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Sustainable Development Goals: Madness, false hopes and verbal fudge

At the end of last month, the Sustainable Development Goals were launched in New York. One of the goals is to eliminate poverty by 2030. This is to be achieved by continued economic growth.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the UN has set a series of development goals.

The largest gathering of world leaders

September 2000 saw the largest gathering of world leaders. They met in the United Nations headquarters in New York, where they adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, from which came the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The UN set a deadline of 2015 to (among other things) eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, achieve universal primary education, and ensure environmental sustainability.

Five years later, the largest gathering of world leaders happened again. This time it was the 2005 World Summit, which was, the UN told us,

“[A] once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold decisions in the areas of development, security, human rights and reform of the United Nations.”

And now, here we are in 2015. Last week saw the largest gathering of world leaders, yet again. Even the Pope was there this time. The Millenium Development Goals have been shelved, to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the deadline has been shunted back to 2030. By which time we will see (among other things), an end of poverty, an end of hunger, healthy lives for all, inclusive and equitable quality education, gender equality, sustainable management of water, sustainable economic growth, full employment and decent work for all, sustainable consumption, sustainably managed forests, no more desertification, peaceful and inclusive societies,

“A substitute for doing things that actually help poor people”

William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University, isn’t impressed:

“They are a very big container of verbal fudge. It sounds really good, but it’s really a substitute for doing things that actually help poor people.”

The trouble is, as Thomas Pogge (leader of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University) and Alnoor Ladha (Executive Director of The Rules) point out, that the global economy is spectacularly bad at redistributing wealth. Of every dollar of wealth created, 93 cents goes to the richest 1%. More economic growth will enrich the rich, and destroy the planet. Pogge and Ladha write:

Of course, it is completely possible to achieve the necessary goal of reducing poverty, but not through the UN’s growth-based, business-as-usual strategy. Poverty can only be eradicated by 2030 if we address two critical issues head on: income inequality and endless material growth.

Pogge and Ladha have signed on to an open letter to the United Nations, along with Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Medha Patkar, and more than 2,000 others. It’s posted below – you can also sign on here.

The Rules has also produced a video – “How to feel good about poverty”:

Three big questions

The Rules isn’t just attacking the United Nations, neo-liberalism capitalism, and development (although it is certainly doing that!). In an article titled “Hacking the SDG discourse“, Joe Brewer explains that the point is to reveal the structural causes of poverty by asking three questions (each leading to further questions):

How Is Poverty Created?
Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?
Who’s Developing Whom?
The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?
Why Is Growth The Only Answer?
The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?

    An Open Letter to the United Nations

    As the UN and the world’s governments ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) today (September 25), we must be clear that they do not represent the best interests of the world’s majority – those that are currently exploited and oppressed within the current economic and political order.

    The SDGs claim they can eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030. But they rely primarily on global economic growth to achieve this tremendous task. If such growth resembles that seen in recent decades, it will take 100 years for poverty to disappear, not the 15 years the SDGs promise. And even if this were possible in a shorter timescale, we would need to increase the size of the global economy by a factor of 12, which, in addition to making our planet uninhabitable, will obliterate any gains against poverty.

    Rather than paper over such obvious madness with false hopes, we must address two critical issues head on: income inequality and endless material growth.

    If poverty is to be truly overcome by 2030, then much of the improvement in the position of the impoverished must come through reduction in the enormous inequality that has accumulated in the last 200 plus years. The richest 1 percent of humanity will very soon own over half of the world’s private wealth. It would take only modest reductions in inequality to deliver large increases in the socio-economic position of the poorer half of humanity.

    The SDGs do talk about reducing inequality. However, their prescription is technocratic, obscure and wholly incommensurate to the task at hand. For example, Target 10.1 states that by 2030 they will “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.” It is hard to imagine a less robust or ambitious goal. This commitment allows inequality to grow without limit until 2029, so long as it then begins to be reduced. The SDGs thus fail to endorse the only means that can achieve their stated goal of ending poverty: substantial inequality reduction, starting now. In effect, they perpetuate severe poverty and leave this fundamental problem to future generations.

    The other essential task is for the world’s nations to adopt a saner measure of human progress; one that gears us not towards endless GDP growth based on extraction and consumption, but towards the wellbeing of humanity and our planet as a whole. There are plenty of options to choose from, all of which have been ignored in the SDGs. Instead, Target 17.19 says only that they will, “by 2030, build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP”. Another urgent challenge passed down to the next generation.

    It is possible to overcome poverty in a way that respects the Earth and helps tackle climate change. The planet is abundant in wealth and its people infinitely resourceful. In order to do so, however, we must be prepared to challenge the logic of endless growth, greed and destruction enshrined in neoliberal capitalism.

    It is time to envision a new operating system, based on social justice and symbiosis with the natural world. As currently formulated, the SDGs merely distract us from addressing the challenges we face.

    Signed by:

    Noam Chomsky, MIT
    Thomas Pogge, Yale University
    Naomi Klein, Author and activist
    Eve Ensler, Playwright and activist
    Chris Hedges, Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author
    Helena Norberg-Hodge, International Society for Ecology and Culture
    Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute
    Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network
    Maude Barlow, Author and human rights activist
    David Graeber, London School of Economics
    Medha Patkar, National Alliance of People’s Movments, India
    Alnoor Ladha, The Rules

    Stand with these signatories and the world’s majority by signing onto the Open Letter to the United Nations.


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  1. Great questions by Joe Brewer. I’d like to suggest that non-growth be a part of solutions for SDGs. Especially for forest dwellers who were slotted into “poor-in need of growth” by outsiders with a standard for development that was formed by experts living in unsustainable cities.