The world’s governments are preparing to finalise the sustainable development goals at the United Nations this month. It is set to be a major international event, and the goals will be ushered in with tremendous fanfare. They are widely regarded as a historic step toward building a better world, and toward eradicating poverty and hunger from the face of the Earth once and for all.
It sounds wonderful, but unfortunately it’s not as good as the media would have us believe. In reality, the goals are inadequate to the task of delivering the new economy we so desperately need. And in this sense they are not only a missed opportunity, they are actively dangerous: they will lock in the global development agenda for the next 15 years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes.
The contradiction of growth
The “Zero Draft” of the UN’s sustainable development goals document contains some truly excellent demands. The preamble affirms that “planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home” and underscores the necessity of achieving “harmony with nature”. It establishes a commitment to hold global warming below a 2° Celsius increase, and calls for “sustainable patterns of production and consumption”.
All of this reflects awareness that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry. The pursuit of endless industrial growth is chewing through our living planet, producing poverty and threatening our existence. And yet the core of the sustainable development goals (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 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? True, Goal 8 is peppered with progressive-sounding qualifications: the growth should be inclusive, should promote full employment and decent work, and we should endeavour to decouple growth from environmental degradation. But these qualifications are vague and weak; the real message that shines through is that GDP growth is all that ultimately matters.
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’ proposed solution is superficial: 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 consumption by the world’s wealthy. They also steer clear of actually regulating corporate extraction.
This is not entirely surprising. The drafters of the SDGs probably sidestep the nub of the matter because they know that capitalism depends on ever-increasing production and consumption to keep going. But that’s precisely what we need to change if we are to have any chance of a fair and sustainable economy.
Growth does not reduce poverty
The Zero Draft promotes growth as the main solution to poverty, but this relationship is highly tenuous. Of all the income generated by global GDP growth between 1999 and 2008, the poorest 60% of humanity received only 5% of it. Given the existing ratio between GDP growth and the income growth of the poorest, 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. Consider the implications of this. 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. Clearly this is not an acceptable course of action.
The SDGs seek to dodge this problem by calling for income growth for the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the overall average. This is good in that it will speed the reduction of poverty and inequality, but it does nothing to address the problem of excess in rich countries. If all countries grew to the point of consuming as much as the average high-income country, we would need 3.4 Earths to sustain us.
In other words, the SDGs want to reduce inequality by ratcheting the poor up while leaving the wealth and power of the global 1% intact. They fail to understand that mass impoverishment is the product of extreme wealth accumulation and over-consumption by a few. You can’t solve the problem of poverty without challenging the pathologies of accumulation.
Big unaddressed issues
Surprisingly, the SDGs offer little by way of solutions to many of the biggest known drivers of global poverty. For example, the SDGs say nothing about the unfair trade regime of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), 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. 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.
The debt issue is also evaded: the SDGs refuse to call for debt cancellation even though debt service drains developing countries of more than $700 billion a year.
Then there’s the question of funding. The United Nations acknowledges that the SDGs will require an annual outlay of some $2.5 trillion. How do they propose to bridge the funding shortfall? Through private investment. The Zero Draft calls for a global partnership between the UN and the corporate sector toward the implementation of the SDGs.
With corporations and private investors playing such a central role, one might think that the Zero Draft would bind them to specific commitments, and lay out plenty of accountability mechanisms. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The mis-measurement of poverty
Nowhere is the compromised nature of the SDGs more evident than in the headline goal, to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, as measured at $1.25 a 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 a 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 a 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”.