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Framing underprivilege with underdevelopment, social justice and sustainability together

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Honorine Goueth is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow, having participated in the 2015 Paris Fellowship as well as the 2017 Lantos Congressional Fellowship. 

I grew up in Viry-Châtillon, in the department of Essonne (France), a municipality formerly included in the “Ceinture Rouge”, the historical suburbs of Paris dominated by the French Communist Party. The surroundings of Paris remain mostly working class even though the arrival of gentrified populations continue to change the demographics of the region. I can recall that my family and I lived in a very vibrant and multicultural neighborhood. I attended a middle school in my community where I outperformed my peers. But everything changed once I went to high school, which was attended by people of more privileged backgrounds. Indeed, my grades tumbled during my first year. I was young; it marked me. I quickly realized how inequalities differed significantly from one location to another within the French educational system.

“Although France may appear on the list of countries closest to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working-class neighborhoods have not reached the same level of development as the rest of the country.”

Today, the crisis brought on by the Coronavirus reinforces systemic inequalities such as poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare and problematic community-police relations in underprivileged areas of France. Several media document an exceptional mortality in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the least well-equipped French departments, in terms of intensive care beds: only 42 per 10,000 inhabitants for the department, against for example 77 per 10,000 inhabitants in Paris. The lockdown also provokes shortages in economic incomes of working-class families that immediately decimated their already low purchasing power. Indeed, 27% of the population in the department lives below the poverty line, on less than 1026 euros per month. In the April 22nd edition of newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, we read that the prefect fears food riots. Finally, media coverage of incidents of police brutality against the local community has exposed heightened tensions since the beginning of the lockdown. During a time when local authorities fail to respond adequately, community-led initiatives rise up to the occasion by working in tandem with solidarity squads and address the concrete challenges faced by vulnerable populations. Through their longtime commitment, frontline organizations and activist groups such as Santé BanlieuesAclefeuGhett’up or the app “Urgence Violences Policières” have been able to share deep insights into the experience in underprivileged areas.

How do we convince people, surviving with low socioeconomic conditions, to practice sustainability?”

Although France may appear on the list of countries closest to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working-class neighborhoods have not reached the same level of development as the rest of the country. The current situation reflects some of the biggest disparities relating to the following SDGs: (1) “End poverty”, (2) “End hunger”, (3) “Good health and well-being”, and (4) “Quality education”. Those can interestingly echo back to issues designated at the beginning of the second paragraph. Having worked at the UN, I have witnessed how changemakers from developing countries were able to incorporate the 2030 Agenda as a tool for bringing the change needed in their communities. Why not think about the practical application of SDGs beyond developing countries? In other words, why not reimagine development in the context of a rich country like France? And how this can shift toward a new paradigm?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations)

People feel empowered when they find the space to design solutions for themselves. I think that the SDGs also offer an alternative in terms of holistic programmatic frameworks for implementing change in underdeveloped areas of rich countries (urban, rural or former industrial zones). Appropriating SDGs can indeed open additional political discussions between communities and the public authorities as well as create room for cooperation between local communities all around the world, especially by learning strategies and good practices from developing countries. Innovation can be therefore stimulated. 

If we want sustainability to truly weigh in on the social justice agenda, we must involve people experiencing social injustices in the process.”

Now, one big question remains unresolved. These developments reawaken older contradictions. How do we convince people, surviving with low socioeconomic conditions, to practice sustainability? In other words, are sustainable development and social justice conflicting urgencies? This powerful tension can be made visible through the concept of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How can we expect the poor to care about and plan for the planet when their physiological and safety needs are not met? In the US, concerns over the relation between toxic waste and race, documented since the end of the 80s, have paved the way for the intersection of social justice with sustainability. In France, those two movements developed alongside one another without matching because of its distinctive “language, methods, and values”. However, the “Yellow Vest” movement brought about major change in the status quo. In an unprecedented move, unionist, environmentalist and working-class members structured their organizing initially around the question of police brutality. It will be very interesting to observe how these new alliances impacted the articulation of political projects in the future.  

To answer the aforementioned questions, I believe the response depends on the ability for a broader social representation to shape sustainability politics, especially for populations suffering systemic oppressions. If you are not at the table you are on the menu, that’s the rule! Sustainable development, introduced as a universal tool, also contains an issue of distributive justice. I think that the general problem gets greatly translated into the classical lack of consideration of the role granted to culture industry and policies, still perceived as a luxury in our system. How can we make sustainability, in the same way as culture, less elitist? I do not pretend to have the answer, but let’s see how the French state tried to deal with similar challenges in the past. Indeed, the majority of French cultural institutions have made admission free of charge for everyone under a condition of age. From a collective perspective, the idea of addressing sustainable development, no longer as a privilege but as a basic social good, forms a fundamental step to proceed with a better enforcement of the concept of “just sustainability”, like we’ve seen with healthcare (Assurance Maladie) and education (free college). Nevertheless, this is not enough. If we want sustainability to truly weigh in on the social justice agenda, we must involve people experiencing social injustices in the process. That is why, educating social justice advocates towards the SDGs is, in my opinion, key first. In this regard, platforms such as SDG Students program, SDG Academy or Youth Solutions Report are great resources. And, it is in our very power to educate ourselves and innovate through a SDG lens.

“Today, the crisis brought on by the Coronavirus reinforces systemic inequalities such as poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare and problematic community-police relations in underprivileged areas of France.”