The SDGs as double agent for progressive sustainable development

Jonathan Matthysen (Oxfam Belgium) agrees that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) legitimize the current economic system. He argues, however, that progressive forces can also turn the SDGs into a weapon against neoliberalism.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a prime instrument in the toolbox of many influencers. This is due to their high communicative value, their neutral appearance and their universal application. However, their extensive use can be placed inside a broader framework of ideological power. Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte have excellently laid bare the underlying ideological assumptions which lie at their foundation. According to them, the SDGs legitimise the current neoliberal world trade system. 

Adversely, I argue that the SDGs have been co-opted by progressive forces. Paradoxically making them a weapon in the struggle for a fair world trade system. This puts the SDG framework on the frontline of contemporary ideological warfare. However, more re-politicization of the development and sustainability discourse is needed if substantive transformation is wished for.

Mass communication for everyone

The strength of ideology lies in the hidden way of influencing individual behaviour. After all, this is less contentious than having to use visible coercive power. This fact is known by authoritarians and leaders for a long time. With mass communication becoming increasingly cheaper, a lot of regimes start to increasingly rely on this soft power. 

Think of the rise to power of Trump through his Twitter account or the attempts of Russia to influence the outcome of the US elections by using Facebook.

This is nothing new. Propaganda has always been used to control the domestic or foreign population. However, what is new is that mass communication has become decentralised in the last decades. With alternative powers having equal access to the same communication channels it became easier to swing discussions the other way.

The spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down

What have the SDGs to do with this? The communicative value of the global goals cannot be underestimated: seventeen goals, each accompanied by a universal symbol and no-nonsense taglines, all put into a colourful framework. 

Because most of the goals stay away from contentious political debates, they appear to be neutral on top of it. At first sight, no one could ever be against them. This puts the SDGs in an excellent position to be used as an ideological weapon. 

Indeed, most academics and practitioners who have delved deeper into the targets and indicators know that the SDGs are far from neutral. Individuals, business and governments alike are keen to incorporate the SDGs into their operations to catch some of their flair. The accompanying political message is happily absorbed. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Indeed, Orbie and Delputte have pointed out in their article titled Why the SDGs won’t save the world that they are far from innocent well-intentioned goals. After all, their targets and indicators legitimise the current neoliberal economic system and do not question the power relationships that go behind it. Furthermore, they are based on a model of an ever-expanding world economy which led us to the environmental catastrophe in which we find ourselves today. 

The SDGs implicitly promote the assumption that liberalising trade will lead to mutually beneficial welfare gains. On top of that, the SDGs ignore aspects like governance and culture, which our elementary to human development and its impact on the environment. It is clear that a lot more political courage will be needed in the run up to 2030, when their successors are being negotiated.

The medium is not the message

SDG Watch Europe launched a campaign, calling on Members of the European Parliament to become SDG champions and to pursue, amongst other things, a fair-trade agenda. How come so many progressive organisations and politicians are taking up the SDG framework when it is neoliberal in nature? 

This tension can be attributed to the difference between medium (SDGs) and message (neoliberalism). Since their launch, the SDGs gradually have been co-opted by progressive forces, effectively decoupling the SDGs from their neoliberal message. What we get, looking just at the goals and neglecting the targets, are the following messages.

  • If we want to fulfil these ambitions, we will need profound transformational change, overthrowing existing power relationships, acknowledging that existing privileges have to be challenged.
  • In order not to transgress our planetary boundaries we will have to give up some materialistic welfare. At the same time, their indivisibility makes clear that we will have to leave ample room for developing countries to work on their social foundation.

Ideological war

These messages are consistent with the Manifesto for a Sustainable Europe for its Citizens, the document on which SDG Watch Europe based its campaign, illustrating that SDGs can indeed be decoupled from their original message. This transformation is seen all over the world and at multiple levels of actorship.

The decentralisation of mass communication made it possible for critical opponents to adjust the interpretation of the SDGs. By their very nature, the SDG headlines instigate feelings of ambition, interdependence, complexity, and radicalism. 

It is this combination that made the SDGs a double agent for progressive sustainable development. While originally composed on the basis of neoliberal thought, they now become a tool to change things for the better. 

A lot of battles will yet have to be won in the ideological war against neoliberalism, including the establishment of the next global goals. While it is true that the current targets and indicators will not save the world, their ambition and inclusiveness will be essential if we ever want to make a difference.

Jonathan Matthysen is policy advisor at Oxfam België-Belgique. He writes about trade policy and the fair-trade movement and has a background in politics and economics.

The Dutch version of this blog is published on MO*Magazine.