World Development, Volume 126, February 2020,
With the increasing importance of ‘emerging powers’ in the global economy, questions are raised about the role of developing countries in shaping global norms. The assumption in much of the literature has been to see global norms as originating in the ‘North’ (or the ‘West’). Recent research has begun to challenge this view. This paper contributes to this debate in studying the agency of the South in the adoption of sustainable development as the consensus framework for international development (SDGs). Based on documentary and archival research, interviews with stakeholders, and direct participant observation of the SDG negotiations and consultations, the paper chronicles the ideas originating from the South in the emergence and subsequent evolution of the sustainable development concept and the adoption of the SDGs. We highlight the role of key individuals as norm entrepreneurs at the origin of sustainable development as they challenged the North-led understanding of the environmental challenge in the 1970s and 1980s, and the agency of Southern actors in proposing an alternative vision as a successor to the MDGs. We chronicle the agency of Southern actors in promoting some key priorities of sustainable development. We argue that these ideas originated from the perspective of the knowledge, lived experience, policy experience, theorizing and analysis of the Global South. We find that norm entrepreneurship involved contesting mainstream views and advancing marginalized ideas. The case also illustrates international norm emergence as a long term process of contestation and evolution.