How sustainable are the SDGs?

We need more development, not post-development

SDGs are ‘sustainable’, in the sense that poverty reduction has dominated development discourse for a very long time. Francine Mestrum criticizes exactly this: the old development agenda of radical economic reforms has been watered down in favour of a neoliberal agenda and focus on poverty. What we need is not ‘post-development’, but more development within a restructured global order. 

‘Sustainability’ is a delicate concept. It can mean many different things, from ecological to financial. The permanent element in it always has to do with time. Something ‘sustainable’ is something that lasts or has the capacity to last.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), then, are indeed ‘sustainable’. The objective of reducing or ending poverty – Goal 1 – is already fifty years old. While the old development discourse of the UN never talked of poverty and while the World Bank in its early years even refused to look at social projects, the World Bank chairman, Robert McNamara, formerly US Minister of Defense during the Vietnam War, declared in 1972 that by 2000 extreme poverty would be eliminated.

In 2000, when adopting the Millennium Development Goals, it was said that by 2015 extreme poverty would be halved. And in 2015, the goal of ending poverty was set for 2030. 

Does it need to be emphasized that ‘poverty reduction’ is not the same as ‘development’?

Positive points for social protection

Nevertheless, let me start by giving a positive assessment of the SDGs. 

The main point is their universality. No more difference between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, North or South, poor or rich. This is an agenda for all countries. No one can escape its responsibilities.

The second point is the connection between the social and the ecological agendas. These two are indeed inseparable and have to be pursued simultaneously.

Thirdly, the SDGs go beyond poverty reduction. They not only explicitly mention social protection – even if it is in a limited way – they also have a separate point on inequality (Goal 10). 

Again, this is not an ambitious agenda, it is the World Bank’s programme, but at least the importance of the problem of inequality is recognized. And next to social protection, there are separate points on food security, health, education and gender equality.

These three points are extremely important. However, serious problems remain.

Watering down of development 

In its paragraph 10, the resolution of the General Assembly accompanying the SDGs speaks of all basic UN ‘purposes and principles’ to be respected, including international law and human rights. The 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development is explicitly mentioned.

We may have divergent interpretations of this ‘right to development’, but the fact remains that with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and poverty reduction as the major priority of ‘development’, the development agenda of the 1960s has in fact disappeared.

During the first ‘Decades’ of development, the UN resolutions of 19611970 and 1980 demanded technology transfers, participation in the services sector (banks, transport, insurances …), just trade and fair prices for natural resources. One can easily see that all these elements were watered down from the 1980s onwards, with the neoliberal approach of structural adjustment and later ‘poverty reduction’. Globalization became the new mantra and was used in order to redirect production towards exports and debt payments.

Looking at today’s official development discourse, not much is left of the many relevant ideas and concepts that were promoted fifty years ago. The UN resolutions on the new international economic order and on international economic cooperation (both 1975), the Charter on economic rights and obligations of States (1974), the amazing documents on the ‘unified concept’ of social and economic development are testimonies of the deep understanding of relations between nations. 

Developing countries understood perfectly well that their political independence had no meaning without economic independence. This was true in 1960 as it is still true today.

Now, there are very good reasons to criticize these old documents as well. The ecological dimension of ‘development’ was not taken into account, in the 1960s there was hardly any awareness of it. And since then, critical development thinking has offered a wide choice of alternatives.

Post-development: poor alternative

Or has it? However justified and correct the analyses of growth, colonialism and development cooperation practices may be, they also imply serious flaws. Let me just mention a couple of them.

Post-development has always confused discourses and practices and never came up with any viable alternative for development.

The ‘de-growth’ movement is typical for rich countries and the concept is semantically flawed. How to solve the poverty problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a GDP per capita of hardly 500 US$? It is unacceptable to condemn Africa to a life on the edge of poverty and hunger. All poor countries definitely need growth and industrialization. What has to be stopped is exploitation, fossil-fuel-based industries and extractivism. 

Third, colonialism has indeed consequences up untill today and it is very justified to point to the responsibility of colonizing countries. But in what way does this help ‘those rendered poor’? Today, I read an article on the history of a railway company in India, built in colonial times with huge profits for its owner. Does this mean we now have to condemn railways?

On development cooperation we can be very brief: we never helped and in fact we never had the willingness to help poor countries and/or poor people. All cooperation and help were in favour of the economies of ‘giving’ countries.

So let us be clear: while we may criticize the old theories and the old thinking on development, the current ‘alternatives’ do not offer any ‘sustainable future’.

Towards a new development chapter

The SDGs do indeed require another international economic order and system change. Power relations have to change. On these points, the analysis made in the 1950s and 1960s, in Latin America with structuralism and ‘dependencia’, at the G77 Bandung conference of 1955 with the claim for self-determination, was very relevant indeed.

Today, we do have to take into account the global and the ecological dimension, and the SDGs can help us to do just that, but we have to use the old thinking on the nature of development and power relations to write a new chapter fit for the 21st century.

To mention just one problem: resources. According to the latest report from ‘Global Financial Integrity’ the ‘value gap’ between exports of poor countries and imports of advanced economies was 817,6 billion US$ in 2017. This misinvoicing leads to tax evasion and illicit financial flows.

Development is needed, very badly. The new critical thinking goes in the right direction, but should not throw away the baby with the bathwater. 

Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and researches the social dimension of globalization. She worked for the European institutions and several Belgian universities. She is a member of the Board of Governance of CETRI (Centre Tricontinental), the International Board of the World Social Forum, and the International Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum.

Read the Dutch version on the website of Mo* Magazine.