On 25th September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution with the title ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. This agenda - generally referred to as the SDGs – sets out a comprehensive framework for global development with specific goals and associated targets to be realized by 2030. The preamble of the resolution notes that this initiative is premised on taking bold and transformative steps for development and announces the following commitment:
All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind (UN 2015:1, my emphasis)
I begin my brief discussion of the SDG agenda with a provocation: 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. It is therefore not surprising that like its precursor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs have already been subject to critical political analysis (Sexsmith and McMichael, 2015; Scheyvens, Banks, and Hughes, 2016; Spann, 2017; Suliman, 2017, Weber 2014, 2017).
Below, I want to show how in the SDG agenda some goals are more fundamental than others, specifically because the former are associated with providing the ‘means of implementation’ for the whole framework (UN 2015, 14 – for SDG 17, see also esp. 26-31). These goals framed in terms of ‘the means of implementation’ are crucial because it is them that determine the process and hence express the politics through which the (other) goals are anticipated to be realized. The kind of critical examination of the differences between the ‘means of implementation’-goals and the others, as we will see, gives us a good indication of the politics of the SDGs, and makes it clear why the initiative is already heavily contested.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve. They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.
The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet (UN 2015: 1)
As indicated, taken at face value, the agenda would seem highly commendable. However, it is important to base any analysis on a closer examination of the framework itself: 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. 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.
A Critical Political Analysis of the SDGs
In the context of the above, it should be noted that none of the SDGs commit to fundamental entitlements to life sustaining needs through universal guarantees to, for instance, clean water, health services, or shelter through redistribution. Instead, such needs are configured in terms of the ‘market episteme’ (cf. McMichael 2010: 3; Weber 2017), which means that they are not guaranteed as entitlements; rather it is anticipated that they will be provided as commercial services, as key objectives of SDG 17 suggest. Indeed, generally, the SDGs do not refer to universal guarantees of entitlements to, for instance water, food, shelter or healthcare, with one exception relating to education. This latter exception, however, again needs to be understood against the background that the education sector is already under significant privatization and commercialization pressures: We would hence need to countenance the implications of the fact that it is seen as part of the WTO (under the GATS agreement) and is simultaneously configured as a sector committing to universal entitlements. Jane Kelsey’s work on the GATS, for example, is concerned with
‘the broader ideological transformation of ‘services’ from fundamentally social relations that are embedded within communities to commercialised commodities traded within an international market place’ (Kelsey 2003:267).
Kelsey’s critical analysis of the politics that underpins the framing of the GATS of the WTO is astute:
‘Seeing the GATS as ideology, and not simply as a technical legal text, is (…) pivotal to understanding how the interests of international capital are effectively privileged and how competing understandings that insist that GATS embodies and perpetuates the inequality of social relations are excluded’ (Kelsey, 2003: 267).
In developing my critique of the SDG agenda through a close examination of what can be apprehended from the ‘means of the implementation’ (especially SDG 17), I do not suggest that neoliberal politics has not already been implemented outside of the WTO framework (or the SDG agenda). It has, for sure. For example, the social and political implications of the privatization of water (facilitated often through the World Bank and the IMF, and the Inter-American Development Bank) have already received much critical attention. In Bolivia, this led to significant social protest and conflict (cf. Morgan 2011: 85-117), while in South Africa it led to a large outbreak of cholera (as those who could not afford to pay for it were forced to use contaminated water; see Conca, 2006: 238-39, 353).
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. Similarly, the way indicators are deployed in the context of the SDGs also bears out such tendencies to differentiation. For instance, while some indices simply register the extent and levels of deprivation relative to the goal in question, others aim at measuring the performance in achieving the ‘means of implementation’. The former are merely ‘data-gathering’, while the latter are clearly policy-prescriptive.
My critical argument is that the SDG agenda is grounded in a highly contested neoliberal framework. Presenting it as ‘the’ agenda for global development without any acknowledgment of its problematic implications is, itself, part of the political strategy of silencing the voices of critics and is an attempt to ‘absent’ engagement with those deeply concerned about social suffering and ecological sustainability (cf. Santos 2001). A close examination of the SDG agenda must conclude that it ‘ultimately privileges upholding commercial law as the ordering principle of development’ (Weber 2017). For critics, this is tantamount to deepening the ‘market episteme’ (McMichael 2012: 3), in ways that would entrench further particular interests over substantive relations of justice and equity.
We must remember that development is intrinsically political. As McMichael has reminded us ‘development is not just a goal; it is a method of rule’ (2016: 50), and history tells us loud and clear that social relations of domination – development through inequality – will always be contested (cf. McMichael 2010; Shilliam 2015; Scott 1990; Grovogui 2009; Weber 2014). Given the premises upon which the SDGs have been framed, and the policies that are envisaged for their realization, pronounced political contestation of the initiative is inevitable.
While the global wealthy discuss inequality at the 2017 World Economic Forum, the motto of the 2016 World Social Forum has been ‘Another World is Needed. Together It is Possible!’ The sentiments of the latter are decidedly not those of the SDG agenda.
What understanding of poverty underpins the SDG framework? On what basis do critics contest the SDG agenda? What conception of ‘sustainability’ underpins the SDGs? What do you understand by a critical political analysis of development and poverty? Join the discussion in the comments section below.
Cover Image: Ahead of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September, and to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, a 10-minute film introducing the Sustainable Development Goals is projected onto the UN Headquarters [UN Photo/Cia Pak, 22 September 2015 via Flickr]