Towards a global, sustainable and inclusive approach to inequality

Do we need “a global perspective on inequality in reformulating SDGs”? The Global Research Programme on Inequality and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen moderated this parallel session during the 2021 SDG Conference Bergen, with panelists Rachel Sieder, Divine Fuh, Sundar Sarukkai and discussant John Andrew McNeish.

A brief summary of GRIP's parallel session during the 2021 SDG Conference Bergen

Do we need “a global perspective on inequality in reformulating SDGs”? The Global Research Programme on Inequality and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen moderated this parallel session during the 2021 SDG Conference Bergen, with panelists Rachel Sieder, Divine Fuh, Sundar Sarukkai and discussant John Andrew McNeish.

From the 11th to the 13th of February, GRIP led the programme committee for the 2021 SDG Conference Bergen. It is on this occasion that a specific session was organised to discuss and debate the idea of “a global perspective on inequality in reformulating SDGs”. While countless reports are published on how to tackle the issue of disparity, inequality is persistently increasing in spite of attempts to reduce it. Which preconceptions can we challenge to improve our understanding of it, and how can the academic landscape dealing with inequality evolve?

Bjørn Enge Bertelsen also gave the final notes ending the conference.

The session’s moderator, Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, kicked off the discussion by reflecting on the importance of including theories from the Global South to create a comprehensive and inclusive way of understanding inequality. He also stressed the need to reassess academic practice and its knowledge-production process in order to avoid the fructification of hegemonic, outdated, and perhaps even irrelevant research. GRIP’s Executive Director invited the different participants to share their points of view on the best ways to mobilize research in order to understand global intersecting inequalities, especially in a post-COVID-19 world, by using the SDGs as the point of departure. The panelists were then invited to translate research ideas into future, potential policymaking.


The first panelist, Rachel Sieder, is a professor at the Center for Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), in Mexico City. Her research areas include social movements, violence, and indigenous law and rights. She published several books, among which are Demanding Justice and Security: Indigenous Women and Legal Pluralities in Latin America (2017) and The Handbook of Law and Society in Latin America (2019). During her talk, Sieder discussed violence and inequality in Mexico and Central America, pointing out how inequality is normalized, as in many regions of the world. The consequences of this are devastating: “As the Black Lives Matter Movement has made so acutely clear, every day, historically invisibilized forms of violence, in effect, sanction the social death of whole categories of people”, said Sieder. According to the anthropologist, the current pandemic has further revealed the worlds lying between “bodies that count and those that are excess”. But how can we lessen this divide?

Rachel Sieder giving her presentation during the parallel session.

Indeed, Professor Sieder underlined how “governments and justice, the State and the so-called rule of law, and advancing rights-based paradigms of development have clearly proved insufficient to now”. Instead, she proposed anthropology as a pioneering subject, allowing for the advancement of sustainable development and a better approach to inequalities. She suggested three main elements that a new approach to inequality should include; the first one being the need for a plurality of understanding rights and justice. The second is that of “embodied knowledge”, and thirdly, she explained how nature should be approached as non-exploitable and non-disposable. According to Sieder, by combining these three points, researchers and decision-makers may get a better grasp of inequalities and how to eradicate them.


The second speaker was Divine Fuh, the director of the Institute for Humanities Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town. He is also a co-chair of the Global Africa Group (GAG) of the World Universities Council (WUN). He is currently researching the political and economic aspects of Pan-African knowledge production. Fuh, echoing Sieder’s “embodied knowledge”, advocated for the need to work alongside people when working on questions of sustainability and inequality reduction, instead of taking them out of the debate.


He highlighted the need to begin uncomfortable conversations, notably over power relations. “What does it mean to think sustainability from the context of conquest? What does it mean to think sustainability from a place where one needs to struggle on a daily basis in order to be taken seriously as a human?” When evoking the SDGs, Fuh explained the necessity for alternative ontologies and alternative epistemologies. If this fails to happen, researchers are merely “talking in abstraction and imposing particular concepts and particular ideologies to different people and situations”. The South African researcher further stressed the importance of questioning who the actors of sustainability are, who ensures the decisions made, and who is affected by those decisions.


The last panelist, Sundar Sarukkai, is the founder of Barefoot Philosophers, an India-based initiative meant to democratize philosophy. His published works include The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory (2012) and Experience, Caste and the Everyday Social (2019). For Sarukkai, “the established discourse of SDGs is deeply influenced by ideas of society which are largely a product of a Western academic tradition”. The philosopher underlined how problematic this may be, as local specificities to experiences of poverty are numerous. A universal approach is doomed to fail, with cultural differences between regions such as Asia and Africa, and between Western societies, being too important to be cast aside.


Sarukkai’s second argument lied in the belief of constructing social sciences around human experiences, especially non-Western ones. For now, theories of poverty are rarely issued from the lived experiences of the poor. Yet, for Sarukkai, the latter should not be ignored when conceptualizing equality.


Sarukkai ended his talk by asking: “What is it that makes people who are better-off accept the suffering of individuals and groups around them?”. As long as this question remains unanswered, he fears resolving inequalities will stay out of our grasp. “There are foundations and beliefs and practices that sustain the division between the rich and the poor, just as there are these elements that sustain cast inequalities”, declared Sarukkai. Inequality is not a concept that exists outside of us. It is something we all sustain and participate in, with everyday interactions, thoughts, and attitudes.

Panel debate summarizing the six parallel sessions during the Conference.

Overall, the three panelists stressed the importance of including voices from the Global South and putting an end to the hegemony of Western ideas. Revising and deconstructing how we perceive both inequalities and sustainability is a matter of great importance. The session’s discussant, John Andrew McNeish, completed the panelists’ arguments through several recommendations. McNeish, professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) working on International Environment Studies and Social Anthropology, invited his colleagues to reflect on how to translate these theories into concrete policies, law, and governance. Additionally, McNeish advised them to think about how Western ideas differ from those of other parts of the world. If we fail to do so, he warned, we may end up over-generalizing the West and its theories.


GRIP’s session on inequality at SDG Conference Bergen highlighted how by challenging common perceptions, asking uncomfortable and difficult questions and by bringing new alternatives to the table in the formulation of SDGs, substantial progress could finally be made in our fight for a more sustainable and equal world.


The recordings of the conference will be made available at SDG Bergen’s website.