In September this year the United Nations will formally adopt a set of targets for global development to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Carl Death examines the proposals to assess their potential.
The post-2015 goals – which will be called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – are likely to define the global development landscape for the next decade and a half. Negotiations over the goals, which concluded this week, have raised big differences between states, civil societies and analysts over issues like equity, justice, security and sustainability. Many commentators are likely to dismiss the SDGs as another meaningless UN wish-list with little relevance to the real world politics of austerity, global inequality, and ever-more intensive resource extraction. Others will earnestly proclaim the goals as the moral challenge for our generation and, whilst quibbling over the exact metrics, targets and methodologies, will exhort worldwide opinion to take note and strive to produce a brave new world. The goals themselves claim to set out a ‘supremely ambitious and transformational vision.’
Who is right? In recently published research (with Dr Clive Gabay, Queen Mary University of London), I argue that neither the cynics nor the disciples really appreciate the significance of the SDGs. There are two potentially radical shifts as we move from the MDGs to the SDGs which could challenge the framework of development as it has existed since the end of World War II. First, the goals are intended to be genuinely global, with challenging targets for all countries and not just the ‘Third World.’ Hence the SDGs have the potential to destabilise long-standing divisions between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ societies and economies. Second, the pre-eminent focus on sustainability is significant. A truly sustainable path toward development would entail challenging resource-intensive, polluting, and extractive forms of economic growth.
These radical shifts are not inevitable nor will they necessarily play out as profoundly as they could. However, they are much more significant than either the cynics or the disciples recognise. They represent one of the most plausible potential opportunities for a different type of development politics – a different biopolitics, or governance of the life of global populations – than at almost any other point over the last few decades. Analysts of global public policy should therefore take note of the outcomes of the UN summit in September.
The first of these potentially radical shifts concerns the scope of the goals. The MDGs were intended to be global goals, but they ended up framing development in terms of the reduction of extreme poverty in absolute terms. By omitting targets on inequality or relative poverty they lost any relevance to developed countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia. Only one goal applied to the Global North (MDG8 which called for the establishment of a ‘global compact’), and this was vague and unspecific with no measurable or time-bound targets.
In contrast, the 17 SDGs (and 169 targets) are ‘universal, indivisible and interlinked’, explicitly applying to ‘developed and developing countries alike.’ There are targets on income inequality, financial regulation, labour rights, food waste, fossil fuel subsidies, and sustainable production and consumption. These present significant challenges for industrialised countries as well as poorer countries. When the inevitable rafts of indexes and rankings measuring performance are produced, who will do better in tackling inequality, obesity and sustainable production? The US or Cuba? The UK or Costa Rica? Japan or Kenya?
The second of these potentially radical shifts concerns the aim or substantive content of development itself. If the aim of the MDGs was to reduce extreme poverty and integrate (some of) the poor of the world into the lifestyles of high mass consumption of the industrialised core, then the SDGs pose a fundamental challenge to this vision of development. In addition to targets on climate change and sustainable production and consumption, the proposed SDGs propose conserving the oceans and forests, and living in harmony with ‘Mother Earth’ and defending the rights of nature. Eleven of the 17 goals include the word ‘sustainable’ (in contrast to one in eight of the MDGs). Even the otherwise fairly conservative report of the High Level Panel (which had David Cameron as a co-chair), observed that it is ‘unrealistic to think we can help another one billion people to lift themselves out of poverty by growing their national economies without making structural changes in the world economy. There is an urgent need for developed countries to re-imagine their growth models.’
As such the post-2015 process is amplifying a wider set of debates about the role of growth itself in delivering human development and the good life. This is not just apparent in the rhetoric of Latin American states like Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador who are promoting visions of buen vivir or ‘living well’, but it is also finding expression in the OECD’s Better Life Index, the 2008 Sarkozy Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, authored by Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi; Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth report in 2009 for the Sustainable Development Commission, and the Happy Planet Index produced by the New Economics Foundation.
Emphasising the radical potential of the SDG proposals is not the same, however, as a naive faith in the power of global goals and targets. Indeed, there is a need for constant critical interrogation of these processes, and the post-2015 process entails some worrying political implications as well as radical potential. Two implications in particular need highlighting. The first is that the SDGs will end up reinvigorating growth-as-usual discourses but with a ‘greener’ tinge. Indeed, some see the post-2015 process as bringing economic growth back in after its absence from the MDGs.
The second implication arises from the sheer ambition and hubris of the goals, which call for ‘ending poverty in all its forms everywhere,’ assessed and monitored through a new data revolution. This raises the daunting prospect of an extension of intensive, intrusive, biopolitical forms of global governance ever more widely across the globe. These concerns are elaborated further in the research article, but our conclusion is that whatever their dangers, perhaps what the development policy debates need at the moment are a little bit more ambition and a little bit more willingness to challenge prevailing discourses, rather than less. As such the reactions to, and implementation of, the SDGs are well-worth watching for their radical potential.
See Carl Death and Clive Gabay, ‘Doing Biopolitics Differently? Radical Potential in the Post-2015 MDG and SDG Debates’ (2015), available here.