genocides, wars and systemic racial discrimination.
Over centuries, an international order was established dominated by European colonial and colonial-settler states populated by a majority of European descendants. That is to say, largely today’s developed world.
Although the inherently unequal relationship between the developed and developing world and its colonial history is not addressed by the Sustainable Development Goals – it is no secret to the UN.
For example, according to the most comprehensive universal human rights instrument against racial discrimination – the declaration and programme of action of the 2001 Third World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa – the effects and persistence of colonial structures and practices are among the factors contributing to lasting social and economic inequalities in many parts of the world today.
During the early 1970s, developing nations – many of them recently independent – passed resolutions in the UNGA to establish a new international economic order. They demanded self determination over their economy and natural resources as well as equity in determining the laws, rules and regulations of the global economy.
The explicit objective was to address international inequities in the wake of European colonialism. Developed countries with the power to actualise such a new international economic order were not interested and nothing much became of it.
Nonetheless, the call for a new international economic order resonated in the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development. Among other things, it calls on states to eliminate the massive violations of human rights resulting from colonialism, neo-colonialism, all forms of racism and racial discrimination.
In recent years, there has again been a growing call by developing countries in the UNGA for a new equitable and democratic international economic order. But this time too, developing countries with the power to make that call a reality have opposed it.
Last year a resolution was passed in the UNGA towards a new international economic order. It emphasises that development within countries needs to be supported by a favourable international economic order. Among other things, it calls for increased coordination of international economic policy in order to avoid it having a particularly negative impact on developing countries.
An overwhelming majority of 133 of the 193 UN member states voted for the resolution. All developed countries voted against it.
Another resolution that was passed in the UNGA last year promoted a democratic and equitable international order. It, too, calls for an international economic order based on equal participation in the decision-making process, interdependence and solidarity, in addition to transparent, democratic and accountable international institutions with full and equal participation.
One-hundred-and-thirty-one of the 193 members of the UNGA voted for the resolution. All developed countries voted against it.
It is well known by the UN that much of the racial discrimination in European countries and European settler colonies such as the US, Colombia and South Africa reflect colonial history. Across the Americas, the most racially discriminated against are people of colour and among them especially indigenous people and people of African descent. In the European Union too, people of colour are especially discriminated against, not least people of African descent.
Since little more than a decade ago, there is a UN Permanent Forum, Declaration and Expert Mechanism on the rights of indigenous peoples. As a result of the ongoing UN International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024, last year the General Assembly passed a resolution to establish a UN Permanent Forum and Declaration for people of African descent.
One-hundred-and-twenty member states voted in favour of the resolution. Only 11 states voted against it. Among them were the US, the UK and France. All developed countries either voted against or abstained from voting on the resolution.
This year the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achiume, has submitted a report to the General Assembly on the human rights obligations of member states in relation to reparations for racial discrimination rooted in enslavement and colonialism. It is the first UN report on the topic. According to it, reparations for enslavement and colonialism include not only justice and accountability for historic wrongs, but also the eradication of persisting structures of racial inequality, subordination and discrimination that were built during enslavement and colonialism.
It is a view of reparations that includes the pursuit of a just and equitable international order.
This year the UNGA will also deliberate on a resolution for how to organise the new permanent Forum for People of African Descent.
When will the developed world recognise and address the elephant in the room? Maybe when there is a real shift towards sustainable development.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.