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How our old-fashioned way of producing knowledge is threatening SDG progress

Our Western-centric methods of producing knowledge puts girls to a disadvantage and threatens Sustainable Development Goal progress. A far more inclusive, global approach is needed

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8 March 2017

It is no secret that the closest thing we have to a ‘silver bullet’ for improving the world is educating and empowering women. This is now widely understood, even at the highest levels of government. Yet due to our current approach failing to keep up with the latest research, we are failing the people we rely on to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

To achieve a more prosperous world, we must overcome old-fashioned ways of producing knowledge. For a long time, we’ve assumed that the Global North, spearheaded by countries like the USA and the UK, continually develops new and better ways to live. We’ve assumed they produce knowledge that the rest of the world then uses to develop.

But the SDGs are meant to be a product of the whole world coming together to make things better.

They were made from a place of aspiration and desperation. They are an ambitious challenge for people to reach out to a world that is so close and so achievable, but will remain out of reach without some serious changes. They are meant to by inclusive. In contrast to the MDGs, which were produced in a technocratic manner by specialists in UN offices, the SDGs were born out of the consultation of tens of thousands of citizens from around the world. Solutions don’t necessarily come from UN offices in New York or Geneva – they come from people across the planet.

But in some disciplines, our approach lags behind and still reflects the old paradigms – that the West leads, and the rest of the world follows. This Western-centric production of knowledge is becoming an obstacle to achieving the SDGs.

There is no clearer example of this than the cross-disciplinary field of neuro-anthropology, and our attempts to understand the hopes, aspirations and resilience of adolescent girls. In this field, studying adolescents in particular is crucial, because of the cognitive development that happens during the adolescent years. Researching the cognitive changes that happen in the adolescent years is crucial to understanding the adult.

However, this has only been thoroughly studied in Europe, America and East Asia. In other words, our way of producing knowledge in this area has had a heavy Western bias.

You may ask: ‘What is the relevance of the location of people we’ve produced cognitive development studies? Surely brain is a brain, regardless of location?’

But as we learn more about the brain, we are increasingly realising how contextual and developmental it is. Recent advances in neuroscience are showing the functional plasticity of the brain. Scientists are beginning to understand more about just how much culture and society impacts the cognitive development of people.

Our ideas of self, agency, emotion, judgement and much more is shaped by our surroundings. Cultural traits shape cognitive processes.

In the West, adolescents are starting to feel the benefits of a greater understanding of their cognitive development. In the UK, ‘Nudge’ techniques are using what we know about peoples’ psychology to reduce the dropout rate in publically funded classrooms. This is just one example of how a better understanding of our brains can benefit individuals and society. If we are serious about being inclusive and ambitious in achieving the SDGs, we owe adolescents from around the world the same privilege.

Adolescents girls in the Global South today are going to be the ones driving forward and implementing the SDGs. They need to be empowered through education, and through institutional support. The deeper our understanding of their cognitive character, which is specific to different societies and cultures, the more we can leverage that understanding to encourage progress.

Professor Henrietta Moore

UCL Institute for Global Prosperity