Published in The Daily Star on Wednesday 2 October 2019


Mahatma Gandhi and the Sustainable Development Goals

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). PHOTO COURTESY: Pinterest

The world today will celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Twelve years back, the United Nations voted to declare the date as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” When people usually speak about this iconic persona, they often highlight him as a great spiritual leader, who conceived and pursued the ideology of Satyagraha; he had been a nationalist, anti-colonial leader who paved the way for the independence of this sub-continent. Great personalities such as Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama were inspired by Gandhiji’s thoughts and deeds. Indeed, our national non-cooperation movement in March 1971, unleashed by the call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, bears a strong imprint of Gandhiji’s civil disobedience philosophy.

But could the Gandhian philosophy, the thoughts that are encapsulated in Satyagraha, survive the test of time? To what extent currently dominant development propositions resonate with Gandhian values and principles?

As is well known, in 2015, the global leaders assembled in New York to sign up for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which espouses 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda epitomised a new consensus about a vision of human kind for the next 15 years. To establish the continued relevance of Gandhian development thoughts, it will be interesting to explore how much this agenda is aligned with Gandhian outlook and reinforce each other.

The major aspiration of the 2030 Agenda is captured by the tagline “Leave No One Behind.” Gandhiji viewed that, “Progress of a society should be determined by the state of the most vulnerable and the weakest ones.” People, who are furthest from the frontiers of development, are to be brought up to the level of the others for “real development.” He spoke about “the weakest and the most vulnerable”—not only about the most income-poor people. This essentially echoes the concept of “multidimensional poverty,” which stems from not only low-income, but also from life cycle issues, social stigma, locational disadvantages, gender disparity and other similar sources of risks.

The new global agenda has identified the fight against poverty as numero uno of the SDGs. One of Gandhiji’s powerful statements reflects a similar thought where he says, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” What an extraordinary perspective on poverty which surpasses time for its unique observation.

The 2030 Agenda upholds “universality” in development discourse. Gandhiji expressed his adherence to universality through his attitude towards religion. According to Gandhiji, religion or God has no country, no colour, no caste, no creed. When asked, he said, “Yes, I am a Hindu, but I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist and a Jew at the same time.” His universal humanism, however, did not shy away from recognising existing diversity; he said, “Diversity is there, because we are not same in all ways. But diversity should never be used to justify untouchability or inequality.”

The SDGs are distinguished by their emphasis on “sustainability”. This idea of sustainability figures prominently in Gandhiji’s teaching as well. He mentioned that, “What we do today, is our future.” He also said, “We should not look upon the natural resources—water, air, land—as inheritance from our forefathers.” He considered them to be the “loan given by our next generation.”

The 2030 Agenda talks about “transformative” change—including changing the way we live, produce and consume. Gandhiji was the epitome of personal practice of sustainable consumption and production. He underscored that for sustainability of the world, individual responsibility is important—as has been also anticipated in the SDGs. Gandhiji in his unique way mentioned, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He wanted human beings themselves to be the major change agent in the process. A similar idea is embedded in the SDGs’ theory of change.

“Human development” has now become the cornerstone of mainstream wisdom. Gandhiji reckoned health as one’s “biggest wealth, not the golds and silvers”. He mentioned that to eradicate hunger, people should be ensured with nourishment, i.e. healthy food. This pronouncement predates our current realisation that as we eradicate hunger, we need to ensure nutrition, particularly for children. At the same time, Mahatma held that education is a significant driver of change. For him, education is a “life-time phenomenon”; “doing away with illiteracy is not necessarily full education”. The measure of education for him was the revealed amount of inner goodness or potentials of a person.

Nowadays, gender equality is a well-established assumption in our development discourse in general and in the SDGs in particular. The concern for gender equality was also prevalent in Gandhiji’s perspectives. Almost a century ago, he said, “We should not say that women are inferior to men. It would be libel and it is a sin.” In fact, he spoke quite extensively about education for women, and their social positioning. He mentioned that, “The day we will be able to say that our women are safe on the street at night—that is the day we have achieved gender equality”. It only shows that how much Gandhiji was ahead of his time.

Arguably, socio-economic development is fuelled by income, employment, technology and innovation. The modern concepts of “full employment” and “minimum income” were also quite noticeable in Gandhiji’s expressed thoughts. He said that, “I do not want employment for few, I want employment for the masses.” He propagated a right-based approach, which is very much in line with the SDGs, when he said that, “We need to give people a square meal based on a good work, not necessarily based on charity”.

Gandhiji’s explicit fascination for charka and small-scale industries also needs to be understood properly. For him, technology and innovation have to be deployed to the service of the people and create broader employment possibilities; not to be used as a means for laying off people from their jobs and generate profits for few. He looked upon rural employment and small-scale industries as a tool for eradicating poverty, bringing the rural areas on a par with the urban areas, and more importantly “localising the development” (another SDG requirement). Remaining sensitive to the possibility of technology and innovation, he said that, “The unlimited capacity of the nature and all society to meet or demand is yet to be fully tested through technological innovation.”

Gandhiji was a firm believer in the rule of law and democratic polity. He fought against colonial rule, he fought against apartheid; through that he wanted to establish human rights within its own context. For him, the rule of law was manifested through non-violence, peaceful co-existence and tolerance. He said, “You must tolerate others’ thoughts, if you really believe that your thoughts are better than the others.” Interestingly, the new development theories, as reflected in the SDGs, uphold that the rule of laws and accountability, have to be established not only within the country, but amongst the countries.

Gandhiji said that, “You have to look at the face of the weakest and the poorest, when you do something for them, and see whether they are taking charges of their own destiny.” Essentially, he talks here about ownership, empowerment and solidarity. The Gandhian idea of solidarity and partnership is best expressed through his relationship with the colonial power in the context of joint fight against fascism during the Second World War. Under the 2030 Agenda, the world seeks to unite, irrespective of the differences in level of development and governance structure, against the common enemy of poverty, discrimination and injustice. The “bold new world”, according to Mahatma, has to do away with “politics without principles” and “commerce without morality.”

Celebrated author Pearl S Buck wrote, “He was right; we all knew he was right. The man who killed him knew that he was right.” The question is whether this Gandhian “force of truth” can prevail in and be a solution to our present world, which remains afflicted by violence, prejudice and unilateralism. The answer to this probably will be defined by the extent to which we will be able to deliver the new global vision of sustainable development. The Gandhian force of truth will essentially be vindicated through that delivery.

Debapriya Bhattacharya is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Convenor, Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh.