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“The Sustainable Development Goals under scrutiny”

Revue internationale des études du développement n°253 (2023-3)


- Geneviève Laroche, PhD (, postdoctoral candidate at the World Agroforestry in Kigali, Rwanda

- Stéphanie Maltais, PhD (, postdoctoral candidate and part-time professor at École de développement international et mondialisation, Faculty of Social Sciences, Ottawa University, Canada

Jade St-Georges (, PhD candidate in International Development Management, Management, Faculté des sciences de l’administration, Université Laval, Canada.

Mohamed Lamine Doumbouya, PhD (, lecturer, Université Général Lansana Conté de Sonfonia, Conakry, Guinea


In 2000, the United Nations’ member-states together with the main actors of foreign aid have edicted the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) for the following fifteen years (UN, 2000). A new international framework for development, called the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, emerged in 2015 as a result of the rise of sustainable development as a dominant paradigm for development (Brundtland, 1987; Salim, 2007) and of the criticisms addressed to the MDGs: their targets were deemed too ambitious or simplistic, embedded in a neoliberal philosophy, and their framing was accused of not being inclusive enough (Abelenda, 2014; Bali Swain, 2018; Esquivel, 2016; Satterthwaite, 2003; Stuart et Woodroffe, 2016). The new agenda established 17 development goals instead of 8 (MDGs). 

The SDGs made some progress compared to the MDGs. Because they target common challenges like climate change, the reach and legitimacy of the SDGs were extended (de Milly, 2015). The SDGs also call for rich countries to take action on their territories, and not just on foreign territory in the logics of foreign aid (de Milly, 2015). In addition, the 2030 Agenda differs from the MDGs to the extent that it acknowledges the interconnexion of development’s different dimensions, since each SDG and their targets refer to other Goals (Nilsson et al., 2016).

As a consequence, the SDGs have proven to be a real tools for the implementation of the principle of transversality at all the different scales of action. The SDGs also stand out when one looks at the process through which they were framed. Whereas the MDGs seemed to be the outcome of a hasty and highly selective process involving very few actors, those in charge of framing the SDGs have opted for time and inclusiveness, so that in the end 10 million people from a wide range of organisations participated (Caron & Châtaigner, 2017; Kamau et al., 2018; ONU, 2015; Sénit, 2020). Several states and organisations from the Global South seized the opportunity provided by the negotiations to push their agenda (Sénit, 2020). For example, the Group of Seven + (G7+), an open coalition of fragile and conflit-affected countries lobbied to include SDG 16, called “Peace, justice and efficient institutions”, into the global framework (Baranyi et al., 2021; Hearn, 2016).

Despite the fact that the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets aim at improving the living environment of populations for a more sustainable future, their universal and inclusive claim has been challenged, as well as the methods and processes used to achieve them. For instance, for Belda-Miquel et al. (2019), the fact that the Agenda 2030 is formulated as goals to achieve and not as the rights of persons to be guaranteed, is a limitation. Clements & Sweetman (2020) blame the SDGs for not questioning the inequal power relations at the root of the issues that the SDGs claim to tackle. Those voices advocate for the need to value local knowledge and schemes of thought, and to decolonise the practices of international development in order to establish a real dialogue for bottom-up development and the respect of peoples. Other doubt that the stated goals could be achieved without a challenge of norms, regulations and logics at play. The degradation of contexts in a variety of fields (environmental, economic, social and political) also questions the reality of progress and throw some doubt on its sustainability.

As we stand midway towards the set deadlines for achievement, it is time to question the relevance, foundations and the implementation of the SDGs. It also seems legitimate to question their universal and inclusive character, and their actual outcomes since 2015 by using critical and contexual approaches.

This call for contribution falls into three main analytical lenses: 

The need to shape new North-South relations, representations and rules

The relations in which the SDGs are embedded are fundamentally asymetric. The activities of international aid find their roots in the systems of oppression that perpetuate racist, colonial and sexist relations (Clements & Sweetman, 2020). The SDGs do not tackle the root-causes of inequalities and do not hold the potential to deeply transform the vectors of oppression and dependence into channels of equity and genuine collaboration. The SDGs do not include specific action for the most vulnerable groups.

Feminist, decolonial and anti-racist critiques are helpful to re-think these inequal power relations, and are increasingly vocal and influential amongst academics as well as practitionners. Carrasco Miró (2018) studies the rise in South-South cooperation and its potential for generating mutual benefits. It is consistent with the Agenda 2030, but it also “works through patriarcal and racist means as well as micro-practices and local scales of development” (Carrasco Miró, 2018: 149, translated by the authors). If those new routes of cooperation have a high potential, they also have weaknesses.

Horn (2020) has shown that the decolonisation of knowledges is a fundamental step for the decolonisation of development. An alternative reading of the global Souths, stemming from socially and historically marginalised groups, must be combined with critical dialogues about the SDGs and the lessons to be learnt since their adoption. Some voices want to contribute to the discussion by sharing their plural experiences and perspectives. They can draft a text on the emerging transformation of Norh-South relations in Agenda 2030 (or not).

The need to frame new economic, social and environmental models

The SDGs are anchored in the ideas and worldviews which have facilitated the emergence of the sustainable development concept and that ensure their legitimacy, i.e. neoliberal, orthodox economic theories (Adelman, 2018; Eisenmenger et al., 2020), approaches that treat the environment in a merely utilitarian perspective (Costanza, 1991; Daly, 2007) or approaches that exclude the free labour mostly done by women. These theories contribute to reproduce destructive and inequality-driven systems and intrinsically unfair ecological balances (Kumi et al., 2014, Bali Swain & Yang-Wallentin, 2020; Arsel, 2020; Costanza, 2020). They also marginalise and discredit alternative ideas and notions. The quest for new ideas and discourses to redefine our relations between humans and with nature is central here, and a re-framing of the SDGs in this light is needed, too.

New, alternatives theories are emerging to fill in the gaps left by the SDGs or to foster resistance in fiels such as agriculture, economics, education or health (Isgren & Ness, 2017; Kopnina, 2020; Padayachee et al., 2018). New or re-emerging plural epistemologies question some of the notions on which the SDGs lie, be it the notion of development or well-being (Jimenez & Roberts, 2019; Razak, 2020; van Norren, 2020). Those routes call for a fruitful dialogue between serval worldviews, positionings and modes of action that can enrich one another. To what extent do the world of international aid and development incorporate these alternative visions (or not)? How can “sustainable development be re-imagined in this light?

This special issue welcomes new theoretical or practical frameworks to think about the SDGs (or, ultimately, other goals), including – but not exclusively – frameworks that come from the Global South or marginalised populations. Proposals which explore initiatives guided by these alternative models, both from the perspective of theory or implementation.

The need to deal with the missing links, gaps and invisibilised in the SDGs

Despite the fact that they include a wide range of issues (Hubert de Milly, 2015), Gérardin et al. (2016) state that the negotiations did not enable to integrate specific goals or targets on issues such as migrations, air contamination or natural disaster vulnerability. Those topics can be linked to some of them, but remain in the shadows of the 17 SDGs. In this context, how do groups working on transversal topics link their action and advocacy to align with the global Agenda (or not)? What is the impact of this positioning in the design of action plans that would be consistent for the achievement of sustainable development? Is this conducive (or an impediment) to the deployment of innovations in the field, through the combination of several SDGs?

In parallel to some topics, some populations are invisible in the goals and indicators of the SDGs, i.e. indigenous people, people with a disability or with mental health issues; they are usually included in the broad category of “vulnerable people”, together with children, the youth and the poor (International Disability Alliance, 2022, Izutsu et al., 2015; UN DESA, 2022). This recognition is welcome, but sometimes remain superficial or limits these people to the status of “victim” rather than active agents in the development process (International Disability Alliance, 2022). Southern Voice (2020) informs examples where the factors of exclusion differ and must be contextualised. What happens to the projects that do not align with the SDGs, but meet some of the real needs of marginalised people?

Contributors are hence welcome to propose articles about one topic or group of people that are ignored or forgotten by the Agenda 2030, or case-studies dealing with the groups who feel excluded by the goals.

Submission details / Participation in Issue no. 253 (2023/3) of the RIED

We welcome articles from authors with different profiles or coming from different fields of the human and social sciences: sociology, demography, history, geography, political science, economics, anthropology, the environmental sciences, etc. This special issue hopes to reflect different perspectives on the SDGs. The diversity of origins, experiences, or contributions to the field of development, of angles and points of views is welcome.

Authors are also invited to explore a critical yet constructive analysis of the SDGs based on local, national and international trajectories. The contextualisation of empirical studies, original sources, the combination of theory and robust empirical data, will be appreciated.

Articles (45.000 signs – excluding the abstract and bibliography) can be written in French, Spanish or English. They can deal with the specific topics mentioned in the call, or specific case-studies. They can derive from presentations made at a conference and be part of a compilation. However, they need to be original documents and meet the standards and format of the Revue internationale des études du développement (see the instructions to authors on the journal’s webpage).

The authors agree to read the editorial policy of the Revue internationale des études du développement and to comply with the code of ethics.

The selection process will take place according to the dates specified in the publication calendar below.

Submitting the proposal:

The proposals in French, English, or Spanish must present the paper in 4,000 characters (with spaces), or approximately one page. The Word file (.doc or .docx) for the proposal must be entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-Proposal-253,” and must include:

- a title (70 characters maximum, with the possibility of adding a subtitle);

- an abstract detailing the research question, the theoretical framework, the fieldwork, and the main results;

- some bibliographical references (not included in the character count);

- a second file entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-253-info,” including the author’s first name and last name, their status, their institutional affiliation, and their email address.

The relevancy of the proposals with regard to this call for papers and their conformity to the journal guidelines will be verified by the journal editors and the editorial team.

Submitting the paper:

The authors whose proposals have been selected will be invited to send a first draft of their article, which must absolutely follow the guidelines below. The articles will then be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic.

The articles (45,000 characters with spaces, excluding the abstract and references) may be written in French, English, or Spanish. They must be original work. They may however have been presented at a conference (with proceedings), as long as they have been adapted to the format required by the Revue internationale des études du développement (see the guidelines for authors on the blog for the publications of the IEDES), but the author must not submit their paper to another journal simultaneously.

Publication calendar

The authors agree to comply with the calendar.

The proposals must be submitted by October 10th, 2022 to:

The authors preselected by the editors and the editorial committee will be notified by the editorial team the week of October 17, 2022.

The first draft (V1), following the journal’s guidelines for authors, must be submitted by the authors to the five aforementioned email addresses by January 5th, 2023.

The evaluation process will take a few months; each – anonymous – article will be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic. Requesting a first version of the article does not constitute a commitment on the part of the journal to publish the aforementioned article, which must be approved by the editorial committee, following the different steps in the evaluation process; no. 253 is expected to be published in October 2023.



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