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Friday, 14 July 2017 00:00

Structural and Systemic Barriers to Sustainable Development

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Championing Systemic Reform

World Animal Net (WAN) has had a long-running interest in the root causes of the inhumane and exploitative treatment of animals which is currently systemic in politics and society. This train of thought led us to research UN systems, and alternatives to the current development paradigm. Then, as we delved further into our research, we came to recognise that the same root causes are at the heart of many of society’s most intractable issues. Now, as we attend the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York, the need for systemic change comes even more sharply into focus. So, let us take a look at the nature of the change needed, and the opportunities for its achievement.

Anthropocentric SDGs

UNAnimal Protection Organizations (APOs) across the world were bitterly disappointed when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed with no specific mention of animal welfare and animal sentience. Instead, animals were lumped together with “natural resources”, and treated as if they were no more than inanimate objects to be divvied up for human use and profit. Other NGOs also pointed to the anthropocentric nature of the goals, and the fact that they overlook the central importance of nature and animals to our world and our humanity.

Progress from NGO Major Group

Our disappointment turned to delight when the NGO Major Group addressed our major concerns in its Position Paper for the 2017 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). This stresses that the HLPF theme – “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world” - will never be achieved unless important structural and systemic barriers are addressed. NGOs point to the current neoliberal macroeconomic policy as a major driver of unequal distribution of wealth and power and the destruction of natural resources. Furthermore, they called for an end to the use of economic growth to measure development, and a new development paradigm which “furthers the well-being of humans, nature and animals”.

Main Barrier to Achievement

The blind pursuit of economic growth and prosperity against a backdrop of rising populations and finite natural resources is simply not possible. This is the root cause of many social ills and inequalities; environmental degradation; and animal exploitation and suffering. Furthermore, this prioritises the accumulation of wealth (and material possessions), at the expense of other important aspects which actually make life worth living: including social equity; ethics and values; and the natural world.

This growth-seeking development is fuelled by big business, whose profits do not simply “trickle down”. Exorbitant amounts of money are amassed by a few individuals, while the middle classes shrink, and the poor fall into extreme degradation. The richest 1% of the world owns as much as the remaining 99%; and, as has been repeatedly raised by the Women’s Major Group during the HLPF, eight men hold more wealth than half of the world’s population.

Instead, this industrialisation wreaks havoc on local communities, small-scale businesses and the natural environment. There is ecological mayhem, with climate change, burgeoning natural disasters, massive destruction of the planet and biodiversity loss. Yet we keep steering towards more wealth, and, seeing the detrimental impacts of this course, we just resort to taking “mitigating” measures… A totally inadequate response.

The widespread impact of this problem reaches across social and environmental issues, providing a threat of massive proportions – but also a unique opportunity for collaborative action across civil society.

New Ways of Thinking

There is now widespread recognition of the need to change the current economic growth paradigm.

The UN Harmony with Nature initiative recognises that economic growth has been achieved at the expense of the natural world, as well as of many human populations. A recent UN Concept Note stresses the “urgent need for society to replace the current anthropocentric worldview with a holistic system of governance”, where “humanity would accept the reality that its well-being is derived from the well-being of the Earth and that living in harmony with nature is a necessary means to sustaining human well-being and human rights”.

The 2017 World Happiness Report also mentions the need for a move away from the focus on growth, and includes the following examples from the OECD and UNDP:

  • In June 2016, the OECD committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts”.
  • Recently, the head of the UN Development Program (UNDP) spoke against what she called the “tyranny of GDP”, arguing that what matters is the quality of growth. “Paying more attention to happiness should be part of our efforts to achieve both human and sustainable development” she said.

Political Intransigence

Current drafts of the Ministerial Declaration of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and the ECOSOC High Level Segment make no mention whatsoever of the need for fundamental structural and systemic changes in order to achieve the SDGs. Instead, drafts are liberally peppered with platitudes, and fully aligned with the economic growth mantra. They include wording which would make the most inventive of marketing men proud, such as “sustainable and inclusive economic growth” and “socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic development”. However, the chances are that marketing men would probably avoid such claims, recognising their potential to incite the interest of advertising standards authorities, given that history has proved economic growth to be far from socially inclusive or environmentally viable?

WAN Commitment

WAN is committed to continuing advocacy in favour of a new development paradigm that will further the well-being of human, nature and animals. We recognise that this is a long-term commitment, but feel it is fundamental to the achievement of humane and sustainable development.

Development is, of course, not just economic. It is qualitative as well as quantitative. Most importantly it is about well-being and quality of life – it’s about flourishing: for people, nature and animals. We need a new development paradigm to reflect this - with money once again relegated to its intended transactional purpose, instead of elevated to the apex of human aspiration.

Must read: The Wellbeing Economy by Lorenzo Fioramonti


Janice Cox

Janice is co-founder and a director of World Animal Net. She has held a variety of management and advocacy roles in the international animal welfare movement over the past 30 years. Janice focuses on WAN’s work on advocacy, development and education/training. Based in South Africa, she has assisted with regional strategic planning for animal welfare on the continent, including working with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)'s Southern African office for one year. Janice was the recipient of the Humane Society International 2014 award for “extroardinary commitment and achievement for animal protection”.


About the WAN Blog

The WAN blog allows us to share our expertise in the fields of policy, science, communications, management, and more in a manner that animal protection organizations can easily incorporate into their everyday work for animals. The blog also provides the opportunity to highlight important work of individual organizations and campaigns, and allows researchers, experts, and others outside of WAN to provide useful information to the animal protection community. 

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