Self-Determination and Philanthropy’s Response to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Par Lanyan Chen , PhD and PhiLab researcher
10 juillet 2020
self-determination SDGs

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Self-determination, the SDGs and COVID-19

In his article in the COVID-19 Special Edition of PhiLab’s Philanthropic Year Journal, published last May, Adam Saifer argues that state-led nation branding, namely, “the strategic deployment of national identity for branding purposes,” is often driven by a dominating ideology and “obscures the ongoing projects of settler-colonialism, as well as the realities of institutional racism and state-sponsored ecological destruction.”[1] He continues that philanthropic nation branding is different, and can be an opportunity for promoting social justice when the branding project is organized around national goals and aspirations for equality.

This article suggests that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of an agenda that would see the world respond by 2030 to the urgent global problem of growing inequality (therefore known as the 2030 Agenda), can serve as a point of departure for building the national goals for equality. Among the seventeen goals of the SDGs, the commitment to equality is a prominent focus. The most relevant is Goal 3 of a healthy life for all, among several other commitments including Zero Hunger (Goal 2), Equitable Quality Education (Goal 4), Gender Equality (Goal 5), Water and Sanitation for All (Goal 6), Clean Energy for All (Goal 7), and Decent Work for All (Goal 8). Canada, as an active member of the UN, is committed to the SDGs and continues to uphold them as the national goals for equality particularly during the pandemic.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, inequalities have been exacerbated not only because millions of Canadians have lost their jobs under the lockdown. The homeless, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities or in long-term care, women in abusive relationships and racialized groups who work in low paid service sectors, are also disadvantaged and more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. In his article in April (see note 1), Saifer insists on the urgency of adopting a “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) lens in policies and practices in the Canadian philanthropic sector in order to help overcome inequalities during the pandemic. Inequality in Canada, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report, is widely understood to begin with the Canadian history that is infused with colonialism, institutionalized racism and patriarchy. Without facing up to their history, Canadians are not better able to continue with efforts to address the oppressions and exploitations that Indigenous peoples and disadvantaged groups experience to date due to institutionalized colonialism, systemic racism and patriarchy.

Would pathways to equality incorporated in the 2030 Agenda offer a sufficient basis for a DEI lens to enable Canadian philanthropic nation branding to promote equality during the pandemic? This article is aware of the criticisms of the SDGs that there is not a clear blueprint to guide the ending of inequality against the domination of capitalist markets controlled by the political and economic elites. As a follow-up to the criticisms, the article differentiates the equality that the 2030 Agenda envisages within the tradition of liberal democracy, one that was historically developed in Europe and more recently became dominant throughout the world, from substantive equality that is needed in a DEI lens. Equality in liberal democracy as a promise of nominal and formal equality that tends to treat everyone equally, or the same, has been proven to be insufficient in overcoming inequalities because it overlooks the fundamental socio-economic differences amongst peoples, especially those who are disadvantaged due to their experiences with colonialism, racism and heteropatriarchy. Substantive equality, conversely, is built on a strategy through the exercise of self-determination to achieve equality of outcomes upon recognition of social/cultural and gender-based differences in persons and peoples. This article develops a feminist and decolonial perspective of the differences between these two views of equality, which are commonly overlooked. One example is that the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), through its Flagship Report (2016, 3), has suggested that pathways to equality should affect not only relations between economic and social structures but also the norms and institutions needed to achieve greater equality, although there is no formal and substantive distinction.[2]

The feminist and decolonial perspective on equality of outcomes that this article adopts is an alternative to nominal equality in liberal democratic tradition and its application in the international community, including the SDGs. This alternative perspective defines self-determination as the right to a safe, healthy and full life not only for all peoples but also for all persons, and renders it as a starting point for philanthropic nation branding to foster the transformative changes that are needed to achieve greater substantive equality, and solidarity to deal with the current pandemic. The recognition of the right of peoples, not just individual persons, to self-determination helps uphold the collective struggles, including Indigenous struggles for respect of their nationhood, women’s struggles for recognition of their contributions to reproduction, the Black Lives Matter movement against the systemic racism in police brutality, and our common struggles for the right to universal health care urgently needed in the fight against the COVID-19. Self-determination challenges the liberal democratic views of individual liberty as “equality of opportunities” and calls for social transformation to include redistribution based on universal or rights-based public policies and cultural/social inclusion. In what follows, a critique of nominal equality in liberal democracy is compared with the criticisms of the SDGs before a discussion of self-determination as the basis of a feminist and decolonial perspective needed in organizing philanthropic nation branding in Canada in achieving equality during the current pandemic.

Criticisms of the SDGs and Equality in Liberal Democracy

As critics have argued, the 2030 Agenda offers no clear demand for freedom from domination by capitalist markets, paternalistic state policy, or control by political and economic elites and institutions such as the World Trade Organization.[3] In fact, critics of the 2030 Agenda are concerned that the SDGs fail to provide a clear strategy for overcoming the traditional emphasis on the growth of capitalist markets through a conflation of economic growth with societal growth. The growth of society is not just about the increase of population and income but more importantly, about the wellbeing of everyone who is able to exercise self-determination to embark on a path toward a safe, healthy and full life. The emphasis on economic growth has been an essential claim of neoliberalism that advanced in the 1970s and developed into market-driven hegemonic mandates in state policies in the 1990s. These policies herald individual liberty in the accumulation of property and aim to shrink spaces for not only the role of the state but also the legitimacy of collective action,[4] including the exercise of self-determination. It is the claim of liberty as the liberal democratic basis of equality where individuals (men or women) are treated formally and nominally equally in the marketplace, or by rules and regulations that support the elites’ interest in maximization of profit and ignorance of discrimination and privilege. However, it is the greater role of the state in the organization of public health response and the collective action in such forms as Indigenous resistance, women’s movements against violence, labour actions for decent work, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the building of solidarity through Mutual Aid Networks, and universal health care, more than just hospital-based care as it is limited to in Canada, that are needed in the present fight against the pandemic. The exclusion of long-term care, home care, pharmacare, and other outside hospital care from the Canada Health Act is the leading cause that the overwhelming loss of lives to the COVID-19 are happening among people in long-term care facilities and racialized, low-income groups.

Equality in the liberal democratic tradition refers to a state where everyone, but especially men, as long as they are able-bodied and deemed normal by Eurocentric and heteropatriarchal values, have the same status in the marketplace as another member of society. They bear unalienable rights to civil liberty, freedom, and access to property, social goods, and services enshrined in law. Although these rights were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – namely, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – the exercise of these rights was primarily based on an individual’s membership or citizenship recognized by a nation-state. It became clear, however, since the Great Depression of the 1930s that markets in fact created economic collapses and inequalities. Liberal theory and its variants including Keynesianism, neo-Keynesianism, and the neoliberalism that dominates the world today, sought the help of public policy to safeguard the stability, and hence the dominance, of the markets through job creation and a social safety net to catch those who lived in poverty. Policies and programs in support of the social safety net in many countries, including Canada, adopted as the norm the family model of ‘men as breadwinners’ and ‘women as homemakers’.

Equality, therefore, as liberal democrats see it, is tied to a sense of social justice: liberty as individual freedom from constraint and as one’s substantive (materially and socially supportive) opportunity to realize a chosen life. These two widely noted conceptions of equality range from John Rawls’s pursuit of equal opportunities to Amartya Sen’s equitable distribution of capabilities; both are anchored on individualism and market participation. Both are prone to discriminating against universal health care through public policy, Indigenous struggles for their collective claims for self-determination and women’s demand for recognition of unpaid care. The failure of the 2030 Agenda to challenge the liberal democratic conceptions of nominal equality in the drive for economic growth and globalization, will lead to a further failure. That is to overcome the challenges imposed by the neoliberal influence on policymaking, including the desire to provide social services to people without regard to gender, class, race, sexuality, ability and Indigeneity. As Bob Mullaly argues, if all people must be treated equally, or as the same, “we are assuming that the standard of equality is ‘equality of opportunity’, thus ignoring important social differences.”[5] These social differences have historical roots in Canada where colonialism and patriarchy are institutionalized through the systematic deprivation of land and cultures of Indigenous peoples, and the structural role of (poorly paid or unpaid) care, outside the public health care system, predominantly done by racialized women and men in the macroeconomic model of growth. Cuts to social security and privatization of social services in the current macroeconomic model have contributed to not only rising inequalities but also women’s growing burden of care.

These failures will inhibit, this article suggests, the establishment of the right of self-determination of peoples and persons so as to enable Canada to advance a vision of greater substantive equality by way of a strategy to overcoming oppressions and exploitations under colonialism, racism and patriarchy. To transform our vision from formal equality to substantive equality, the rights of both peoples and persons to self-determination must be recognized. While formal equality stands as a moral commitment to Indigenous peoples by way of setting standards in support of nationhood and restitution of their collective stewardship of land, substantive equality offers opportunities for individual Indigenous persons to apply moral standards to their specific circumstances in meeting their needs for a safe, healthy and full life. Moreover, the failure to address poorly paid and unpaid care through public investment in care, and social reproduction in general, is a direct result of ineffective promotion of such human rights norms and principles as equality and non-discrimination, in safeguarding universal health care and a safe, healthy and full life for everyone.

Self-Determination and Philanthropy’s Response to the COVID-19

Indigenous struggles and resilience around the world in the recent decades revived the earlier principle of self-determination that was invoked as early as the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War. Ever since, self-determination contributed to the struggles for independence among diverse groups, including many developing countries in the global South, who were previously colonized and asserted their demands for freedom from imperialist domination. Without self-determination, these groups and countries could not have taken the initiative to chart a path to equality as a collective goal of independence following the Second World War. In more recent decades, this principle has inspired Indigenous struggles for decolonization and restitution of their nationhood and homeland in Canada and elsewhere. The re-articulation of self-determination based on the recognition of peoples as well as persons in recent decades has contributed to it being one of the most influential political and legal principles in human history.[6]

By recognizing self-determination as an exercise of peoples’ collective right, it is possible to envisage ground-up collective movements built on dialogue, negotiation, and deliberation in democratic governance, through which freedom to a chosen, safe, healthy and full life serves as a foundational concept in the policies of redistribution and social/cultural inclusion. Such democratic practice may offer a chance not to overly entrust redistribution to the protective, and even emancipatory, capacities of state power and neglect the disciplinary aspect of state power to address intragroup domination. This neglect may lead to a failure to challenge fundamentally the power of patriarchal elites who uphold neoliberalism along with the domination of the majority over the minority and market-based production over social reproduction. At the same time, self-determination as the universal value of the politics of recognition must also be applied to each person. This means that everyone is treated with respect for the integrity of the whole person and the protection of rights that include land, culture and universal health coverage with equitable access to health services and care, and social protection with a guaranteed basic income to prevent deepening poverty in a pandemic. These rights also include decent work that is secure, safe and paid properly and the recognition of women’s unpaid work as they care for others, and a political voice, dignity, and protection against sexism, racism, discrimination, and all forms of violence. Self-determination is achieved only when fair representation is secured and dialogue, negotiation, and deliberation can take place without forcing minorities into institutional and constitutional moulds imposed by majorities. It is furthermore achieved by not forcing individual women to forfeit recognition of their contributions to reproduction in honour of “family” or children. A feminist and decolonial perspective of self-determination is therefore to actualize the recognition of women’s struggles for social reproduction backed up by public policy and fiscal and redistributive mechanisms, in order to overcome the oppressions of individual women institutionalized in capitalist markets and patriarchal family systems.

Particularly under the influence of neoliberalism, the disadvantaged, who are viewed as lacking skills or having failings such as undeserving lifestyles and habits, are deprived of, and excluded from accessing, increasingly privatized services. Feminists have argued that equality, as a human rights norm, is principally sensitive to gender considerations when it is regarded together with non-discrimination in achieving substantive equality more than formal equality. In formal equality, persons, regardless of their individual circumstances and diverse cultural backgrounds, are to be treated in an identical manner by particularly political and economic institutions. Substantive equality is built on recognition of social/cultural differences in persons and peoples in order to achieve equality of outcomes, especially in times of pandemics.

Therefore, there are three key considerations of philanthropy’s response from a feminist and decolonial perspective anchored on the right of self-determination in the fight against the current pandemic. The first consideration is to help create a pathway to equality through collective action to uphold what the UNRISD Report (2016, 116) promotes as solidarity, cooperation, and democratic self-management. The right of self-determination as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that peoples can freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.[7] The exercise of this right by persons and peoples helps to expand equality as it enables Indigenous peoples, women and the racialized disadvantaged to overcome not only the oppression of formal institutions of the state and the marketplace but also the impacts of heteropatriarchy on their families and communities. The exercise of self-determination challenges male-dominated power by demanding the transformation of the family systems upon which social welfare is provided and within which women’s experience with family violence is rising during the pandemic. Such transformation enables recognition of women and other disadvantaged to have the freedom to determine their lives on an equal footing with others through a guaranteed basic income, as has been established in Spain in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as well as the greater social and community support against gender-and-race-based violence should continue to ensure Canadians lead a safe and healthy life during and beyond the pandemic.

The second consideration is that the exercise of self-determination challenges neoliberalism, upheld by the capitalist corporate complex and welfare governments and programs in many developed countries, as well as the care policies adopted in developing countries in recent years. Such policies and programs tend to judge social needs paternalistically through means-tested demarcations between “deserving” and “undeserving” persons and peoples. They are designed, on the one hand, to create jobs predominantly for women in care services, and on the other to reinforce the “motherhood penalty” through means-tested child and family benefit programs. The privatization of care services, including the use of public-private partnerships, has reinforced discrimination and stigmatization against women who use welfare. Individual exercise of self-determination as the basis upon which social welfare is to be provided meets the demand for women and the disadvantaged to contest social policies on the protection of everyone to a safe, healthy and full life. It is also required for necessary cross-sectoral coordination and coordination of governments at different levels toward a true universal health care system by taking into account the needs of caregivers and receivers in transforming existing conditions in poorly paid and unpaid care where women predominantly work.

A final consideration would see workers/consumers as a united force in providing goods or services that meet social needs through collective democratic planning and management as it is now during the current pandemic where there are decisions about lockdowns and re-opening of businesses. More importantly, the support for workers with CERB, pandemic pay and top-up salary increases for essential and frontline workers, many who were lower-paid and undervalued, should serve as a basis for ending poverty as a goal for such democratic planning and management. When workers/consumers form solidarities, opportunities increase for labour unions to represent care facility workers demanding safer working conditions and increased wages in Canada, and social partnerships as pioneered in Scandinavia. Such opportunities likely advance an acceptance of substantive material equality as the basis for equal participation in production and reproduction, overcoming inequality and capitalist market domination. The UNRISD Flagship Report (2016, 118–33) details the growth of cooperatives, mutual associations, social enterprises, and self-help groups, popularly known as the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE), in Latin America, Asia, and Africa in recent decades in response to social needs for poverty alleviation, social services, employment generation, and women’s empowerment. It suggests that the SSE demonstrates the potential to contribute to transformative change in relation to the SDGs, although governments under neoliberal influences are often reluctant to support the underpaid workforce in care services and the SSE over dominant capitalist market forces. The current collective action from the ground up through social movements, unions and Mutual Aid Networks in Canada is key to enabling the policy environment needed for transformative change in the achievement of the SDGs and solidarity against the pandemic.

Therefore, self-determination is premised not only upon a commitment to establishing equality throughout legal and political institutions but also on universal rights claims to be contested at all levels of governance based on public debate, negotiation and exchange. Such contestation must include the participation of all, including disadvantaged persons and peoples. A priority task of achieving equality of social welfare is to promote “ground up” movements whereby the self-determination of all persons – and women as a whole – to a life free of oppressions and exploitations, is respected at all levels of policymaking. Philanthropic nation branding can help with this task on the basis of promoting an essential condition for equality; namely, successful struggles for self-determination through solidarity among oppressed groups and individuals, be they Indigenous peoples, BLM activists, labour unions, women, or other disadvantaged persons. In light of this perspective on equality, the transformative change necessary for overcoming inequalities and the crisis of pandemic requires not only the removal of the family as the basis for social welfare provisioning but also a move in public policymaking away from formal equality, or equality of opportunities. Canadian philanthropy can help realize this process of transformation that is reliant on practices of inclusive governance open to contestation and the participation of the disadvantaged based on the exercise of self-determination.


Notes de bas de page


[1] See Adam Saifer, 2020. “Philanthropic Nation Branding.” 26 February. Available at Also, for further discussion of DEI lens and Mutual Aid Networks, see “Philanthropy during the COVID-19: The Urgency of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lens.” 12 April. Available at

[2] UNRISD, Policy Innovation for Transformative Change: Flagship Report 2016. Available at

[3] See Valeria Esquivel (2016), “Power and the Sustainable Development Goals: A Feminist Analysis.” Gender and Development. 24(1): 9-23.

[4] For more, see the collection edited by Alexandra Dobrowolsky (2009), Women & Public Policy in Canada: Neo-liberalism and After? Published by Oxford University Press.

[5] See Bob Mullaly (2019), The New Structural Social Work: Ideology, Theory, and Practice, Oxford University Press, p. 9.

[6] For more, see the collection edited by Avigail Eisenberg et al, on Recognition Versus Self-Determination: Dilemmas of Emancipatory Politics, published by UBC Press in 2014.

[7] See ICCPR available at