The zero draft of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals was published last month. The widely anticipated successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals opens with a very clear statement of intent: "Poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development."
I respectfully disagree with the first bit; the second bit sounds eminently sensible and logical so long as you ignore the entire historical record. There are massive challenges facing the world today. Feeding seven billion people from nutrient-exhausted soils. Violent conflict that recruits ethnicity and belief to resist modernity. A parasitic version of capitalism that not only feeds off poverty but has us fearful and convinced that it is The Only Way. Supply shocks in the critical materials we run our economies on, and the only reason growth (the concept we have staked all of our economic chips on) can happen at all. Environmental crisis including but not limited to climate change and biodiversity-loss. And most critical of all (because it is least understood and talked about) the unpredictable results of what happens when problems like these come to a head all at once. Poverty eradication, a noble goal, and something we can be proud of moving closer to in the last two decades, is not the only show in town.
The SDGs assume that the gains of the MDGs are permanent and irreversible. Target number one of a staggering 211 (shared across 17 Goals) is to reduce the number of people living in absolute poverty (less than $1.25 income a day) to zero by 2030. This quite extraordinary aim is premised on the lifting of nearly one billion people out of poverty under the MDGs. Clearly a worthy aim. But the zero draft is not honest about who these billion people are. Overwhelmingly Chinese, Indian and Brazilian, most were lifted from just below the target to somewhat above it, and largely as the result of policy choices made well before the MDGs took effect.
The remaining billion poor people are not qualitatively the same. Often living well below $1.25, these individuals are largely in Central Africa, Central Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific; as well as in conflict-riven and 'troubled' countries from the DRC and Nigeria in Africa, to Afghanistan and Pakistan in Asia, to Bolivia and Haiti in the Americas. Each poor for their own unique reasons, they have experienced stagnation and insecurity as (some) neighbours have thrived under the MDGs. The SDGs will not be pushing against an open door as the MDGs were.
(As an aside the MDG target worked from a 1990 baseline; that is it gave itself a twenty-five year period, not a fifteen year one as suggested by the SDGs. It also means that a lot of work that went into improving the lives of the billion that escaped poverty happened before the MDGs took effect.)
The MDGs arrived at a lucky moment. Equidistant from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Great Recession, sandwiched between the war in Kosovo and 9/11, it was easy to believe in Fukuyama's idea of The End of History. Even more important than the idea that Western democratic capitalism had won was the brief thought, with some evidence behind it, that Western democratic capitalism could be franchised around the globe and serve as template for peaceful, benevolent development (or as people insist on rebranding it: poverty reduction.)
In September 2000, as the MDGs were being adopted, the SAS and Parachute Regiment brought an end to the Sierra Leonean civil war; pitching one of the best-armed and trained fighting forces in the world against an uncoordinated but vicious Liberian-backed mob taking advantage of a lack of good governance, real infrastructure, and an impoverished population. Images of professional special forces fast-roping from helicopters onto a tropical beach in order to beat up an unruly bunch of thugs were beamed around the world.
A year later the world changed, and the asymmetry of power (both military force and development assistance) between rich and poor was blown apart. Since that time, as the MDG process has quietly got on with improving the lives of (some) of the poor, Fukuyaman Big-H History has returned with full force, from the Global War on Terror, to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, and the rich-world financial crisis and the continued rise of China and other emergent powers.
So when new development goals get labelled as 'sustainable' I have to ask: in what sense are they so? Let's face it, where 'development' has been seen to work in recent years it does not seem to have been sustainable in either a human or a natural sense. Chinese growth rates over the last quarter century have been built on the equivalent of ecological and democratic deficit-spending. And even if they weren't, when a society of 1.4bn manages to move so many people from the land into cities over such a short period of time it is unsurprising that productivity is boosted to the point where it not only drives national growth but temporarily underpins the entire global economy. It also makes sense that such gains are one-off rather than the new normal.
This gets to the unfortunately mealy-mouthed nub of 'sustainable development'. Sustainable is meant both in the sense of continuous and self-replenishing, as if these two things were synonymous. China wants continuous growth (and needs to grow at a faster rate than its Western rivals in order to close the gap). Oil and resource-constrained rich countries desperately want energy independence and to avoid economy damaging supply-shocks.
We can't escape the fact that throughout history countries are most carbon-intense and least sustainable on their way to becoming rich; not when they get there. So if the message to developing countries is that they are not allowed to develop in the same way as rich countries developed - and use the comparative advantages of cheap labour, or material resources, or unspoilt lands - are we sure that they will sign up to this? And because democracy is universally supposed to be a good thing, isn't it undemocratic to impose solutions on people rather than securing their consent?
The only way that sustainable development for both rich and poor can play out will be with a focus on long-term equity - the idea that needs-satisfaction can be deferred on the understanding that it will be met at a future point, and that a covenant is formed between rich and poor countries whereby we will help them achieve better standards of living if they will help us avoid environmental catastrophe.
As such, the SDGs may be more useful when seen as an arena for political bargaining than as a framework for action. This is, essentially, the genius of the MDGs: they were structured so as to permit a level of political negotiation where consent was the principle product, and ownership the principle means. Emphasising the freedom each country has to adapt, modify and improve on targets contributing to shared goals is an important part of this. More important than having the right targets is an even simpler task: giving countries the freedom to get things wrong.