Studying ”Development” in the SDG Era

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have redefined development as comprising a broad range of issues that are relevant for countries all over the world – and implementable by actors including governments, NGOs, for-profits, and non-profits alike. Mette Fog Olwig from Roskilde University is engaged in several projects that study the dilemmas that come to light as a consequence of this change in how development is understood and operationalized in the SDG era.

Mette Fog Olwig teaches international development studies at Roskilde University (RUC). Her students are active young people, engaged in current worldwide challenges, and they come from many different countries. As such, they have grown up in very different social, political, and economic contexts, yet they have all chosen to be involved in development. This has led Mette Fog Olwig to become interested in how young people today understand development, especially in light of the so-called “Global Goals,” also known as the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs).

”An image has been created of the SDGs as being goals that are relevant for all countries. It doesn’t matter where they happen to be situated on the map,” Olwig says. ”This is apparent, for example, in Denmark, where we have really taken it upon ourselves to work with, and live up to, the ’world goals,’ as we call them.”

”We are witnessing that young people of today from the Global North and the Global South join forces to achieve the SDGs and take part in the same worldwide climate demonstrations and various other global movements promoting sustainability. But how do they reconcile this image of common goals with their very different backgrounds and life conditions?” she asks.

After all, even though the goals are the same, important differences still exist between countries.

” The SDGs have been lauded for redefining development as a question of sustainability that all countries must pursue. This has led to an imaginary of global interconnectedness, global partnerships and global generations. But my students come from many different places and have different socio-economic backgrounds. This diversity has generated my interest in investigating to what extent young people today feel they are part of this imagined global generation, and what this means for their perception of their responsibility, power or powerlessness in relation to engaging with the world politically, economically and socially.”

Olwig will investigate these questions in a research project that has just received support from Denmark’s Independent Research Fund with a Sapere Aude-grant of 6.2 million Danish kroner. Sapere Aude-grants are given to particularly talented younger researchers.

”My project will throw light on the role of this global imaginary of equal partnerships and global connectedness when young people from very different places and with very different socio-economic backgrounds engage in a common effort for sustainable development,” she explains.

Together with two postdoctoral researchers, Olwig will undertake fieldwork in Tanzania and Denmark, focusing on young people at schools and universities who are engaged with seeking solutions for global challenges within the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Helping each other

This project builds upon her many years of experience participating in research projects with research partners from all over the world.

Earlier projects include New Partnerships For Sustainability (NEPSUS), which studied multi-stakeholder partnerships involving the state, communities, businesses and NGOs in relation to natural resource management in Tanzania ( Olwig is also part of Climate smart cocoa systems for Ghana (CLIMCOCOA) that examined the role of agroforestry in cocoa farming in Ghana within the context of climate change. These projects are large Danida-financed projects with Northern as well as Southern partners. NEPSUS is hosted by Copenhagen Business School, while CLIMCOCOA is led by the University of Ghana.

Olwig has been part of several research projects in Vietnam since 2005, conducted research in Ghana since 2010, and participated in research partnerships in Tanzania since 2013. Her experience is that partnerships with researchers in the Global South are becoming more equal and that traditional knowledge hierarchies between the Global North and Global South are slowly but surely being challenged.

”Everyone is contributing with different research capacities and resources. Nevertheless, it is extremely expensive to get access to articles and books, and in large research projects it’s vitally important to have the necessary infrastructure and software to analyze, store and communicate data internally and externally. This is where the Northern partners are still able to contribute with know-how, substantial funding possibilities and institutional support. On the other hand, partners in the South are particularly knowledgeable about the local context and infrastructure, and are able to gain the necessary cooperation and permissions to do research from the local authorities, which is not always easy,” she explains.

The NEPSUS project involved qualitative as well as quantitative analysis, and one of Olwig’s major tasks was to lead workshops on the use of NVivo software in storing and analyzing qualitative data.

”These workshops made it possible for us to collectively access the qualitative data we had gathered. It also provided the researchers with a structure for discussing and analyzing the data together as a group. This made it possible to analyze the data in a way that made sense across different disciplinary backgrounds. In this way it became a useful exercise for highlighting the nature of qualitative data and why it is important, something that is important to discuss when the researchers involved come from different disciplines,” she recalls.

(Olwig wrote a blog about her experiences during the NVivo workshops. Please find a link in the sidebar to the right of this article.)

”Honestly, I do not think it is the case that researchers from the Global North have a certain set of skills and researchers from the Global South a different set of skills. The NEPSUS project just had its final conference in November 2021, and the participants said that it had been the North-South partnership project in which they felt the most equal and had contributed equally. We had made different technical and disciplinary contributions, but on an equal basis.”

Equal partnership also characterized the research project studying cocoa agroforestry in Ghana, where new trees and crops are being planted above and below the cocoa trees in order to protect the sensitive cocoa trees in an age of climate change.

”I am part of the project as a social scientist, and I focus on the livelihoods and perceptions of the farmers. Other participants include social scientists and natural scientists, both from the Global North and the Global South, who are experts on natural resource economics, and agricultural scientists who are knowledgeable about all the different aspects of the life of cocoa trees,” Olwig says.

Wanting to do something good

These kinds of experiences with relatively equal partnerships among researchers has increased in importance during a time when new actors, especially the business sector, are joining in the efforts under the banner of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the last couple of years, Olwig has also participated in another research project: Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things ( This project investigates what happens to compassion and engagement among citizens in the Global North when humanitarian assistance and development in the Global South become a matter of profit.

As part of this project Olwig specifically examined the growing role of for-profits as development actors, and the changing role of partnerships between different types of organizations in development. Many NGOs and civil society organizations experience that they must partner with for-profits because of the increased focus on business actors (and funding) in development. She did fieldwork at business seminars and conferences in Denmark focused on sustainability, development and ‘doing good’ – Denmark being an SDG frontrunner. Olwig emphasizes that she was received very positively by participants from the business sector at the seminars and conferences she attended.

”There was true excitement. These people want to do something that is good for the world. Also, the involved NGO’s and UN organizations look very optimistically at the possibilities of cooperating with private businesses,” she says.

Of course, several of the presentations at these conferences emphasized that it is not only difficult for governments, companies, and NGOs to build a successful cooperation. Several also described the different reasons why their attempt at doing good had failed – largely due to inexperience, little understanding of the local context and other unexpected challenges that arose.

”Difficult? Of course, it is difficult. I could have told them that from the beginning. It seems to me that many of the well-meaning participants from private companies were inexperienced in the field of development and humanitarian assistance and didn’t know that much knowledge and experience has been gathered through many decades of research in the field of critical development research which shows why merely having good intentions is not enough to actually do good. Very few development researchers were invited to make presentations at these conferences, and this is also the case in terms of academic conferences on the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a shame that the lack of experience and the lack of accountability measures that characterize the involvement of the business world in development and humanitarian assistance is not being challenged more. Our many years of experience analyzing development interventions and humanitarian assistance is where we as development researchers really could contribute.”

”There is a lot of research on possible pitfalls in projects carried out by humanitarian organizations and NGO’s, showing that it’s not easy to “do good,” even if one’s intentions are very good. Doing good is not always good. Due to systemic and historical unequal geopolitical power relations, it can also perpetuate inequality. My impression is that this previous research is being ignored.”

A selective approach to the SDG’s

A typical component of many SDG seminars and conferences in Denmark Olwig attended was presentations by consultants explaining how to integrate the SDGs into companies’ existing business. In general, consultants seem to play a growing role in relation to international development.

”There is a heavy focus on tracking, measuring, and managing performance in accounting terms. As a result, management consultants become hired as staff in organizations – or at least as consultants for the organizations. These management consultants play a big role in how development projects are managed, measured, and run. Success is reduced to reaching a certain indicator.”

”In a way, it becomes inconsequential whether the organization is for-profit or non-profit, whether it is public or private, whether it is national or international, whether it is in the Global North or the Global South, the same logic is being implemented everywhere. This risks obfuscating local inequalities and local power relations.”

Olwig is also critical towards the tendency to not see the 17 SDG goals as interconnected, but instead only pick and focus on a few of them. She quotes one presenter at one of the conferences for saying: ”We have scanned our innovation pipeline to identify global goal high-impact opportunities.”

Generally, according to observations by Olwig, this means ”more focus on climate and environment and less on social conditions – except for employment conditions and market opportunities.”

In other words, the new SDG generation of for-profit actors on the development stage, tend to be much more selective in their approach.

“And this selectivity is not only unchallenged. It’s actually encouraged, also by the UN. I heard a consultant working for the UN saying that only a third of the SDG goals are relevant for businesses. Others are for other actors to act on.”

This leaves the question of which actors will take it upon themselves to deal with the goals that are not relevant for business, or that may even be caused by business? If civil society organizations, that used to play the role of a “watchdog,” are now partnering with these businesses, can they still hold them accountable?

Mette Fog Olwig with Dr. Opportuna Kweka, University of Dar es Salaam
Dr. Pilly Silvano and Mette Fog Olwig presenting during the concluding conference of the NEPSUS project in November 2021
One of Mette Olwig's major tasks during the NEPSUS project was to conduct workshops on use of software for analysing qualitative data
The NEPSUS project in Tanazania, "New Partnerships For Sustainability", explored through several years how to manage natural resources in a more sustainable way