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UN ‘sustainable’ development goals hijacking our compassion for the world

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It seems like we are all just an active part of the neoliberal reform agenda for a new round of capital accumulation and development, writes M Nadarajah.

A development expert once commented that the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs seem like “a high school wish-list for how to save the world”.

More seriously, I am more and more convinced of what the UN SDGs are really all about – giving the capital accumulation process another global fillip and saving capitalism from being transformed. Ironically, it is supposedly a global ‘transformation’ programme to remain on the same track! It will certainly not be business-as-usual but it will be business-as-always.

As I realise the true character of the 17 goals and 169 targets, I am more worried for humanity, which is consumed by a genuine desire to transform the world by implementing the SDGs.

The saddest part of the whole episode is how the UN SDGs have been able to harness all our genuine desires, compassion and the passionate energies behind them, for a better, safer and just world. We have some of the most concerned committed persons, national communities, universities and foundations from around the world backing it to the core, almost with a religious fervor.

We all so much want a better world and it seems that the supposedly neutral international body, the UN, has finally given us a blueprint for our complete individual and community wellbeing, and sustainable future. The UN seems to have taken on the role of a non-violent revolutionary vanguard aiming at trans-forming the world. But is it really promoting transformation through the SDGs?

Despite the growing output of sporadic and systematic criticisms of the UN SDGs, we have all been seduced so much that we really don’t care about the criticisms and are ready to defend the SDGs at any cost. It is so focused, convenient and easy to report. The system has ways to push aside and silence critics or demonise them. We seem to have put on a collective blinder.

Let’s halt for a while, reflect on the SDGs in totality and see what is it that we are really supporting and nurturing. Perhaps we should also ask what hegemonic and/or meta-‘stories’ govern the UN SDGs: is it the same or different? It is certainly not an innocent, objective technical process.

Let me share some critical comments at length. Anthropologist Jason Hickel analysed it like this in “The problem with saving the world”, published in the Jacobin, a voice of the American Left:

Yet despite this growing realization, the core of the SDG program for development and poverty reduction relies precisely on the old model of industrial growth — ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption. And not just a little bit of growth: they want at least 7 percent annual GDP growth in least developed countries and higher levels of economic productivity across the board. In fact, an entire goal, Goal 8, is devoted to growth, specifically export-oriented growth, in keeping with existing neoliberal models.

What does this really mean? Hickel explains:

The SDGs’ contradictory relationship to growth extends to its approach to global 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 percent of humanity received only 5 percent 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. This is terrifying to contemplate. (Emphasis mine)

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Consider Hickel’s observation:

The SDGs are a paean to consumption-driven economic growth. Everything they claim to be able to eradicate – from poverty to violence – can be addressed by GDP growth, they tell us. They want at least 7% GDP growth per year in least developed countries and higher levels of economic productivity across the board. In fact, an entire goal, number eight, is devoted to this. It’s bizarre: we’re all acutely aware of the need to dethrone GDP growth as the measure of human progress, but the SDGs carry on as though this isn’t even an issue. (Emphasis mine)

In another article, “Politics of Leaving No One Behind’ – Contesting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals“, researcher Heloise Weber makes revealing observations and arguments on the framework that guides the UN SDGs.

The SDGs are indeed highly significant but not because they may appear at first glance as an inclusive, empowering and ecologically sustainable agenda. Rather, based on a close examination of the SDGs, I draw the following conclusion: If implemented in its current form, the SDGs will most likely result in further impoverishment and inequality. Rather than committing to guarantee universal entitlements necessary to live dignified lives, the agenda aims to entrench highly contested neoliberal policies. 

What is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) doing in the UN SDGs? Weber points out:

There are some goals, which determine the processes through which others are to be realized. For example, in the UN resolution on the SDGs, the section on the ‘means of implementation’ identifies the centrality of SDG 17 and emphasizes the importance of implementing the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO). To frame a development agenda through the WTO is to work from the premise that a ‘free market’ – more explicitly a neoliberal variant of capitalist development – is the solution to inequality, poverty and ecological crisis. (Emphasis is mine.)

SDG goal number 17? SDG goal number 10? (No other alternative frameworks in the world of almost 8 million people?) Weber continues:

The significance of SDG 17 for the overall agenda cannot be over-emphasized. Goal 17 has been written to include specific references on the need to ensure that member states commit fully to the WTO agreements. In addition, some indicators intended to measure progress on realizing the goals (some of which are also country/region specific), are explicitly based on, or linked to countries’ membership of and entrenchment in rule-based frameworks such as the WTO. For example, the commitments anticipated under SDG 10, encompass obligations to maintain membership of key multilateral development organizations (such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO, Regional Development Banks) specifically for those countries categorized as ‘developing’, singled out here by comparison to those identified as ‘high income’ countries. The SDG agenda, therefore, is highly significant but also contested because for critics it presents causes of deprivation as the (ostensible) solution. (Emphasis mine)

Are we really part of a transformation process? It seems like we are all just an active part of the neoliberal reform agenda for a new round of capital accumulation and development. Seems like ‘late capitalism’ is metamorphosing to take another form by getting us all involved. Weber adds:

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The UN declaration on the SDGs explicitly refers to the goals and their associated targets as ‘aspirational’ (UN 2015: 13 – point 55), and to the fact that realizing the agenda is contingent upon the commitment of member states. However, as we have seen, not all goals are equally ‘aspirational’ or contingent, given that those referring to the ‘means of implementation’ comprise concrete commitments to neoliberal policy prescriptions. Particularly the ‘means-of-implementation’- goals are linked to a wider policy environment in which developing (and developed!) countries have already been under pressure to accede to the entrenchment of neoliberal reforms. 

So the meta-story we live by is the same old one, from individuals to nations to the UN: “Liquidate Earth” (but ‘pretend’ that we are working very hard for the greater common good). I simply see a façade of seemingly ‘clean’ targets and technical processes carefully hiding ‘the driver’ behind the 17 goals and 169 targets. It is ‘same old driver’ who drove us into the mess we are now in, in the first place. Now ‘he’ pretends to be able to take us forth to a sustainable utopia of clean, safe and impact-less, endless growth. We have becomes his cheerleaders.

The ‘meta-framework’ that animates the SDGs is an extremely clever device to harness the world’s genuine concerns for a better future for all to further the cause of capitalist development. This is done with a language of concern for transformation and sustainable development. ‘No one will be left behind’ is so powerful a vision, we will all buy the UN SDGs, no questions asked. This is a classic case of cultural hegemony of one class over the rest, mobilising us for sustained capitalist development.

We genuinely believe that SDGs are going to deliver that world we prefer. The only thing is that we are not really going that way.

In 2030 (or much before that), if most of us survive the climate crisis and are around, we will have UN SDGs Version 2 (or some other name), which will start with a very comprehensive criticism of UN SDGs Version 1. It will follow the same routine as how the UN MDGs were critically evaluated.

And then, in very sophisticated manner, we will just repeat. We will have meetings, conferences, research projects, technological innovations, roundtable meetings, quarrels, regional forums, policy papers, expert gatherings, commissions, national gatherings, etc.

We would have spent trillions of dollars doing all that. That’s okay. It is all good for the economy anyway with positive impact on GDP eventually! Capitalism needs problems to solve, so that it can record meaningless and at times dangerous growth. Of course, somewhere along the way, at least some of us would start to get that déjà vu feeling.

It really does not have to be that way. We have other ways to nurture a better, safe, just and sustainable future. But we have to genuinely transform the way we live or build the world.

The assumption on which UN SDGs is based is framed by a neoliberal worldview. It is based on and guided by a strong market-centric and endless growth meta-story.

Now, we are going through the fourth industrial revolution, with the fifth around the corner, and the UN SDGs seems to be poised to open the markets for the full-blown growth of a cybernetic world with smart cities and smart villages. It is the world Capital wants to have the complete control of.

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Critically addressing the UN SDGs, and the knowledge produced around it, is also living an anti-colonial moment.

The UN SDGs framework makes no engagement with indigenous frameworks or sustainable cultures. Heterodox or radical economics traditions – and initiatives based on this – have not been taken up or explored or engaged with. No exploration of alternative global solutions. Nothing.

In fact, what the UN SDGs is teaching our children is that there are no other, alternative ways or stories to live by. We have 17 goals and 169 targets to educate and to socialize us to believe in TINA (there is no alternative).

We just have to move our attention and action elsewhere. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: Care for Our Common Home is far more true and honest to the agenda of global transformation to a better, safer, just and sustainable world – and, of course, leaving no one behind. It is certainly far more radical. As Hickel says:

The pope, on the other hand, tackles the irrationality of endless GDP growth and consumption head-on, and he does so from the understanding – absent among economists – that the economy and the environment are part of the same system; that endless extraction from one to feed endless growth of the other is not just a physical impossibility but ultimately self-defeating and immoral. Fixes like carbon trading and renewable energy aren’t going to cut it. We have to confront the core of the problem, which is an economic model that relies on ever-increasing consumption.

The UN SDGs are not going to get us to the world we desire. At the least, not by itself. For me, the concern of ordinary people for the Other – ie our compassion for the world – is in grave danger: it is being hijacked. Will we wake up? Can we stop and turn back? Can we re-look? Can we re-imagine? Can we let go? As I urged in an earlier article:

We look at causes not just symptoms. We look at being not just having. We look at maximum wage, not just the minimum wage. We look at affluence not just poverty. We look at people not just profits. We look at culture not just the economy. We look at service and volunteerism not just what’s-in-it-for-me. We look at sustainable livelihood not just careers. We look at the dignity of people not their market value. We look at the ‘culture of sustainability’ not just the ‘culture of economic growth’.

We look at health and wellbeing not just the medico-pharmaceutical industry. We look at wholesome nourishment not just the food industry. We look at mobility not just the transport industry. We look at learning and being not just the education industry. We look at compassionate cities not just smart cities. We look at Labour not just Capital. We look at our policies and employers’ behaviour not just immigrants (documented or undocumented). … We look at our compassionate foundations not our competitive spirit. We look at spirituality not just religion. We look out for all, not just our kind.

You and I have a lot to give up and sacrifice. We need to change our taken-for-granted ways. We need to reform ourselves to transform the futures of the generations to come. We have to rethink and create far more honest stories of transformation and tread gently and lightly on Earth.

For now, some minimal rethinking and resistance, inspired by genuine alternatives, to what is so dramatically presented as a solution to our present predicaments, would certainly help!

Dr M Nadarajah, a sociologist by training, is an Asian Public Intellectuals (API) fellow whose work focuses on cultural and sustainability issues. An associate director with Sejahtera Leadership Initiative based in USIM, he also heads the Xavier Centre for Humanities and Compassion Studies at Xavier University in Bhubaneswar, India.

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