In both academia and practice, and in light of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world of international development often takes it upon itself to criticise the efforts of governments and organisations towards sustainability. As a discipline that inherently encourages students to look away from the West and towards other parts of the world, the outcome is more often than not a heavy critique of ‘emerging’ or middle income countries’ attempts at development. But from this outlook the question arises: is it fair to ladle such heavy criticism on countries who are mere years into economic prosperity? Particularly when we consider that those doing the criticising are the very long-standing global powerhouses who have enjoyed steady economic growth for centuries.
To put it in perspective, we can look to the development trajectories of India and China, the most notable nations to have undergone an economic boom and risen to ‘middle income’ status, and the UK, a long-standing global economic power. India and China’s economies began to rapidly expand from the mid- to late- 20th century onwards, yet have been criticised for their lack of sustainable growth ever since. The UK, comparatively, underwent its Industrial Revolution in the 1700s and has only begun to consider sustainability in recent years.
Sustainability as a byword for luxury
Looking back at an essay I wrote in the first semester of my Master’s at IDS made me reconsider these power dynamics. The assignment required me to analyse whether or not sustainable development had been implemented in a given case study. Like many development students I looked away from the behaviour of Western countries, instead choosing to critique India and China’s development of eco-cities. Urban development and an environmental clean-up act have long been two crucial selling-points of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. India’s Smart Cities Mission, a competition to provide 100 cities with funding for sustainable urban development, and China’s Tianjin eco-city, a joint-venture with the Singaporean government, were two attempts to deliver on such selling points. My analysis at the time was pretty damning: the Indian and Chinese governments’ investment in eco or ‘smart’ cities have all of the pretence of sustainability, but in reality push the most marginalised to the sidelines.
Goal 11 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reads: “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”; the first sub-goal is to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums”. India urgently needs to address this goal: according to one set of statistics, 1.8 million inhabitants are currently entirely homeless and 73 million families lack adequate housing. Rather than addressing this issue, the Smart Cities Mission has displaced thousands of low-income and marginalised citizens from their settlements to make space for new construction, with hundreds of thousands more at risk of similar evictions. This mirrors a global trend of demolishing low-income ‘slum’ settlements to push the problem quite literally to the periphery.
China’s Tianjin eco-city exhibits similarly worrying priorities on how urban development should be done. One of the first things advertised about the newly-constructed apartments and houses is that residents can safely drink water from the tap. This is at odds with the vast majority of urban China, in which tap water is undrinkable and filtered or bottled water must instead be used. Rather than resolving this universal problem, those wealthy enough to live in this entirely new city are exempt from it. India’s resettlement strategy and Tianjin’s separate water supply system are concerning examples of ‘gating’: unsightly urban problems are pushed to the margins, away from the experiences of elite residents. They have bypassed genuine urban sustainability, which should entail housing the poor and vulnerable and providing adequate public services for all, and instead created luxury cities that wow foreign investors and attract an emerging middle class.Photo above by Ev on Unsplash
No leg to stand on?
It is right to be apprehensive about China and India’s self-professed sustainability gains, given that it is the very poorest who are being literally sidelined by such ‘achievements’. Why should such places be given an ‘eco-city’ tick of approval when the very poor are left even worse off by their existence? Criticism and civic pressure should be aimed at all governments, regardless of how wealthy the country is or how recent their wealth; this is how we address and rectify inequalities. But can we really be surprised that this is the focus of India and China’s urban development, given their emerging status on the world stage; moreover, do we in the West really have a leg to stand on? India and China as modern states are both relatively new to their wealth, and amidst the competitiveness of our incredibly globalised world economy, we shouldn’t be surprised or indignant that their attention is currently fixed on creating show-stopping urban centres with flashy business districts.
Furthermore, despite the UK being the fifth largest economy in the world, one in every 201 British inhabitants are homeless. Supposedly ‘sustainable’ urban development continues to cater to an elite middle class. Trendy houses fitted with solar panels are constructed in up-and-coming neighbourhoods, along with a hefty price tag, while hundreds of thousands still remain homeless or in fear of being evicted. What could we claim to be more important to ‘sustainable urban living’ than simply having a home? Our critique of urban sustainability is a perfect example of how we in the West neglect to look at our own failings, particularly as countries who have had a lot longer to right our wrongs, and hold countries of emerging wealth up to higher standards. The fact that it felt natural for me, as it does for many development students, to blast other countries’ attempts at urban sustainability without regard for my own country’s colossal shortcomings, is a cause for concern.
The need for reflection
Development academia and practice constantly require us to be reflective and critical, perhaps more so than any other discipline. This is the way it should be: after all, development as we know it today originated in the West’s desire to modernise (read: control
and continue to exploit
) its ex-colonies. But simply teaching students to be critical is not enough – we must reflect on who is being criticised above others, and the power imbalances that this recreates. By failing to look first at our own shortcomings, and continuing to hold ourselves up as a model to emulate, development will not escape its disturbing legacy.
This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2019-2020 Spring Term: Decolonizing Development begins in an unlikely location; What does our criticism of urban sustainability reveal about the hypocrisy of the West?; The Decade that Decides Our Future; Applying a feminist economics lens to analyse the implementation of Universal Credit on women in the UK; Covid-19 and Child Labour in Dhaka: Call for reviewed policy actions; and Impact of Covid-19 on inequalities in the world of work.