Women that made sustainable development possible

March 8, 2021

By Javier Surasky

March 8, 2021

The official history of development is also patriarchal but the contribution of women was essential from its origin until today

The history of development is riddled with silence. Few are the recognized contributions in official history from Asia, Africa or America. And those contributions that were included in the great debates either confirmed pre-existing Western ideas, or had the open support of highly recognized European personalities. Sartre’s prologue to The Damned of the Earth by Franz Fanon, rejected as a thesis at the Sorbonne University, is perhaps the best example.

The few contributions that managed to pass that initial filter had something in common: All of them came from men. Raúl Prebisch (Argentine), Hla Mynt (Burma, now Myanmar), Adebayo Adedji (Nigeria) are three representatives of an extensive list of men.

It was, however, women, silenced for decades, but increasingly visible due to their struggle, who made some of the most relevant contributions to development as we understand it today. 

Let’s start with the creation of the United Nations, 75 years ago. The UN Charter was adopted at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, which was basically a men’s gathering.

Source: Own elaboration based on UN Women, UNF and the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy from the University of London, 2021

However, the UN Charter expressly included equal rights between men and women both in its preamble and with regard to access to functions in its main organs (Article 8 of the UN Charter). That achievement had two Latin American women as its defenders: Bertha Lutz and Minerva Bernardino, from the delegations of Brazil and the Dominican Republic, respectively. There were also women in the delegations of other Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Uruguay, Mexico, and Venezuela. And it is not a question of men and women, but of political positions regarding equality: In her Memoirs, Lutz recalls that the female delegates from the United States and the United Kingdom asked her “not to request anything for women in the Charter because that would be very vulgar. ” Lutz, of course, ignored them.

Taking a leap in time, Irma Adelman, born in Ukraine from where she emigrated to Israel and then to the United States, is one of the pioneers in recognizing that economic analysis was not enough to understand underdevelopment, which had to be approached as a holistic problem and, therefore, in an interdisciplinary way. Her approach to the study of development can be explored in one of her early works: On an Index of Quality Change, published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1961.

Far in time and space, two other women played relevant roles in promoting the idea of sustainable development on which the 2030 Agenda is based today:

  • Gro Harlem Brundtland, that in addition to being three times Prime Minister of Norway, Director General of the World Health Organization and Special Envoy for Climate Change of the Secretary General of the United Nations, also headed the Committee of Experts that published, in 1987, the report Our Common Future, where the concept of “sustainable development” is established as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.”
  • Paula Caballero, from Colombia, was the first person to present, on the preparatory path towards the 2012 Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20), the idea of creating some “Sustainable Development Goals”, capable of acting as communicating vessels between the promotion of development and environmental protection. Her contribution, supported by the Colombian Foreign Ministry, was adopted at the aforementioned conference, constituting one of the starting points for the negotiations of the then-called “Post-2015 Agenda”.

Along with these women, the institutional progress reflected in the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its protocol, the establishment of UN Women, and the theoretical advance of feminist theories in international relations, gender approaches in development debates have had women as leading voices behind them. To all of these, we can also add the capacity demonstrated by women such as Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, or Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, to face the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today the five regional commissions of the United Nations are headed by women. The call to mainstream gender equity in public policies grows and the global patriarchy is slowly but inexorably cracking. We hope that soon a woman will become Secretary General of the United Nations, a debt that the organization maintains with gender equality and with those women who, like those mentioned, contributed and contribute to the achievement of its purposes, summarized in the idea of a more just and peaceful world for everyone.


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