14 Jul

How ‘Our Common Future’ became the ‘Sustainable Development Agenda’

Introducing my latest series on The Brundtland Commission.

It has been an exciting few weeks. First off, I co-organised a policy dialogue at the annual development conference, European Development Days, hosted by the European Commission. The dialogue was on transforming mindsets for sustainable development featuring working sessions between senior policy-makers at UNESCO, World Bank, EU and development practitioners from around the world. I am currently reading this fascinating book on ecological consciousness which seems to validate the main recommendations coming out of the session.

On June 30th, I was invited to present at an annual conference hosted by the Participation Lab at Reading University. The theme of the conference was ‘Participation and the SDGs’. The conference featured a range of presentations and workshops on innovative models of engaging communities in the design, implementation and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals. It was fascinating to engage in discussions on the agenda beyond international development and to learn how policy makers, researchers and activists are grappling with this agenda in their work.

Last week, I was invited to speak at the UK House of Commons on the future of UK-Africa relations and the Sustainable Development Agenda. There were interesting and challenging discussions on Brexit, trade regionalism and my intervention on innovation in governance and policy-making.

Interacting in all these spaces has left me thinking about innovation, specifically innovation in global governance. Yesterday, the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, released their flagship World Economic and Social Survey at the High-Level Political Forum in New York. This year, the report reviews development policy analysis over the past 70 years and highlights five recommendations relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals. What other lessons can history tell us about our common future?

In March, my beloved Uncle Nick, gave me an original ‘embargoed’ copy of The Brundtland Commission Report, also known as ‘Our Common Future.’ The Brundtland Report was commissioned by the World Commission on Environment and Development and led by former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Published in 1987, the report was a landmark moment for sustainable development and gave the concept the political legitimacy it needed.

Above: Front cover of my uncle’s copy of The Brundtland Commission Report, published in 1987.

From the Brundtland Commission in 1987, there came a series of pivotal moments in global governance leading up to the Sustainable Development Agenda. There was the 1992 Rio conference on Environment and Development, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, and of course, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Agenda in New York in 2015. Over the past 30 years, this concept has evolved from an idea to an agenda to a regime.

The copy of the report which my uncle gave me, has been sitting on my desk for the past few months, watching me as I ponder and discover my practice.  As I come back to my practice every day, I have increasingly thought about the report and what we can learn from it.

Firstly, I am curious to understand how an idea goes from a concept, ‘sustainable development’, to having the normative power that sustainable development has now.  I am interested in the chronological, political and theoretical evolution of sustainable development and what we can learn from it as we move closer to post-2030.

Above: Excerpt from The Brundtland Commission Report.

Secondly, I am curious to know what The Brundtland Commission meant to the different regional blocs and actors who contributed to the report. To what extent was ‘Our Common Future’ a commonly agreed agenda? Considering the agenda we have now, have their viewpoints changed?

Finally, I am interested in what The Brundtland Commission can tell us about innovations in global governance. In what ways did the report disrupt the status quo and in what ways did it reify the existing dynamics of global decision-making?

There are many lessons we can learn from the Commission on how to organise and influence political change at the global level. I want to follow the text and the processes closely, and speak to the people who were involved in developing the report 30 years ago. I hope that my work over the next few months will serve as a blueprint for the next generation wanting to negotiate systemic change. The clip below is the iconoclast herself, Gro Brundtland, speaking about the Report.

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