As part of the Africa at LSE and South Asia at LSE cross-blog series on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, LSE’s Jason Hickel critiques the new Sustainable Development Goals. He argues that the goals due to be signed at the UN Summit this week are not only a missed opportunity, but actively dangerous because they lock the global development agenda around a failing economic model.
This week the world’s heads of state will gather in New York to sign the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is set to be a major international event, and comes on the heels of what has been billed as “the world’s largest advertising campaign” – a slick social media operation that has Beyoncé, One Direction, Malala, Mafikizolo, and countless other major personalities on the roster, with the likes of Gary Lineker and Gareth Bale entertaining audiences with their #dizzygoals.
But despite this enormous effort, the campaign has not managed to inspire more than a few thousand clicks. For some reason no one seems to be excited about the SDGs.
The Economist and the Gates Foundation have slated the goals for being too wide-ranging, too cumbersome to be packaged into sound-bites. But thoroughness can hardly be the problem here; after all, the Pope’s recent encyclical – which addresses the same issues – inspired an excited global conversation despite being hundreds of pages long. It seems more likely that the SDGs are being ignored because, unlike with the encyclical, there is nothing in them that’s really new. At base, the Zero Draft reflects old thinking, and calls for little more than business as usual.
People are not getting excited about the SDGs because they know that business as usual isn’t going to deliver the new economy we so desperately need. In this sense, the goals are not only a missed opportunity, they are actively dangerous: they lock in the global development agenda for the next 15 years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes, and they kick the hard challenge of real transformation down the road for the next generation to deal with – by which time it may be too late.
Here are five good reasons to think twice about the SDGs.
1. The contradiction of growth
The Zero Draft affirms the necessity of achieving “harmony with nature,” establishes a commitment to hold global warming below the 2° Celsius threshold, and calls for “sustainable patterns of production and consumption.” This language signals awareness that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that the pursuit of endless industrial growth is chewing through our living planet and threatening our existence.
And yet the core of the SDG programme for development and poverty reduction relies precisely on the old model of industrial growth — ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption. Goal 8 calls for 7% annual GDP growth in the least developed countries and higher levels of economic productivity across the board.
In other words, the SDGs call for both less and more at the same time. How can they expect to succeed with such a profound contradiction at their root?
Right now global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s capacity by about 50% each year. This is a monumental crisis, and one that proceeds from the deep logic of capitalism. Yet the SDGs offer nothing but superficial responses: reduce food waste, make resource use more efficient, and “encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices.” These proposals explicitly sidestep the only real solution, which is to reduce over-consumption by the world’s wealthy.
2. Growth does not reduce poverty
The Zero Draft promotes growth as the main solution to poverty, but this relationship is highly tenuous. While global GDP has grown by 271% since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5/day has increased by more than 370 million. Clearly growth is not working. Under best-case scenarios the picture looks a bit more promising, but even so the poorest 60% of humanity receive only 5% of all new income generated by global growth.
Why do the SDGs rely on growth as a poverty-reduction strategy? Because the prospect of growth allows our leaders to sidestep the challenge of having to distribute existing resources more fairly.
The only problem is that, even given the best-case scenario mentioned above, it will take 207 years to eliminate poverty with this strategy. And to get there, we will have to grow the global economy by 175 times its present size. This is obviously a terrible strategy: even if such immense growth were possible, it would drive climate change to catastrophic levels and, in the process, rapidly reverse any gains against poverty.
What we really need is to abandon GDP in favor of a saner measure of human progress – one that does not rely on endlessly increasing extraction and consumption. This has been on the table for a long time, but repeatedly blocked by powerful interests in the SDG process. Instead, the SDGs quite literally pass this urgent challenge down to the next generation: buried at the very bottom of Goal 17 is a flimsy commitment to, “by 2030 build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP.”
In other words, the SDGs are committed to shelving the problem until 2029.
3. Inequality gets ignored
If growth doesn’t provide a solution to poverty, then the only real alternative is to reduce the enormous inequality that marks our global society, where the richest 1% own half of the world’s total private wealth. Confronting inequality is the only way to end poverty in a climate-constrained world, and we need to face up to this fact.
Inequality has become perhaps the most pressing issue of our time, and yet the SDGs remain silent on it. All we get is Target 10.1, which states that by 2030 they will “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average.” In other words, we can allow inequality to grow until 2029 before gradually beginning to reduce it. But of course by then it will no longer be a binding commitment.
The SDGs initially included two other targets on equitable sharing of global resources, but US negotiators eviscerated them last month in a last-minute backroom decision.
Thus yet another monumental global challenge has been handed down to the next generation. This betrayal is the subject of an open letter to the UN that has been signed by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Thomas Pogge, Chris Hedges, Eve Ensler and other powerful voices.
4. Big drivers of poverty are left unaddressed
Surprisingly, the SDGs offer little by way of solutions to many of the biggest known drivers of global poverty. They say nothing about the unfair trade regime of the World Trade Organisation, or the many bilateral trade and investment agreements that liberalise global markets at the expense of the poor. In fact, instead of tackling this crucial issue, Goal 17.10 calls for more trade liberalisation and more power for the WTO.
And instead of demanding an end to the financial speculation that has caused food prices to spike since 2007, pushing 150 million into hunger, the SDGs ask that we “ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets.” It’s not clear what this means, but it can easily be interpreted as yet more liberalisation, which is what caused the food crisis in the first place.
The SDGs are also eerily silent on the need for greater regulation of financial markets and big banks. Goal 17.13 speaks vaguely of the need to “enhance global macroeconomic stability” through “policy coordination,” with no specific targets. Tax evasion and tax avoidance, which drain developing countries of $1.7 trillion each year, are politely sidestepped.
Finally, the SDGs evade the issue of debt. They refuse to call for debt cancellation even though debt service drains developing countries of more than $700 billion per year – money that could be directed instead toward poverty reduction. On the contrary, clauses inserted by the EU in yet another backroom deal ensure that borrowers shoulder full responsibility for over-indebtedness.
5. The mis-measurement of poverty
Nowhere is the compromised nature of the SDGs more evident than in their proposal to eradicate extreme poverty, which they measure at only $1.25/day. It’s high time we got around to eradicating poverty, but a growing number of scholars are pointing out that $1.25 is actually not adequate for human subsistence.
A number of recent studies suggest that if people are to achieve normal life expectancy and meet their basic needs as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they need closer to $5 per day.
So why do the SDGs stick with the discredited $1.25 measure? Because it’s the only one that will allow them to get anywhere near their goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. If we measure poverty by the more accurate $5/day line, the total poverty headcount rises to 4.3 billion people, more than 60% of humanity.
Eradicating poverty of this magnitude would require more than just weeding around the edges of the problem. It would require changing the rules of the global economy to make it fairer for the world’s majority. The SDGs fail us on this. They offer to tinker with the global economic system in a well-meaning bid to make it all seem a bit less violent. But, as Arundhati Roy has put it, “we are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs to be replaced.”
Dr Jason Hickel is a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at LSE.
This post forms part of a cross-blog series on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development run by the Africa at LSE and South Asia at LSE blogs. View more posts in this series.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Fantastically clear piece – well done. I am currently working on livelihood development in Cambodia. It seems we are having more success persuading poor people to adopt sustainable livelihoods here than we are having persuading rich people in the developed economies.
One glaring area of concern and continuous neglect is in the arena of Education; and not just from the higher scholastic and college levels, but rather from the basic an introductory level of educating the poor or disadvantaged. “Five reasons to think twice about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals” really targets Finances and what the various issues are related to them (or lack of them as the case may be); but Finances are only a major concern for those that understand them and can manipulate some form of control or power over them. For the 4.3 billion people implied as living within the “poverty” level the Finances this article describes means little.
Education and starting progressive development must start slowly and must start at the grass roots of the need; mainly in your smaller and remote communities where the primary vast numbers of citizens reside at the poverty levels and it must become a priority of the Government and Business Communities to nurture these communities from an Educational prospective and allow them to gain an understanding and knowledge of a Modern Africa and where it is headed and how they can contribute.
4.3 Billion residents living in poverty is a giant resource waiting for their chance to make their lives better; and they want, as much as anyone, to be the designers of their own destiny. Education is the very first step in that direction; just as it is in large structured and modern communities.
I am looking for thinkers, communicators, sponsors, businesses, Governmental and funding assistance interests that can share a vision of progress and development towards Education and more specifically of building a sustainable pathway to and for Education, in both remote as well as urban environments, but primarily in the areas of poverty.
As an initial step I have been developing a plan for constructing, outfitting and delivering Mobile Classrooms that can be produced quickly and delivered easily to outlying areas. Mobile Classrooms that are self-sustaining and offer communicative resources to allow interests and knowledge to reach far beyond a local community’s needs; but rather offers a pathway, incorporated with local needs, knowledge and customs to a broader and diverse educated society.
Understandably this is not an overnight venture with immediate measurable results. but simply the first step of many that must be made to advance a progressive growth of a Nation and continent. It is the only way to start to resolve regional differences and start to bring communities together and move beyond conflict.
It is not an inexpensive plan initially but does offer high rewards and returns as it begins to develop and grow. It is a plan that will bring jobs to a community and while not the hundreds and thousands that may be needed initially it does offer a growth pathway for other industries and responsible growth developments.
I would be happy to share my thoughts on this plan if there are sincere interested parties that would like to explore what this plan entails and how we envision seeing education, jobs and community progress evolving.
Doing some general reading on the topic of MDG and UN Sustainable Development Goals, this article popped up high in the rankings. To an interested outsider, (in other words someone not making a living off creating, reporting on or delivering on the MDG and UN Sustainable Development Goals,) the best way to identify fatuous nonsense is to look for what is said on population growth. When there is nothing mentioned, move on. I would love for someone to explain exactly why it is that what is so obviously the root of so many of the problems is no longer even discussed. Elephant in the room! In the fifties, sixties and into the seventies, all discourse attempted to address this problem and competently governed countries did commendable work in controlling population growth. Remember that it goes hand in hand with other goals – give a woman control over her body and you address gender inequality for a start. As academia and self-serving platforms like the UN became awash with Frankfurt School types and an anti-West agenda, population growth was dropped from the narrative. Until it is picked up again, nothing will change. To the harrumphing sceptics, I would remind you that Ethipia had a population of 47 million when Geldorf and his mates held Live Aid in 1985. Fast forward to 2005 and it was 75 million. Today it is 110 million. So when agencies like the UN harp on about problems resulting from the damage we are doing to our planet and climate change, perhaps these are the numbers we need to look at first before anything else.
One of my concerns about SDG is the language about gender equality and the “empowerment of women and girls”.
I am very much in favor of equal rights for all-in fact I refer to myself as an “egalitarian”. That’s a word that woman don’t like because it masks the struggles they’ve endured over many, many generations and that is a reasonable objection.
True, women have suffered under male dominance for centuries but in our modern society, women HAVE made many advancements in higher education and career achievement. Our patriarchal society has made life hard for women but in many ways has placed men as well as boys in positions of disadvantage.
1)Here in the USA, our governments spend far less money on men’s health issues than women’s-at least 5-7 times less.
2) Misandry in the media poisons children’s perceptions of men as leaders, mentors and fathers. Commercials and tv shows portray us as lazy, dull-witted and incompetent.
3) Our government and education systems are indifferent to the learning gap between boys and girls. K-12 learning models are gender bias against boys and fail to accommodate the different ways boys and girls learn and process information in the classroom. This impedes boys’ education, social and occupational development. It’s also largely responsible for the lower enrollment percentages our country’s universities and the declining numbers of marriageable men as defined by young women.(that’s a whole other topic)
SDG makes promises of gender equality that only include women and girls.
This is why I don’t trust feminism and SDG.
this article is long on criticism, but short on solutions / specifics. How would the author change the SDG’s? It would have been nice to get at least one specific plan to address the issues he lays out. For example, if the SDG’s are based on a “failed economic model” – what economic model should they be based on? And, show me the success of that economic model, not theory: “this model would solve things” – but specific examples of success of the model that you want to replace this “failed economic model” with. My guess is there isn’t any successful alternative to this so-called “failed” economic model (a model, which, has produced the technology and freedom for the author to opine).
‘While global GDP has grown by 271% since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5/day has increased by more than 370 million. Clearly growth is not working’. In 1990 the world had a population of 5414M and in 2015 7379M. This according to Worldometers. The population increase is 1965M. Whatever the number of poor people were back in 1990, that ‘only’ 370M more are considered poor in light of such an increase shows that something is working. 81% of these new people are not in the poor category, an overwhelming majority. Yes, every poor person is a tragedy but to me the good Dr’s statement does not add up in my book. Mark Twain summed is up beautifully when he said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Seems clear to me HAVING less Humans is the real answer and the goal .No way will they take the rich man’s money (they are in favor of this 2030) or feed the hungry. The ones at the top are still greedy and in power and view the poor as a commodity .So agenda 2030 really is about population control and and turning the poor beasties into good little slaves for the elite.
After reading, I want to have many scholars to really know about and understand how China’s done and to do, by 2022 as soon as, police makers should know what they shoud do and what the poor people really need, insteading stubbornly stick to their own view.
FYI the argument, that the amount of people living below the level of 5.5$ per day has risen by over 370 millions is not valid if you look at percentage (and these calculations are made from statistics from 2015 where this article was released). The increase in the population was around 2 billion, dividing the increase in people living in poverty by the increase in population you get that the new population has a percentage of poverty (below 5.5$) close to 18%. This means that the percentage of people below the 5.5$ mark has decreased. Please remember to use percentages when making arguments 🙂 Because this is not right.
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