How to achieve Strategic Development Goals

This is a report of a round-table dialogue, organised by the Relational Thinking Network in Geneva, that took place in April 2016.

“The implementation of the SDGs will only be possible by challenging the existing economic paradigm,” said Ms Beris Gwynne, the Head of Programmes of the Relational Thinking Network (RTN), as she introduced the subject in Geneva on 20 April 2016. “There is a need for a quantum shift in the way we do business if we are serious about achieving the SDGs and all that they entail.”

In preparation the main presenter, Dr Michael Schluter, the founder of RTN, wrote a relational critique of the SDGs and this roundtable was meant to enliven the conversation around the subject.

Dr Michael Schluter’s presentation

Why is there little attention to relationships when we know it’s so crucial for outcomes? The main reason is that it is very difficult to measure. Measurement becomes important in making the argument for thinking (and acting) relationally, according to Dr Schluter.

In praise of the SDGs he said that the 17 goals were put together in recognition of an unfair world and that they were of great purpose “but that it is even more important that we can get it right.”

Before he dived into his ‘critique’, which you can read here, he acknowledged that any broad change to the agenda involves an underlying world view and three concerns: “It’s like the foundation of the house: You can’t see it – it is out of sight. But I will try to lay bare some aspects of that in what I say today.”

Concern 1: An individualistic underpinning of the SDGs

The Western worldview characterised by materialism runs deeply throughout the SDGs. A few examples:

Rights versus justice. Human rights have become deeply individualistic because of the courts deciding on the legitimacy of advancing a right.
Land as ‘asset’ rather than ‘roots’. The social, psychological, and religious value of land needs to be recognised, rather than its productive and economic capacity measured in terms of food and other agricultural outputs, so that land is not treated merely as an object to be bought and sold, used and discarded.
Education. The SDGs speak of equal access to education for boys and girls. But what about parents? What does it do to parents if they are not literate but their children are and they need to ask them for help reading text on packaging or a road sign? How can you maintain respect in the household when focus is on individual rights and needs instead of that of the household?

Concern 2: Definition of ‘poverty’

Is poverty only financial? Is it defined by access to public sector sources? Or should we
be thinking of it as a relational rather than a financial condition?
Exclusion. The SDGs do not address this kind of ‘relational poverty’.
Omission of relational pressure. The SDGs do not address issues like debt that can
cause enormous suffering and can increase pressure on family relationships. The SDGs are concerned about poverty but not ‘emotional poverty’.

Concern 3: Language of development needs to be reconsidered

What does ‘development’ mean? Is it about institutions or something deeper?

In the UK over half a million children are abused each year. 3.7 million children are in the court system and there is about a 50 per cent divorce rate. Is that the aspiration of the Kenyans or Indians when they think about developing their nation?

Is that what we want? If not, then what is our vision of a ‘developed’ country? Can you describe it? If not, what does the term “SDG” mean with the word ‘development’ in the middle? What are we striving for?

Measuring the outcome

If we talk about relationships and measuring the quality of relationships, what are we talking about? Schluter defined five areas that have an impact on our communication with each other:

Story – How much time do we invest in relationships and how much continuity is there? Information – Do we know the other only in one context (for example as a colleague at work) or do we also know them in other situations (playing sports together, know their family etc). What do we share?
Power – Participation, sharing of risk and reward – is there ‘fairness’ in the relationship? Purpose – Do we share values and goals?
Communication – How do we communicate, do we meet face-to-face?

Key to measuring the quality of one or more relationships (between partners and organisations in commercial and non-commercial spaces) then is the process of filling out a questionnaire. This is done by both parties which consequently opens up the possibility of a dialogue.

The bottom line in all of this is that we do need some kind of review of targets and indicators to bring SDGs more into focus so they will find real traction in countries. They will need to connect more closely with underlying values of the communities in which they will be introduced.

Mark Halle’s response

Mark Halle, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), was the first respondent to give feedback on what he had heard and read. He agreed that there is a danger of undervaluing relationships. Countries very often are subject to economic measurement approaches that they don’t like. However, the fact that the SDGs at many points focus on individual rights and freedoms, he perceived as “in line with the vast bulk of international law, and very prominently the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no other body of international law on which these suggestions might repose. Sound as they are, there is no place to start from but here and no time but now.”

He agreed that the SDGs have gaps and holes but considering the long process of negotiations, the outcome is a real achievement: “The process leading to this text was the most open and participatory in the history of international cooperation. And although the result might be a compromise, it is preferable over no agreement. Now they are adopted, let’s put the critique aside. We have to get on with it… The basis for Agenda 2030 is national implementation – bottom up. Countries have a lot of freedom how to go about it, and how they value the relational aspects of the development process. They can build on strong community engagement.”

He also commented that the 2030 Agenda cannot be implemented within the existing scheme:

“The initiators had no idea of the far reaching consequences when they put it together. Implementation is only possible through challenging the existing overriding economic paradigm. A social paradigm includes employment favourable policies and allows for a great diversity of path and addressing equity.”

According to him, international progress on any agenda, for instance climate change, will be difficult “because they ducked the challenge of equity. We have to change that paradigm and start looking at things like redistribution.”

Lichia Yiu-Saner’s response

Professor Lichia Yiu-Saner, President of the Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND) noted that the SDGs do not present one straight line. There is room for feedback. She also emphasised that transformation is about changing our behaviour and that is really hard. “How long does it take for us to take on board that smoking is a bad thing?” she asked.

“Looking for technical solutions we might overlook the qualitative solutions. Relational Thinking allows us additional space for analysis and solution development which is good,” she said.

As for the SDGs she questioned how we prove that a goal like “access to water” contributes to the well-being of everyone?

“In order to prove that, we have to go back to the fundamentals. Cognitively we need to be able to switch from technical to relational, from high context to low context, from quantitative to qualitative and to not leave one of those out of the equation. That is what Relational Thinking can bring to the table in as a practice.”

She also briefly mentioned the issue of equity: “What does it mean – access to reasonable housing or schooling? There is more to it. What if we could propose a relational impact assessment to a community? This will create opportunities to (re)create relationships.”

Finally, knowing the situation in Geneva, she also addressed the challenge of coordinating efforts in attaining some of the SDGs.

“We’ve been struggling with silos and fragmentation and haven’t really started to talk about inter- organisational partnerships. There are new competencies and roles needed in the context and realisation of the SDGs. And I endorse the idea of implementing Relational Thinking in the process of achieving the SDGs – in the instruments, the building of bridges and mechanisms, and to not be wasting resources.”

Samuel Gayi’s response

Dr Samuel Gayi stated that the SDGs were a compromise coming from competing interests from different constituencies. However, they are an improvement on the MDGs and in that sense progress has been made.

He was of the opinion that the paper as presented by Schluter brought fresh perspectives on development that one does not hear much of in the current climate.

After some reflective comments he spoke on the issue of land: “We see it as an asset but that’s not right. We need to incorporate the idea of rights whether it is with regards to the individual, community, social, but we can’t treat it just as a ‘bundle of rights’. Where I come from land is where your ‘umbilical cord’ is buried. This goes beyond economic value.”

He also said that we see it as an asset with individual ownership versus community ownership, which should not be the case. He cited the example of an indigenous communities land title approach (the Customary Right of Occupancy) pioneered by a Masai leader, Edward Loure, in Tanzania, who recently was awarded the “Environment Prize”. This approach ensures the co-existence of traditional land organisational techniques of the Masai and Hadzabe with nature, preserving wild life, herding cattle and goes beyond individual land ownership.

On the issue of poverty, Dr Gayi supported Schluter’s notion that poverty has more than a ‘financial face’ and has a Relational component:

“Social capital is an invaluable mechanism for economic growth. It hinges on ideas of trust and reciprocity. In addressing poverty we therefore must go beyond financial aspect”.

On the question of what is development, he said that development was a multifaceted concept that is about more than increasing income. The political, institutional, cultural aspects are as important as the economic ones.

However, he admitted, it has become an economic term where it is measured by what we accumulate and GDP. Does this mean that if it is not increasing, a society is not developing? There are other aspects one should look for such as the hours of volunteering that are being done, etc.

Gayi, at the end of his response, stressed the need for implementation and monitoring of the SDGs at the country and community level: “We’re are still sitting with the issue of measurement. If something cannot be measured people think it’s not worthwhile. We should get traction if we can measure some of the ideas or proposals we discuss.”

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Image result for clive wilsonWritten by Clive Wilson. Clive is the Director of Primeast and is a truly passionate keynote speaker, facilitator and coach, whose main focus is the purposeful alignment and leadership of individuals, teams, organisations and communities. Experienced in working with both leaders and groups of absolutely any size across the world, Clive is committed to both organisational sustainability, as well as improving the effectiveness of social entrepreneurs in the developing world. He currently chairs the United Nations Association (Harrogate) as an advocate for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Susan Pinker explains the village effect

The Relational Thinking International Conference 2016 provided a great opportunity for leaders in business, the non-profit and public services sector to come together to explore the concept of Relational Thinking in their particular fields.

On 17th September, teachers, leaders and education policy makers gathered for the launch of the film and book “The Relational Teacher”. We were honoured to have Susan Pinker, international best-selling author of The Village Effect, come from Canada to speak. She was passionate, humorous, engaging and persuasive as she spoke about the importance of face-to-face interaction for education, health and life.

Photography: Julian Claxton

Buy The Relational Teacher here.

Buy The Village Effect here.


Relationships for learning: making the implicit explicit

In a new blog piece published by the Relational Schools Project a teacher reflects on the discovery of the importance of Relational Thinking in the class room, acknowledging that things like the teacher-pupil relationship should be part of the pedagogy.

“An overwhelming number of students, when asked questions about their motivation and engagement at school, responded with ‘it depends on the teacher’. Follow up interviews conducted by the Faculty of Education reinforced the correlation: students’ perception of the quality of the connection that they had with their teachers played a significant part in their engagement in lessons, subjects and with school as a whole”, she writes.

Then, a little later, she describes an observation from a study among teachers, about their teaching and the relationships with their pupils:

“For many colleagues it was the first time that they were being directly invited to focus on their pedagogy in this way. Arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of their teaching had become tacit knowledge and a number of them found it hard to identify the relational elements of their practice – it was just how they taught.

While there’s a place for nostalgic reminiscence of teacher-pupil relationships in ‘My best teacher’ articles and leaving speeches, it’s a subject relatively devoid from professional dialogue, teacher training, aside from the ubiquitous ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ NQT adage. Should this occurrence be a matter let to teachers’ own personal idiosyncrasies, given the potential impact that it can have on learning and engagement?”

Would  you like to read the whole article? Please go here.

The Relational Schools Project is launching the premiere of the documentary the Relational Teacher during the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference, taking place in Cambridge, 16 – 18 September. There are still tickets available!



Why relationships matter in schools

By Robert Loe

 The ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society.

I know relationships matter
 Relationships matter far more than we like to openly talk about and yet I haven’t met someone yet who didn’t agree. On Monday 26th January, however, I listened to Prof Colleen McLaughlin speak about why relationships matter in the context of education. I have never heard someone speak with such authority on the subject. Prof McLaughlin, drawing on decades of research (a lifetime’s work), asked her audience to accept several “assumptions” about why relationships matter. Why “assumptions” I thought? The evidence presented was utterly compelling and supports everything that I believe and that Relational Schools Project has uncovered in its own research in the last year. So why “assumptions”?

I take it the reason is that, in Professor’s McLaughlin’s view, she is “yet to see a school take relationships on as a topic“. Well this is the work I would like to do for a lifetime. Today, I want to share with you why relationships matter, and the reasons many of the schools we work with have already taken on this challenge.

Relationships matter because “learning is mutual and deeply social”

McLaughlin reminds us that relationships matter because they lie at the heart of the way children learn. Learning is not an individual cognitive thing; it is a social thing. I know I make this sound a little trite but it has enormous implications for how we view classroom environments. You cannot learn if you are frightened. You cannot learn if you are unhappy. You cannot learn if you feel you don’t belong in a classroom.

What’s more, you cannot hope that by adding an intervention, yet another activity to the ever-growing list of a teacher’s workload, you can make people feel engaged. Rather this is a radical change in mindset. You have to change everything.

Everything matters

You have to change the way children relate to each other in the classroom. You change the way you do learning in a way that assimilates mutuality and relationships. You have to change the way teachers relate to each other in the staffroom and challenge the values that teachers are made to operate under. And let’s be clear when teachers hear the message of Relational Schools Project, they like it and they like it because it reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place: they love children and they want to see them grow up, mature and send them off to build a society not just hold down the job. Such values are distinctive from the values of our current system which espouses competition, standardised testing and fear. In Singapore they have a word that encapsulates this value: the word is “kiasu” – be afraid to fail.

 What is enacted in schools and their surrounding communities on a daily basis matters because they shape the personal and social development of young people.

Why student-student relationships matter

We know that about the age of 8 or 9 young people begin to gravitate towards the peer group and they become the most significant source of emotional support. When young people are in trouble they go to their friends first. We know that if you want to intervene in the mental health of young people, the most powerful thing they can have is a friend. That’s why we worry (and we should worry) about young children who struggle to form relationships  or who seem isolated.

Being victimized by your peers at school is significantly linked to low levels of psychological well-being, low levels of social adjustment and higher levels of psychological disturbance. What’s more, we know that if problems remain into adolescence, they often last into adulthood. As the result, the most powerful thing you can do with a young person is intervene while they are at school.

How should teachers respond?

What we tend to do as teachers when we see someone experiencing peer difficulty is form a good relationship with the student. Research shows we need to do something quite different: the most effective intervention is to encourage interactions with all the people in the classroom. But this seems daunting doesn’t it? How can I achieve this? How can I maintain it? How can I control it? Isn’t this the job of the pastoral teams of the school? Teaching and learning, on these terms, becomes far more than supporting academic outcomes; it is the foundation to academic success and personal and social growth.

Most young people think they have a very good relationship with their teachers but McLaughlin found that there was a statistically significant group who have strong negative relationships with staff  and they were often young people with mental health difficulties. That is not irreparable. We know that if a child is depressed and they can form good relationships with staff they will improve.

Research, which I explored in a piece for BERA recently, also shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff but if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). Moreover, Smith and Rutter found that where young people have strong relationships with teachers, they are less like to become involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour and far more likely to have increased engagement with school.

Positive school relationships correlate well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. More recent studies of relationships in school have found historical, “concurrent and longitudinal connections with school attainment and adjustment outcomes….popular/accepted students tend to do well academically and are more prosocial, and have higher self-regulatory skills” (Blatchford and Baines, 2010: p.239). In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish. Michael Rutter adds that being connected is more than just the ability to make friends and is as powerful as being literate or numerate. The ability to connect is linked strongly with feelings of self-efficacy; I feel that I can be effective in the world. Such students in his study were ten times more likely to be employed and ten times more likely to be in a stable, longstanding relationship such as a marriage.

You see, relationships matter because “the ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society” (McLauglin, 2015).

I was inspired by Colleen McLaughlin this week. I hope you will be too?

Robert Loe is the Director of the Relational Schools Project, an education research and consultancy group based in Cambridge and a member of the Relational Thinking Network. This blog originally appeared on the Relational Schools Project website.

Relational Schools launch survey on graduate employment and internships

CAMBRIDGE, UK – March 26, 2014 The RSP has designed a survey asking recent UK graduates (2009-2013) about their experiences of finding work since leaving university.

The short questionnaire – which typically takes less than five minutes to complete – seeks to find out how many graduates are doing internships, how many of these internships are paid and whether doing an internship significantly boosts employability. In addition, we are also interested in what degree subjects are prevalent among interns and what sectors interns go on to work in.

Jeremy Swan, Research Analyst at Relational Research, said ‘In the past few years there has been a significant rise in the number of companies offering internships and these roles are increasingly seen as essential experience for some graduate jobs.’

‘That said, there is surprisingly little quantitative data on how many people are doing internships, how many are paid, what the average duration of an internship is, and so on.’

‘We want to contribute to the debate on internships by speaking directly to graduates and learning from their experiences.’

The survey can be accessed here


Further information


More information about the Relational Schools Project can be found on our website


Alternatively, you can also send an email to

Relational Schools Project launched

CAMBRIDGE, UK – February 5, 2014 Relational Research has launched a new education initiative that will put relationships at the heart of school organisation, curriculum and practice.

The Relational Schools Project will run for an initial period of three years and will focus on a range of schools across the UK and internationally.

Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project, said ‘I am delighted to announce the launch of this education initiative. Education is currently in a period of sustained reform and this presents a great opportunity for us to consider what education is for. We want to make use of this opportunity to ensure that human relationships are kept at the heart of the system. In doing this we ensure that the whole community benefits.’


Further information

More information about the project can be found on the Relational Schools Project website

Alternatively, you can also send an email to