Featured in International Development Planning Review 44.1: Urban equality and the SDGs: three provocations for a relational agenda

The editors of International Development Planning Review (IDPR) have selected the following paper as the Featured Article in IDPR 44.1.

This paper will be free to access for a limited time:

‘Urban equality and the SDGs: three provocations for a relational agenda’ by Stephanie Butcher

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the author stated the following:

This paper is borne out of my simultaneous fascination and frustration with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a globally agreed compact, there is little doubt that the SDGs have significant scope in shaping development discourse and practice. In particular, the rallying cry to ‘leave no one behind’ offers a profound opportunity to engage with structural legacies of inequalities— and the differentiated and intersectional ways this is experienced across gender, age, ability, class, ethnicity, religion, and a range of other important identities. Likewise, its commitment to universality unsettles divisions between ‘North’ and ‘South’, drawing attention to marginality and uneven development across geographies. Its ubiquity in both international and local spaces of governance is a testament to its enduring influence.

And yet, in terms of grounded practice, the SDGs offer a mixed legacy. For some of the partners referred to in this paper, located in Southern cities, they have been useful especially for leveraging on specific goals and targets (for instance, linked with water, sanitation, food, or energy) to widen the scale and ambition of local commitments. For others, the SDGs are merely a new lexicon with which they must become familiar, a set of requirements linked to their monitoring and evaluation frameworks. And, at its most pernicious, the discrete and measurable targets become a tick-box exercise, devoid of power and politics, and removed from the specific contours of colonialism and underdevelopment, the production of precarity, and legacies of socio-spatial injustices. While the eradication of poverty and inequalities features within many of the goals, the 2030 Agenda does not always well-acknowledge the relations which structure inequality – concentrations of wealth, decision-making authority, knowledge or status— which are unevenly experienced across diverse social groups.

Speaking from the context of urban development—as the majority world—this paper seeks to work in the cracks of these hopes and concerns. It explores the potentials of adopting a relational lens to read the SDGs, as a mechanism to navigate internal contradictions and critiques, and speak to the concerns of urban equality[1]. It does so, through the lens of three ‘provocations’, asking: who owns the city, who produces knowledge in the city, and who is (in)visible in the city? Adopting a relational lens to explore these questions draws attention to: the political economy of the city—trends such as the privatisation and financialization of housing and services— which fundamentally condition the possibilities of achieving targets linked with universal access to social goods; the uneven geographies of knowledge circulation, which shape how ‘fuzzy’ concepts such  as resilience, sustainability or inequality are measured and pursued; and to the social relations which structure inequalities, and how that shapes political agency, collective action, and solidarity. Sharing stories and actions from grassroots groups, practitioners, researchers, and activists, this article seeks to examine concrete ways through which the transformative aims of the 2030 Agenda might be reframed, achieved, and scaled, to build pathways to urban equality.

[1] This framing around ‘urban equality’ is explored with a range of partners across Asia, Africa, and Latin America cities in the ‘Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality’ (KNOW) programme.

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