Who wants some more old wine in new bottles?

Why the Sustainable Development Goals will not save the world

Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte (Gent University) are of the opinion that the SDGs do not tackle – and may even strengthen – global injustice. Delays and failures in achieving the SDGs may easily be blamed on the global disruptions following the covid-19 pandemic. However, there have always been fundamental problems with the SDG approach. SDGs do not contain any structural reforms and further legitimise the existing world order, as evidenced by the role attributed to (free) trade.   

If you want to change the world, you do not have to look far. Since 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have constituted the new framework for international cooperation. The 17 general objectives and 169 specific targets that have been agreed upon in the context of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations (UN) have trickled down into the mission of numerous governments, companies and non-governmental organisations in Flanders. The coloured squares and icons pop up in all kinds of posters and PowerPoints and offer a handy to-do list for the next 10 years. Local governments, universities, (multinational) companies, non-governmental and other organisations are increasingly assigning SDG labels to their activities.  

Although SDGs are ubiquitous in the goals of profit and non-profit organisations, they are hardly called into question. In the run-up to the 2015 UN summit, there was some discussion about the lack of focus and low enforceability, but in the meantime, we seem to have accepted the fact that this was the most that could be attained. And we try to make the best of it: after all, the SDGs also contain some valuable points about, for example, universal health care, the problem of inequality, gender-based violence, and the Social Protection Floor. The glass is half-full and we want to remain hopeful, so let us defend the positive aspects of the SDGs. Don’t we have enough cynicism, negativity and polarisation in this world already? Doesn’t the tragedy of the corona pandemic make it all the more necessary to cherish positive agendas such as the SDGs? 

Legitimising the status quo

We have generally accepted the SDGs as the framework for international cooperation and use these SDGs as a model in various contexts. SDGs may not generate enormous excitement, but little fundamental criticism is heard. As political scientists, we are naturally suspicious of the absence of a debate – especially in a liberal democracy. This also applies to the general “glass half-full” attitude towards the SDGs. However, looking back on the evolution in development thinking, we arrive at two problematic conclusions about the Agenda 2030.  

First, the SDGs do not entail any structural reforms to achieve a more just world economy. Key elements such as fair trade, tax havens, debt cancellation and decision-making in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are blatantly absent. Because of its 17 goals and 169 targets, the Agenda 2030 may seem too broad, but the opposite is true. Historically developed power structures – as articulated in international organisations and in the dominant ideological atmosphere – are not called into question. What we get is a long list of good intentions, while the key to thorough reforms is safely stored away. SDGs pose no threat to the prevailing global order.  

The second problem is subtler but no less important. The SDGs actually risk further legitimising existing unequal power relations. By fully investing in the SDGs, insufficient time and energy is left to focus on important structural reforms. The SDGs offer a framework to do something to make the world a better place, but they distract us from the bigger picture. They give us the impression that we are doing well, while a number of important issues such as international trade, investment and tax policy remain untouched. Moreover, with a bit of creativity it is not that difficult to do SDG cherry-picking and –washing, i.e. only pursuing those targets that suit our own immediate purposes. 

Therefore, the problem with SDGs is not so much what is proposed – although this may also be questioned by global health and human rights experts, for example – but what is not, and how this might  confirm the status quo.  

It is not the first time that a “new” era in development cooperation has been announced. These SDGs may constitute the umpteenth reinvention of the development paradigm since the Second World War. Proponents of the 2030 Agenda point to the ‘improvements’ compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which defined the development agenda between 2000 and 2015. From now on, development has to be sustainable (not just economic or humanitarian in nature) and that is a global responsibility of the entire planet (and therefore not just the ‘South’).  

This framing of SDGs as superior to MDGs is not innocent. It ignores the observation that the ‘win-win’ story and the idea of ‘equal partnership’ have been dominating the development discourse for more than 50 years. The so-called innovative aspect of relying more on the contribution of the private sector and on the blending of development budgets with investment funds is old wine in new bottles as well.  

According to the German scholar, Aram Ziai, the SDGs have continued the tradition of development thought since the famous speech of American President Truman in 1949 (others would say even since colonial times). He identifies five elements here: (1) poverty, hunger and disease is a problem in large parts of the world population; (2) fortunately we can solve this in the short term without touching upon existing power structures; (3) thereby assisted by technological innovations that companies will provide us; (4) all based on the conviction that economic growth is necessary; and (5) the assumption that economic growth harmoniously ties in with sustainability objectives and the interests of people in the global North and South. 

These five ingredients have constituted development thinking for decades. New ‘solutions’ hide the continuity of the pattern. The impact is always limited as well. And then the common conclusion reads that it is difficult to measure development and that we should have implemented more and better. The evaluations after 5 years of SDGs will undoubtedly repeat that we have to ensure a better operationalisation and that we have to work harder to achieve the (sub)objectives and targets. Indeed, a veritable industry is arising around monitoring and evaluating SDGs. Critiques that activists, critical scholars and practitioners have been raising for a long time rarely enter into the public debate on ‘development’: the problem is not so much that we are not doing enough but more profoundly that we are pushing the wrong buttons. 

Despite claims to the contrary, SDGs do not represent a paradigm shift. Proponents such as the European Commissioner for International Partnerships invariably talk about a ‘new paradigm’. However, only new concepts can be distinguished. In this manner, ‘sustainable development’ has become mainstream and stripped of its critical edge. SDGs constitute another attempt to conceal global injustice and to legitimise interventions in the global South, without having to address structural reforms. Just as he Millennium Development Goals used ‘poverty alleviation’ to rebrand a neo-liberal policy, the concept of ‘sustainability’ serves the same purpose today. Economic growth is hardly called into question. On the contrary, Jason Hickel calculated that the SDGs presume a global economic growth of 3% per year. Ignoring the cracks in the growth paragdigm as such, the Agenda 2030 continues to cling to higher growth as the only way to save the world. 

Promoting Old Recipes  

Let us illustrate this point by referring to a specific field: international trade. Nobody disputes the importance of trade for sustainable development – for better or worse. For decades now, proponents and opponents have been engaged in fierce debates about the impact of international trade on ‘development’. Numerous studies and debates focus on the conditions under which trade does or does not contribute to more prosperity in the global South. Activists in Belgium, including the umbrella organisation of the Flemish North-South movement 11.11.11., have also systematically exposed the dubious link between free trade and sustainability.  

Now, let us tell you a well-kept secret: SDGs say almost nothing about trade. Goal 8 on ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’ mentions labour rights, but not trade, even though the sometimes dubious link between free trade and labour rights is well known. There is only a call for more ‘Aid for Trade’, a term coined in the 2000s to rebrand decades of development aid aimed at infrastructure and trade promotion. Goal 12 on ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ includes some interesting aspects such as less food waste, but no connection to trade flows is made. Goal 13 on ‘Climate action’ is of course relevant, but again no reference to trade.  

The only mention that we find with regard to trade promotes the WTO’s free-trade agenda. The penultimate sub-objective of the last goal 17 on ‘Partnerships’ is about trade. Here we find three resolutions for the 2030 Agenda: (1) promoting the WTO and completing the Doha Round; (2) increasing exports from developing countries, in particular the poorest countries; and (3) promoting tariff-free market access for products from the least developed countries.  

These are the old recipes that have not worked. The illusion that more market access for the least developed countries would contribute to greater prosperity within those countries has since long been shattered. Powerful economies in the West (but also China) have built their prosperity on protectionism and government intervention. Studies point to the negative impact of the Doha Round on food safety in the global South. Even the most ambitious liberalisation scenario of the Doha Round would not benefit the low-income countries (the so-called emerging countries). 

 The three SDG sections above not only share a lack of originality and creativity with regard to trade, but also the belief that free trade and export-led growth will foster economic, and therefore ultimately ‘sustainable development’. They implicitly and even explicitly legitimise the WTO as the forum for international trade. UN organisations such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which regularly provide critical insights on structural flaws of the trading regime, are not even mentioned.  

The concept of ‘fair trade’ is conspicuous in its absence. More widely, SDGs fail to address trade justice. The WTO is apparently fair enough. The High Level Panel, which prepared the SDGS, did mention ‘fair trade’ and argued for more regulation of international commodities markets and a ban on speculation. These issues apparently fell through the cracks when finalizing the Agenda 2030. The SDGs state that the workings of commodity markets and their derivatives have to be improved. In a remarkable shift of roles, the market is no longer the problem, but the solution. The SDGs are a missed opportunity to turn protection for social, environmental and democratic reasons into a legitimate option again. 

Meanwhile, more and more critical voices are being raised in the margins of the debate. The urgency of climate change stimulates the degrowth movement in Europe and the US, while the post-development movement is spreading from Latin America. Especially at local levels, municipalities and NGOs are experimenting with recipes that go beyond the prevailing trade and development paradigm. Can this burgeoning openness to new ideas lead to a new paradigm? For the time being, these are utopian and divergent ideas, which are at best welcomed with healthy skepticism and at worst met with derision. NGOs also often express structural criticisms, but find it difficult to swim against the tide, whereas the SDGs provide a relatively easy framework to work with (and are sometimes also a precondition to receive funding).  

Paradigm changes typically go hand in hand with (1) a wide-ranged perception of crisis, (2) the availability of alternative and challenging conceptual frameworks, and (3) major shifts in power relations. We are currently witnessing evidence of change in all these three areas, which may be reinforced by the covid-19 crisis. It is however uncertain whether this could foreshadow a significant change. Moreover, it remains unclear if a potential paradigm shift would lead us in the direction of a world that is more sustainable – as reactionary and neo-colonial narratives also gain popularity.  

What is clear, however, is that if we really set out to tackle global injustice, we cannot resign ourselves to the SDGs. We have discussed trade, but the same seems to apply to investments, taxes, reparations and participation in those multilateral institutions that are in control. The debate should not be about the question if the glass is half-full or half-empty. The problem lies with the content of the glass. And today it turns out not to be new wine, but an unsavory variation on an old recipe that has never worked. 

Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte are respectively Associate Professor and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University (Belgium). They are members of the Centre for EU Studies and the Ghent Centre for Global Studies. 

We are grateful to Dries Ledoux for the translation of the original version that appeared on the Mo* website in Dutch.