Global Development Institute Blog

By Aarti Krishnan, PhD researcher,  BWPI

Melissa Leach, IDS, GDI Seminar Series, University of Manchester

As IDS director Melissa Leach delivered her inspiring, wide-ranging and thought-provoking talk – Equality, sustainability, security: Towards transformations in a global development era – to start our inaugural Global Development seminar series, I pondered the role of superheroes and development solutions.

Persistent inequalities, poverty, insecurity, unemployment and climate change are all worrying realities in the world today. We know it. What we really need are effective problem-solvers… like superheroes?

Now more than ever, the world of development is characterised by paradox. The BRICs are rising but home to two-thirds of the world’s poor; education is more widespread than ever but youth unemployment is increasing; opportunities for girls are pushed globally yet face anti-feminist backlash; technological progress continues but with potential for invasions of privacy and security threats.

Evil always exists. Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spiderman’s Green Goblin and Batman and Robin’s the Joker were persistent nemeses, causing mayhem. They never disappeared and always returned tougher than before. Superheroes could only create short term fixes, never sustainable solutions.

Let me tell you how those working to implement the SDGs (all of us) can learn from this, and be like ‘collectively acting’ superheroes.

The SDGs herald a reframing of development in a post-2015 moment.

Having shifted from a singular focus on poverty, the remit of development is now much broader. It involves navigating complex multi-dimensional challenges. With 17 goals and 169 targets, the aims of the SDGs are vast – from responsible consumption to reducing inequality, to security, to conservation. Unlike the MDGs, there is a burgeoning need to be integrated across goals and sectors, avoiding contradictions and trade-offs and recognising synergies.

From the North-South distinctions that once characterised development, we are transitioning toward a development era characterised by greater universality. From Manchester to Maputo, Bogotá to Berlin, Lagos to London, Nairobi to New York, issues of sustainability must be considered and addressed.

From incremental change to transformation, there is a shift towards pathways to sustainable growth, with an impetus on systemic rather than superficial change. The promise and opportunity of development is more transformative than ever before.

It is time to trade uni-directional knowledge flows for mutually beneficial, two-way knowledge transfer and exchange.

For multi-dimensional, universal, transformative, sustainable development, a new era of partnerships beckons. From the industrial revolution to the ending of slavery to the feminist movement, transformative alliances have shaped history. The time has come for global collective action to do so again.

Batman always had Robin. Thor had his hammer. Iron Man had his suit. Every superhero had different superpowers. But they never completely defeated evil on their own. They needed to join forces to form partnerships to successfully beat the bad guys. They formed the Avengers.

The world is calling for an SDG ‘superhero’ machine that brings governments, international organisations, market actors and people together to “see like citizens” and act as effective leaders.

SDGs to the rescue? “Leave no one behind”? We hope.

Aarti is a PhD researcher, focussed on the environmental upgrading of small scale farmers in value chains in Kenya. Meet Aarti.