The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals do not question the role of human agendas and politics in the rise and spread of poverty
It has become a truism that the word “natural” should no longer be attached to disasters. We are living in the Anthropocene and these are human creations. This is the thought running through my head as I read George Monbiot’s riveting coverage of the fires in Indonesia. He clearly documents that this massive environmental calamity is the direct result of land use policies, fascist regimes and corporate exploitation of natural resources – all of which displace local peoples and create widespread human suffering.
The same is true for poverty.
We never hear how poverty is created. There is a lot of talk about how it rises and falls, that people get trapped in it, that it is in need of eradication. But no one says who created it. We don’t hear anything about the role of human agendas and work guided by political institutions in the rise and spread of mass poverty throughout the modern era.
Let me step back for a moment and introduce myself. My name is Joe Brewer and I am research director at TheRules.org where our team is engaging in a multi-year effort to reframe global poverty. The primary tool kit I bring to the table is frame analysis – the use of cognitive linguistics to uncover the hidden assumptions, tacit beliefs and core logics that people bring to their understandings of social issues. This means I study language and show how the meaning-making process of the human mind gives rise to blind spots and misunderstandings about topics that impact the daily lives for millions of people.
Last month, our team coordinated the only organised critique of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We based our approach on a detailed frame analysis I conducted on the guiding documents of the SDG framework. Among the key findings was the observation that poverty itself has been mischaracterised, creating a situation where several of the most basic assumptions guiding the entire process were never clarified or openly debated. As a result, the UN failed to ask the questions that my analysis reveals to be the most important:
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 and 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?
These are the questions that guided our campaign (see the full strategy brief for it here). We deliberately chose to ask questions instead of asserting our answers because we realised through prior research that people need to come to their own conclusions about poverty and inequality. The process of critical inquiry is therefore needed for unpacking deeply rooted, yet largely unquestioned, assumptions about the systemic drivers of poverty creation. People need to discover for themselves that economic growth as it occurs today is mostly a process of wealth hoarding through extractive processes. So more growth is just a kind of “smoke and mirrors” for continued poverty creation.
The single biggest problem revealed by my analysis is the complete absence of any discussion about political agendas. As the politics of development are completely removed from discussion in the SDG process, the very premise on which the SDG goals are based lie upon assumptions about power and money, adopted by default without any deliberation or debate. Add to this the myopic focus on growth (measured in monetary terms through unreliable metrics like Gross Domestic Product) as the only solution, and we get the antithesis of sustainability or inclusive economics as a result.
Our analysis reveals a nuanced picture – where many great ideas about gender equality, seeking harmony with the natural world, and efforts to bring human suffering to an end, are prominently included as desired outcomes of this process (showing how civil society organisations really are making contributions in a democratic way). And yet, at the same time, because politics has been removed from discussion, the increasingly unpopular neoliberal agenda remains fully in place. We don’t hear anything about austerity policies, unfair trade agreements, the use of tax havens to hoard wealth, or how corporate influence largely determines economic policy outcomes. These are the “rules” that need to change, yet they are nowhere to be found in the SDG process.
I might describe this as “pre-emptive capture” of politics. I noted in my frame analysis that corporations and banks are not mentioned anywhere. This omission is very telling in its own right. We know that multinational corporations are the most powerful political actors, and that they are profoundly concentrated vehicles for wealth consolidation. So the failure to mention them at all plays out similarly to when US elections fail to mention the influence of Citizens United or the vast network of right-wing think tanks that influence public opinion.
A more meaningful and authentic SDG process for identifying a shared framework for humanity and adopting it worldwide would do two key things differently. First, it would be fully systemic from start to finish. It would not break down issues into silos of distinction (for example, poverty is separate from prosperity; economic health apart from environmental wellness; gender issues separate from ethnic and racial issues; and so forth).
Secondly, agendas would be the central focus of the process. Who wants to do what? How are they going about doing it? Who are the winners and losers? What does “we” mean in the phrase “future we want”? These are the most important questions. They are political questions, ethical questions and spiritual questions all woven together. The development agenda of 20th-century neoliberalism – as well as prior periods of colonialism and longer-range periods of empire-building – would all come into the fore for active discussion.
There needs to be a truth-and-reconciliation process for global development before it becomes possible to advance a truly sustainable and equitable development trajectory for our fledgling planetary civilisation.
This is why I say poverty is created. Because doing so shines a spotlight on a major blind spot in the development discourse – one that has kept us from seeing the true path to a world without poverty that operates within planetary limits.
Image from: https://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/the-sustainable-living-plan/reducing-environmental-impact/
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