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Scientific paper

African Ubuntu and Sustainable Development Goals: seeking human mutual relations and service in development

Dorine E. van Norren

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Scientific paper

Year of publication:

Third World Quarterly


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It is generally assumed that ‘development’ is a universal concept, understood the same way in every culture. In Africa, progress is understood differently; human relations – including ancestors and future generations tied to the land – take precedence over development. The African concept of well-being is Ubuntu (I am a person through other persons), implemented in South Africa though truth and reconciliation, Ubuntu diplomacy, jurisprudence and People First (Batho Pele) policies. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are multilaterally negotiated and claim universality but are underpinned by European modernism (individuality, growth, separation of nature and humans, etc.). To be truly inclusive of Africa, they can do more justice to Ubuntu. However, official African positions on the SDGs emphasised industry and infrastructure, and overlooked restorative justice. Ubuntu prioritises the first five social goals, equality (SDG10), inclusivity (SDG16) and partnership (SDG17). Ubuntu would change the leading SDG theme into: ‘life is mutual aid’ (horizontal Ubuntu relationship) rather than the hierarchical ‘leave no-one behind’ (developed versus developing countries). Ubuntu would replace sustainability with the ‘community of life’ and individuality with ‘collective agency’; and knowing through measuring with
‘knowing through feeling engagement with others’. It prioritises process (strategies/now) over goals (abstract future).

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