How Latin American women created the SDGs

I must confess that I have not paid much attention to the Sustainable Development Goals. Some of my colleagues, like David Hulme, did participate in the expert conversations leading to their adoption. And here at Manchester we have had countless conversations on whether they signal a real transformation or just another round of bulls**t. But I am fascinated by the process whereby the SDGs were conceived, advocated and negotiated, which is just another example of epistemic communities and policy entrepreneurs promoting change in international development. The fine people at Deliver3030 are compiling a series on SDG history which includes personal reflections by key participants in the negotiations. And I found this one piece by Paula Caballero particularly interesting.

Paula Caballero, Colombia

Caballero documents a personal narrative from coming up with the SDG as an idea to facilitating its eventual acceptance for international negotitation as a step beyond the MDGs and Agenda 21 in the run-up to Rio+20. As any other policy entrepreneur, Caballero met with huge doses of skepticisms from peers and colleagues, coupled with a not insignificant resistance – and even hostility – to a new agenda that could displace existing goals and vested interests. In that sense her narrative provides new insights into the SDGs process itself, but is not fundamentally different from other cases of trasnsnational advocacy. She used friendship and personal contacts as entry points, appropriated those fora to which she was invited as possible dissemination opportunities, and enlisted the support of Colombia’s diplomatic network at the UN to organize a systematic advocacy campaign. Securing the official sponsorship of two governments – her own and Guatemala – signaled the beginning of legitimation for the agenda, and thus for the cascading dynamics of support as other actors jumped on the bandwagon.

Rita Mishaan, Guatemala
Rita Mishaan, Guatemala

What is particularly striking about this narrative is how much of the SDGs original proposal hinged on the hard work of a few Latin American women. First and foremost we have Paula Caballero as Director of Economic , Social and Environmental Affairs at the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She immediately received the backing of Vice Minister Patti Londoño, and later of Minister María Angela Holguín. Right there, at the epicenter of what would become the SDG agenda, we find three women. But it gets more interesting. Of the first few colleagues whom Caballero approached in confidence, only two of them stood out: Jimena Leiva of Guatemala and Ye-Min Wu of Singapore; two more women. While Caballero enlisted the support of the male Colombian ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York, the first diplomat from another country to endorse her proposal was also a woman: Rita Mishaan from Guatemala. And they later on received the suppport of Mexican Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commision for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Alicia Bárcena, México

From that point on the list of SDG friends and sponsors ballooned, and in the process became more gender balanced. But it is astounding how much impact a handful of Latin American women had on the global agenda that we now hold in our hands. Or is it? I have noticed that in development circles women tend to account of a much higher percentage of professionals – definitely much more than in political science. My own DSA panel this September is largely populated by women! But this case definitely makes me wonder whether a male-led SDG proposal would have become a thing in a male-dominated world in which alternative views can be easily perceived as attacks, and policy discussions as just another place for measuring each other’s… reputations.

¡Bien hecho!