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Joi Sears headshot

Are the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Doomed?

Words by Joi Sears

On Sept. 25, more than 150 world leaders will convene at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to formally adopt an ambitious new sustainable development agenda. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and reverse climate change.

Much like the Millennium Development Goals that were established in September 2000, the new sustainable development agenda claims to be the key to ending global poverty for all people, all over the world. However, according to a report released by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, The Rules, the entire SDG process has been "fundamentally compromised" by powerful corporations with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

The United Nations declares that the new sustainable development agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It is a declaration to end poverty and hunger while strengthening “universal peace in larger freedom” as the preamble states. “We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path."

In addition to ending poverty “in all of its forms and dimensions," the agenda also reveals a plan to take urgent action on climate change and protect the planet from degradation through sustainable consumption and production. And, as if these goals were not ambitious enough, the agenda also claims to promote world peace by fostering “peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence."

It all seems like great news at first glance. However, there are some skeptics who believe that this new agenda is actually designed not to change anything at all. “Right now, the rules are set-up to extract wealth and horde it in the hands of a tiny elite," the report reads. "Only when we recognize that these are logical outcomes of a system designed for wealth-hoarding will we be capable of redesigning the system to achieve a state of shared prosperity.”

The report is based on "frame analysis”— a scientific method examining linguistic and conceptual patterns to reveal how people define, construct and process information. Authored by systems theorist Joe Brewer, director of research at The Rules, the report concludes that the United Nations' vision is "doomed to failure" because it ignores the major structural causes of global poverty.

The report titled, Who Framed Global Development?, includes a language analysis of the Sustainable Development Goals. According to Brewer, four fundamental insights came out of the organization’s research:

1. The entire effort rests on a mis-framing of poverty

The SDG agenda consistently frames poverty as a disease, which in contrast to their own promise to eradicate it by 2030, evokes the logic that it should be expected and managed, but cannot go away. When poverty is conceptualized in this way, it doesn’t take into account the systemic/structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world. By failing to understand how poverty is created, it is not possible to “fix” it.

2. The language obscures “development as usual”

The agenda fails to articulate a conception of how the world economy works and should work, Brewer said. Also, there are no references to corporations, the most powerful institutions on the planet, whose influence on global development has been growing considerably in recent years.

3. The poison pill is growth

Perpetual, undifferentiated growth is represented by the agenda as a measure of progress. The report outlines the deep problems and contradictions that arise when relying on growth to tackle poverty. Brewer states that the only thing the Sustainable Development Goals framework has to offer on this is that it has nothing meaningful to offer; instead it passes this challenge to future generations.

4. The language is self-contradictory

Although there is a clear and laudable intent to connect development and the environment, the logic repeatedly demonstrates a confused and contradictory understanding of whether the economy is something linked with or separate from nature. Is the Earth simply there to dominate or work within?

The report explains that these insights can “lead to a simple antidote that can heal the Sustainable Development Goal process and move us closer to real sustainability: tell the story of poverty creation that reveals systemic and structural causes of development as usual."

This can be down by asking three fundamental 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 function 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? Why must the sole measure of progress be growth? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?

The report explains that these insights and recommendations are intended to promote open dialogue and debate. Frame analysis is simply a powerful tool for uncovering narrative elements and unstated assumptions. We can only hope that these ideas will come to light during the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit during Climate Week NYC later this month.

Image credit: 1) Flickr/United Nations Photo 2) United Nations 

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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