Right now, a long and complicated process is underway to replace the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015, with new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These will set the parameters for international development for the next fifteen years and every government, UN agency, large corporation and NGO, not to mention billions of citizens on the planet have a stake.
Judging by what’s being produced, though, we have a serious problem. The best way to describe it is with an old joke. There’s a man driving through the countryside, trying to find a nearby town. He’s desperately lost and so when he sees a woman by the side of the road he pulls over and asks for directions. The woman scratches her head and says, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”.
The best evidence of where the SDG’s are starting from is the so-called “Zero Draft” document, first released on June 3rd and currently undergoing exhaustive consultation.
First things to note are the big differences with the MDGs. Most strikingly, the SDGs suggest an end to poverty is possible in the next 15 years, whereas the MDGs aimed at halving it. The implication is that we’ve made amazing progress and are now in the home stretch. Secondly, the SDGs get serious about climate change. This is a major paradigm shift and, what’s more, they aim squarely at the heart of the problem: patterns of production and consumption. Impressive. Thirdly, reducing inequality “within and between” countries is there, with a goal of its own. Another paradigm shift, and a controversial one because it opens the door, just a crack, to the idea that the extremely rich might be making an undue amount of their money off the backs of the extremely poor.
Of these three goals, two will disappear before the process concludes. There is no way the world’s rich governments and corporations will allow a meaningful challenge to production and consumption patterns, or a focus on reducing inequality. This is a given. More important, though, is the fact that the very problem – the starting point - is profoundly misconceived. How do we know? Because of the language. Language is a code that contains a lot more than its literal meaning. An analysis of semantic frames in the Zero Draft exposes the logic upon which it is built. This isn’t a political analysis; it’s a linguistic one.
Let’s take the opening paragraph:
“Poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. We are therefore committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.”
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Poverty can be conceptualized in many ways. In this passage it is presented as both a preventable disease (“to be eradicated”) and as a prison (“to free humanity from”). In both, the framing reveals the framers’ view, conscious or otherwise, on causation. Diseases are just part of the natural world, so if poverty is a disease, it is something for which no one is to blame. And the logic of a prison is that people are in it for committing a crime. The former denies the idea that human actions may be a cause of inequality and poverty; the latter invokes the idea that poverty is the fault – the crime - of the poor.
Also note the phrase, “the greatest global challenge”. This asserts a logic in which there is a hierarchy of individual issues based on relative importance, with poverty at the top. The truth is that humanity must now confront a convergence of mega crises, all of which are deeply interconnected: Government corruption; ecological destabilization; structural debt; hyper-consumerism established in the west and rapidly expanding in the east and south, etc. Framing poverty this way conceals the web of interconnected systems and removes them from consideration. The result: No systemic solutions can arise from a logic that denies systemic problems.
There is a good reason for this: it protects the status quo. This logic validates the current system and ordering of power by excusing it of blame and says it can, indeed must continue, business as usual. This is the logic of the corporate capitalist system.
There’s no denying that some excellent progress has been made since 1990 – the year the MDGs measure from – but you don’t need to deny that to know there is something fundamentally wrong with a global economy in which, at a time when wealth grew by 66% the ratio of average incomes of the richest 5% and the poorest 20% rose from 202:1 to 275:1. Or that the reality masked by the ratios is that one third of all deaths since 1990 (432 million) have been poverty related. Using UN figures, that’s more than double the combined deaths from the Two World Wars; Mao’s Great Leap Forward; Stalin’s purges; and all military and civilian deaths from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s more, even though we are now seeing around 400, 000 deaths every year (pdf) from climate change we are pumping 61% more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere annually than we were in 1990.
The point is that, in light of the logic the language exposes - and I have mentioned just two of many possible examples telling the same story - any glorification of the SDGs we hear over the next year must be seen as reinforcing the logic their language contains.
To really tackle poverty, inequality and climate change, we would need to change that logic to one that was built on an acceptance of how much these problems are the result of human actions. And that the fact of living in poverty makes no inherent comment whatsoever on the person or people concerned, other than that they live in poverty. This in turn would make a wholly different type and scale of change feel like common sense. For example, it would feel obvious to work towards taxing carbon emissions at source, and putting in place sanctions against those responsible for hoarding at least $26 trillion in tax havens (pdf). We would instinctively reach to introduce laws that give local authorities everywhere the right to revoke corporate charters for serious social or environmental misdeeds anywhere. And the big one: money. Ridiculous though it may sound, right now we allow private banks to control the supply of US dollars, euros and other major currencies that surge through the global economy. These banks charge everyone, including governments, interest on every note, thereby guaranteeing that a constant river of money flows into their coffers, along with immense power. But none of these things will make it into the SDGs because they contradict the current, dominant logic, and what’s more, they might work, and redistribute power and wealth more equitably.
We compound our problems when we allow ourselves to be drawn into processes like the SDG-design are turning out to be. Every ounce of credence given their frames helps weigh down the center of debate far from where to needs to be. Until the UN can use its powers, resources and privileges to promote policies that grow from the logic of its highest ideals, we may help it, the planet and each other best by divesting our attention from it, and finding avenues for change that can.