10 May

Insights from my guest talk at Warwick University: Individual agency and responsibility in the #SDGs

"I am guided each day by these three questions: ‘What are you fixing?’ ‘What are you making?’ and ‘Who are you helping?’” – Juliana Rotich, co-founder Ushahidi

On May 2 2017, I was a guest speaker at Warwick University for an event organised by the Warwick University Global Sustainable Development Society. In 2016, Warwick University launched the Global Sustainable Development department, providing a progressive curriculum on sustainable development (they offer a Philosophy and Global Sustainable Development degree!!).

My talk, ‘Locating ‘Self’ in the Sustainable Development Agenda’, explored the role of the individual in the Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs) and the implications for individual agency and responsibility. The SDGs is a technical document outlining the activities and targets to achieve a more sustainable and equitable world by 2030. It is also a political document; the result of five years of negotiations and framing among different actors. My talk focused on the political aspect of the agenda because *who* the individual is defined as and *what* they are legitimately allowed to do, is inherently political. This theme will also be discussed in the upcoming European Economic and Social Committee session, ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: a new frontier of rights and progress for the EU.’

To gain some additional insights, I used a combination of theory (a critical analysis of the ‘We the Peoples: Celebrating 7 Million Voices’ report (2014), World Social Forum Declaration on the post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Agenda text) and practice (my previous work with the Action 2015 movement and the Afrika Youth Movement). The main element of the talk was the distinction between the individual as an actor and individual engagement and which of the two would likely contribute to systemic change.

The conversations were lively, challenging, and constructive and I did not expect anything less. Here are my main findings from my analysis and what they can tell us about the individual as an actor in the SDGs.

Who is the individual?

The definition of the individual is ambiguous throughout the text. The individual exists through the representation of other actors, mainly states and different forms of organised civil society.

Paragraph 1 and 2 of the SDGs agenda states, ‘We, the Heads of State and Government and High Representatives…On behalf of the peoples we serve.’ The legitimacy of the Heads of State and Governments is accorded by the people who elect them, but is not enough to confirm the legitimacy of the individual as an actor in the SDGs.

There is further ambiguity in the closing section of the preamble, where ‘the people’ is separated from other actors with the responsibility to represent them, ‘Our journey will involve Governments as well as Parliaments, the UN system and other international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – and all people’ (Paragraph 52).

Representation of interests

Representation within the context of global governance is not enough to tell us what an individual can do because the actors representing the individuals often have their own interests within the system.

There are several examples in the SDGs agenda, where States are presented as representatives of the people, while simultaneously asserting their rights to assert state sovereignty and self-determination (e.g. Paragraph 18). This creates a further distinction between the state as an actor and the state as a mechanism for individual representation.

There is a similar divergence in the World Social Forum Declaration on the post-2015 agenda. The World Social Forum is an annual gathering of activists, organised civil society, and grassroots movements who meet to discuss and advance issues affecting civil society. It has been described as the largest civil society gathering in the world; the 2015 gathering attracted over 70,000 delegates from 120 countries. In 2015, the World Social Forum was held in Tunisia to discuss the post-2015 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. The Declaration was the outcome of these discussions.

Above: Delegates at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunisia

Source: Photo credit: Thelma Young

The Declaration does advocate for issues important to individuals such as the integration of the human rights regime in the SDGs. However, in the Declaration, the individual exists via its association to and representation by organised civil society.

The World Social Forum Declaration promotes civil society in global governance as opposed to defining the role of the individual in the agenda. It advocates for ‘stronger and institutionalized civil society participation mechanisms to hold the states accountable’ and posits civil society as the alternative (and therefore sustainable and ‘transformational’ option) to the existing development regime. It calls for increased support to civil society-led development approaches such as ‘agroecology movements…and community-based social solidarity economy (SSE)’ which ‘carry great potential for generating decent and resilient jobs and sustainable livelihoods and securing universal access to fundamental rights.’

Exceptions to the rule

There are two cases in the SDGs text, where the individual is explicitly referred to; sustainable consumption and production and activism. The first reference is regarding sustainable consumption and production, where ‘governments, international organizations, the business sector and other non-state actors and individuals must contribute to changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns’ (Paragraph 28).

The second reference, in paragraph 51, defines the individual in categories of ‘children and young women and men’ who are called to be ‘critical agents of change…to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.’

What do we make of these exceptions? My theory is that the individual is only recognised as an actor within these spheres of action, because these actions exist outside the political-institutional framework of global governance. Sustainable consumption and production can exist in the private spheres of individual choice ‘i.e the ethical consumer’ and activism which is always done in opposition to the prevailing discourse and the institutions and actors that support it.

Within the global governance processes, the individual can only exist through its representation via other actors who are recognised as legitimate actors in global governance (i.e. states, organised civil society).

Definition as a power mechanism 

The legitimacy of the idea that an individual can be an actor only outside the global governance settings, greatly defines the role of the individual. In the ‘We the Peoples’ report, the individual’s role is refined to awareness raising and advocacy. The two referenced campaigns in the report, Action 2015 and the Make SDGs famous campaign, were set up to promote the SDGs agenda as opposed to critique it.

The emphasis on collective mobilisation as opposed to individual action is another prevailing feature associated with the individual’s role. In some ways, this does make sense. As a public narrative, the Sustainable Development Agenda needs a dominant group to sustain, otherwise it loses its legitimacy. Hence the continuous focus on awareness raising activities and the emphasis on collective action versus individual action.

Further reflections

Preparing for this talk left me with alot of questions! Here are four areas I would particularly like to know more about and may be fruit for further research…

  • Alternative roles of the individual: Last year, former N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, proposed that individuals can help tackle global challenges by tactfully using their roles as consumers, political voters, and ‘activists’ to increase pressure on decision-makers and business leaders. What other roles can individuals take on to tackle global challenges?
  • Collective vs. individual: As shown in my analysis above, institutionalising individual engagement via organised civil society does not necessarily provide more insights on the role of the individual in the SDGs. Does ‘greater in numbers’ always mean ‘better in impact’? When is it more effective to advocate for individual agency rather than individual engagement in a collective group?
  • The implications for the Universality principle: The universality principle of the SDGs states that the Sustainable Development Agenda is applicable to all states. How does the universality principle affect individual agency and responsibility? Is it more effective to focus on implementing the SDGs locally as opposed to internationally?
  • Socio-economic factors: A recent Eurobarometer survey on EU citizens’ perceptions of global development and co-operation, revealed some interesting trends. Published in April 2017, the survey findings showed that an individual’s perception of how much they can affect global change is positively correlated with the number of years spent in education and their perception of financial stability.  In other words, the higher the numbers of education I have and the more financially secure I feel, the more likely I am to think that *I* can make a difference in the world. Usual disclaimer here, correlation does not equal causation. Still, these insights make me think there are alternative questions we can ask to find out what motivates and affects individual action for global change.


Many thanks to Warwick University Global Sustainable Development Department for inviting me and to the attendees for finding the Drake meme in my presentation (below) mildly funny! For more info on the Warwick University Global Sustainable Development department, check out their website here, their degree courses here, and the Warwick University Global Sustainable Development Society here.

I am keen to connect with on-going discussions and research in this area, come say hi! 🙂 


(Same Drake, same)

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