Working towards transformational development and the Sustainable Development Goals

Chris Roche and Annette Madvig

25 Oct, 2016

What does ‘transformation’ mean to the Sustainable Development Goals? Chris Roche and Annette Madvig of the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University propose a working definition and explain how Australian NGOs can begin to test their programs and organisations for transformation to fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda.

World leaders launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, boosting global aspirations to improve the conditions and opportunities that shape people’s lives and their interactions with the planet. The ambitious agenda – Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for global action – has ‘transformation’ at its heart. Yet the 2030 Agenda is imprecise about what is meant by transformation and the mechanisms of change that might bring it about.

Our report asks whether it is possible to define more clearly what transformation is and, if it is, whether we know how to achieve it, or at least work towards it. The report takes a somewhat different tack in the ongoing debate amongst academics, development practitioners and other commentators about the merit of leaders making another grand statement and setting collective goals.

We argue that there is no universal definition of transformation, given the diversity of ways in which people understand and experience the world. Instead, we 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. This is enabled by mechanisms and values consistent with end goals.

Through these insights, the report proposes a working definition of “transformational development” which we believe might usefully guide the work of development agencies:

“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.”

Rather than advocating one formula for working towards transformational development, 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. This should start from the most locally relevant point in a situation as determined by local actors. We look at the benefits and challenges of using this approach by analysing five projects of four Australian non-government organisations (NGOs) who want to support transformational development.

The case studies are:

  • Action Aid Australia: strengthening smallholder farmers’ resilience in arid and semi-arid eastern Kenya
  • Anglican Board of Mission Australia: promoting women’s equality in PNG as part of the living Gospel
  • Caritas Australia: improving sexually transmitted infection management in PNG
  • Oxfam Australia: promoting the free, prior and informed consent of project-affected communities
  • Oxfam Australia: supporting coalitions to improve climate change adaptation in Vanuatu

Finally, we consider the implications of these insights on transformation, from theory into practice for the work of development agencies. We hold 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. Agencies can engage better with political, uncertain forces and experiment with institutional and social learning and innovation.  

We conclude by arguing that such strategies can support work to fulfil the transformational potential of the 2030 Agenda notably by:

If the principles in the SDGs are to be realised, the authors argue that it will in part depend on how well the people and organisations implementing and advocating for the SDGs respond to the challenges involved in bringing about transformation in practice. If we are to look back in 2030 with satisfaction, the work starts now.

Annette Madvig and Chris Roche of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University presented their report at ACFID's 2016 National Conference.

  • Chris Roche and Annette Madvig
    Chris Roche and Annette Madvig

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