SDGs from Be­low

Full Tit­le

SDGs from Below: Social Movements, Social Justice and Cultures of Power

Ge­ne­ral In­for­ma­ti­on

Project's Coordinator:
Dr. Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel (University of Kassel)

Main Research Partner:
Dr. Patricia Northover (University of the West Indies)

Research Collaborators:
Dr. Simone Claar (University of Kassel)
Dr. Frauke Banse (University of Kassel)

Sustainable Development Goals, Social Movements, justice

Main Re­se­arch Ques­ti­ons

  • Do the SDGs offer a tool for progressive social movement mobilization?
  • To what extent, and in which manner do they mediate global social movements’ quest to tackle systemic inequalities in pursuit of a just future?


“SDGs from Below” introduces the question of bottom-up strategic goal direction and policymaking in an international context. Although the 2030 SDG agenda outlines far-reaching socio-political goals, they are often divorced from other justice claims made by social movements and suffer from deep tensions with the ecological objectives they are said to advance. We contend that a comparative, intersectional and transnational lens is required to analyse the silent Othering indirectly reproduced by debates on this international institutional framework. Our interest is to understand how global social movements shift sustainability debates and how emerging justice narratives might be influenced or marginalized by the SDG framework.


Social movements have long been at the forefront of advocating for the transformation of unequal social, economic and political relations. As a force for change, they bring to light political conflicts and relations of domination that threaten to further tear apart already divided societies. With the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an international framework to address the sustainability of the development project and a number of its related problems, a new global development agenda is being rehearsed. Civil society organisations participate in the implementation or act in contexts, in which the SDGs are formally adopted. Like many global frameworks before them, the SDGs remain contested: on the one hand, they are lauded as being wide-ranging for the myriad of distinct goals they articulate and for being uniquely universal. On the other hand, their non-binding nature and technical loopholes represent key challenges to ensuring that the goals set out within them can be achieved. Ultimately, whilst inviting civil society actors, they are predominantly a state-driven project that is, moreover, highly interwoven with the private sector to achieve a green economy in the long run. The project is located at the nexus of all three Research Clusters in the GPN. It speaks to modes of conducting development cooperation, interrogating the global economy and problematizing knowledge production. Alongside our overlapping research interests, each team member brings with her an area of expertise that builds a specialty area in the project: class justice (Banse), gender justice (Mageza-Barthel), racial justice (Northover) and socio-ecological justice (Claar).


In their current form, the SDGs have not been authored from below nor do they sufficiently shift discourses or policies in the global South. We argue that to realize their transformative potential, the SDG agenda needs to be led by social movement priorities. The project seeks to investigate the extent to which the SDGs are used to frame the claims made by social movements in their localized and transnational struggles. It will undertake a comparison of different social justice struggles, their reference to the SDGs and their contribution in appropriating them. The main areas concern gender justice, racial/reparatory justice, socio-economic justice and ecological justice.

Rather than referring to individual SDG targets and their indicators, the project regards the SDGs as a set of values and principles, or a framework purported to bolster global equality and equity. Of interest to us are transnational networks and alliances that inhabit a distinct social justice agenda and either participate in or appropriate the SDG project at the global and/or regional level. Within these networks we also find member organisations who are active at the country level, where they campaign for these specific goals as a part of their wider struggles.

Li­te­ra­tu­re Re­view

The SDGs have been the subject of development studies and international politics, finance and social movement debates alike, where the various fields in the 2030 agenda are discussed critically (see Debiel 2018). The tension between the SDGs potential and their possible implementation inform as much of the discussion as their pitfalls and their inability to transform global relations (Brisset 2017; see also Banse forthcoming). As values and principles, they express an aspiration that can hardly be fulfilled but play an important part in political mobilization (Finnemore and Jurkovich 2020). International frameworks like the SDGs become salient, when they are appropriated nationally and when they are translated into social movement discourses. When facing contestation social movements push the envelope of accepted justice doctrines further open and contest international precedents from the bottom-up (Mageza-Barthel 2016). Currently, we can observe a rising debate on the ‘justice’ dimensions including the question of the different forms of justice and relations possible in distributive, recognitional, procedural and a ‘fugitive justice’ claims (e.g. Davis et al. 2019; Moore and Patel 2018; Jenkins et al. 2016; Best and Hartman 2005).

Major obstacles to realizing the SDGs transformative potential lie in their colonial continuities (Ziai 2016), and the opposition to established human rights norms such as racial and gender equality, human, indigenous and labour rights, which have long formed the core of social movement mobilization (Beckles 2019; Shepherd and Reid 2019; Peet and Watts 2004; Sen 2019; Banse 2016). Of relevance to social movements who attempt to engage the SDG agenda from below is the impermeable nature of international organisations and policymakers who reproduce steadfast power asymmetries on a global scale. Are the SDGs old goals in new hegemonic skins that reproduce a ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano 2000) or even reproduce a politics of ‘abject blackness’ in the quest for development (Northover 2012)? Transnational classes are the main shaper for this development in green finance (Claar 2020). In such longstanding movements as the racial justice, labour or women’s movements, where major successes in the pursuit of social justice have been accomplished through political struggle and have produced important conceptual advancements, these standpoints may be hollowed-out in the current era (see Cornwall and Rivas 2015; Mageza-Barthel 2019). Ultimately, this leads to a subordination and marginalisation of actors, voices and experiences rendering any global agenda incomplete and deeply problematic.

Banse, Frauke (forthcoming): "Private Sector Promotion for Development? An Analysis of German and European Development Policies in Africa". Berlin: Brot für die Welt.

Banse, Frauke (2016): "Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing? Gewerkschaften in Ghana und Benin und die Förderung der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung". Kassel: Kassel University Press.

Beckles Hilary (2013): Britain’s Black Debt. Kingston: UWI Press.

Beckles, Hilary (2019): “The Reparations Movement: Greatest Political Tide of the 21st Century.” Social and Economic Studies, 68 (3&4):11-30.

Best, Stephen and Saidiya Hartman (2005): “Fugitive Justice.” Representations, 92 (1): 1-15.

Brisset, Nigel, (2017): “Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and the Caribbean: Unrealizable Promises.” Progress in Development Studies 18(1): 18-35.

Claar, Simone (2020): “Green Finance and Transnational Capitalist Classes - Tracing Vested Capital Interests in Renewable Energy Investment in South Africa”. In: Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, The Global Political Economy of Green Finance and Socio-Ecological Transformation 37 (4-2020), 110-128.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Althea-Maria Rivas (2015): From ‘gender equality and ‘women’s empowerment’ to global justice. Reclaiming a transformative agenda for gender and development. In: Third World Quarterly 36 (2): 396–415.

Davis, Janae, Alex Moulton, Lei Van Snat and Brian Wiliama (2019): “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, … Plantationocene: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass: 1-15.

Debiel, Thomas (2018) (ed.): Entwicklungspolitik in Zeiten der SDGs Essays zum 80. Geburtstag von Franz Nuscheler. Institut für Entwicklung und Frieden. Duisburg/Bonn. Online:

Finnemore, Martha, and Michelle Jurkovich (2020): The Politics of Aspiration. In: International Studies Quarterly, 1–11.

Jenkins, K. D. McCauley, R. Heffron, H. Stephan, R. Rehner (2016): Energy justice: a conceptual review, Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 11, 174–182.

Mageza-Barthel, Rirhandu (2016): Geschlechtergerechtigkeit unter postkolonialen und post-konflikt Bedingungen? In: Aram Ziai (ed.) Postkoloniale Politikwissenschaft: Theoretische und empirische Zugänge. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 131-149.

Mageza-Barthel, Rirhandu (2019): ‘Of Expectations and Surprises in South African-Chinese Gender Politics’, in International Feminist Journal of Politics, 21 (1), 144-150.

Müller, Franziska/ Claar, Simone (forthcoming): “Auctioning a ‘Just Energy Transition’? South Africa’s Renewable Energy Procurement Programme and its Implications for Transition Strategies.” In: Review of African Political Economy.

Northover, Patricia (2012). “Abject Blackness, Hauntologies of Development and the Demand for Authenticity – A Critique of Sen’s Development as Freedom”, Global South, 2012, 6 (1): 66-86.

Moore Jason and Raj Patel (2018): “Unearthing the Capitalocene: Towards a Reparations Ecology.” Accessed from:

Sen, Gita (2019): “Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: Feminist Mobilization for the SDGs.” Global Policy 10 (S1): 28–38.

Shepherd, Verene and Ahmed Reid (2019): “Women, Slavery and the Reparations Movement in the Caribbean.” Social and Economic Studies, 68 (3&4): 31-59.

Ziai, Aram (2016): Development Discourse and Global History: From Colonialism to the Sustainable Development Goals. Abingdon/New York: Routledge.


In order to analyse how social movements, mobilize around or are distanced by the SDGs, we undertake a research process that involves different steps/methods. Our methodological considerations include ethical commitments to adhere to the relevant regulations as prescribed by our universities. Empirical research will mainly take place through qualitative research methods, and through digital means.

The research project begins with a literature review, and we will draft a Concept Paper that discusses the different justice perspectives and how different social movements provide different critical lenses on the SDGs objectives. This will form the basis for a call for papers for a Special Issue as well as provide a framework to guide the two planned group discussions in the GPN network, which is a unique resource regards to the SDGs. These include their agenda-setting and implementation, justice claims and equality dimensions as well as financial mechanisms and material repercussions. These group discussions will be supplemented by document analysis from thematic reviews of the sustainable development agenda. When possible, travel will involve collecting empirical data, where it is not digitalized or to consult experts on the subject matter.

Suc­cess Cri­te­ri­ons

Based on the concept paper the project aims to conclude with a scientific publication i.e. a Special Issue in an internationally disseminated journal. A possible further output would be a funding proposal to extend the study.