Working Towards Transformational Development and the SDGs

The Institute and ACFID launch the Transformational Development and the SDGs report, which aims to better define transformational development and how to bring it about.

“Transformational development encompasses genuine, lasting improvements in people’s lives that are enabled and sustained by the creation of just, equitable, accountable and environmentally sustainable social, economic and political systems. Transformational development requires that development actors work with values and methods that are consistent with transformational outcomes.”

Chris Roche and Annette Madvig

The Institute and ACFID recently launched the Working towards transformational development and the SDGs report asking whether it is possible to define what transformation in development is and if we know how to achieve it, or at least work towards it. The report takes a somewhat different tack in the ongoing debate among academics, development practitioners, and other commentators about the merit of leaders making another grand statement and setting collective goals.

World leaders launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on 25 September 2015, boosting global aspirations to improve the conditions and opportunities that shape people’s lives and their interactions with the planet. The concept of “transformation” is central to the declaration of ambitious intent launched at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for global action, which sets out the SDGs. Yet the 2030 Agenda is imprecise about what is meant by transformation and the mechanisms of change that might bring it about.

This report argues there is no universal definition of transformation, given the diversity of ways in which people understand and experience the world. Though common insights can be drawn from a range of thought traditions which consider that something about human society should be fundamentally different in the future from the way it is now. From these insights, the researchers suggest that transformation appears to involve a deep process of change in how we relate to ourselves, others and the environment and how power is distributed and exercised, facilitated by mechanisms and values consistent with end goals.

The report also argues that it is not possible to say whether or not the SDGs will have meaningful impacts. There also isn't one formula for working towards transformational development. Instead, the report proposes that those seeking to work towards transformation, or transformational development, are more likely to be effective if they employ multiple, linked strategies to exercise change across formal and informal systems and at individual and collective levels.

These strategies should normally start from the most locally-relevant point in a particular situation as determined by local actors.

The report explores the benefits and challenges of using such an approach by analysing five projects of four Australian non-government organisations (NGOs) who want to support transformational development including from Action Aid Australia, the Anglican Board of Mission Australia, Caritas Australia and Oxfam Australia.

Finally, the report considers the implications of these insights on transformation from theory and practice for the work of development agencies, specifically for international NGOs and their donors. We suggest that agencies can test their programs and organisations for “indications of transformation”, even if they cannot yet show conclusively that they are contributing to transformational development, especially in the short-term. Agencies can engage better with political, uncertain forces and experiment with institutional and social learning and innovation.

Such strategies can support work to fulfil the transformational potential of the 2030 Agenda notably by acknowledging that universal challenges are shared problems and that international cooperation is about learning together how to address them, not charity; committing to addressing structural inequalities which will be needed of no-one is to be ‘left behind’; and by truly recognising the indivisibility of economic, social and environmental concerns in transformation and embracing radically different economic thinking.

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