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Reflections on CGD Summer School by Jim Elliott

Summer school

Reflections on ‘The post-2015 development agenda: manifesto for an age of global inequality and turmoil?’

With the Centre for Global Development 2015 summer school sadly at an end I have had some time to reflect on the many interesting discussions and activities that filled the week and made the time fly. Academic pursuits should always raise more questions than they answer and I am pleased to say the summer school did not disappoint in this regard. I attended because I have been studying an MSc in Sustainability Science and Policy but haven’t really studied development in any depth so I learnt a lot during the week. But, as has been observed by many before me, the more you learn, the less you know. Certainly the summer school raised a lot of interesting questions to wrestle with.

Overall, the summer school had a really nice balance of interactive lectures from experts in different fields and practical role-play and mock negotiation exercises. There really was something for everyone. I love lectures and discussion but don’t normally enjoy role-play so much. However, I found it raised some really interesting issues and insight that you can’t get unless you do something in practice. A particular highlight was a session on negotiating positions of different blocs of countries for upcoming talks on the proposed SDGs, the finance summit in Addis Adaba and the climate negotiations in Paris. This provided a really useful basis for following and understanding these talks as they unfold.

Another great thing about the summer school was the great diversity of the participants both in terms of academic backgrounds and countries. Obviously there was a great variety of views and opinions on issues which gave for very lively debate. You get new insights into issues that really make you think about your own perspective and way of thinking. For example, I was in a group which made a presentation about the importance of education as a goal in the SDGs. Egypt is held up by the UN as a great example of development in the area of education so an armchair student like me might just assume that education in Egypt is good. But we had a group member actually from Egypt who really did not feel this was the case at all. It really makes you realise that the numbers never tell the whole story and that people always see issues differently. Who’s to say what is good or bad? Surely the people from the community or country concerned?

I have also been reflecting on some discussion that we had after watching the powerful film Voices of Transition. This has really made me think about one of the original questions of the summer school: Do the proposed SDGs symbolise a new era for development, or is it business as usual? There seems to be a tendency, reflected in the SDGs, to see development as a process of developing countries becoming more like developed countries, with modernisation and industrialisation. The SDGs talk about the need for all people to have access to ‘modern energy’ and of a priority for increasing industrialisation. However, the film, somewhat paradoxically, puts across the view that in developed countries we need to change our own ways of doing things in the opposite direction, to live simpler lifestyles in local, self-sufficient communities.

While the concept of sustainability has been much more integrated in the SDGs than in the MDGs I still get the feeling that it is too stuck in the paradigm of modernisation and industrialisation to present a truly radical vision of a sustainable world. Clearly here are different visions of where we should be going as well as how to get there. And no one can really knows what is best. But if I had to pick one message from the summer school it is that there are a lot of highly talented and motivated people out there doing everything they can to improve people’s lives. All together we must have a good chance of making the world a better place.