Developing Discourse or Stunted Growth? Taking the Sustainable out of the Sustainable Development Goals

Where does poverty come from?

Whatever your answer, it’ll shape what you think we should do about it. If you think it’s natural, for example, then perhaps all we can do about it is alleviate suffering rather than get rid of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.

Your answer will subsequently have an impact on how effective you are at addressing poverty. Will you introduce incentive schemes because you believe poor people are just not trying hard enough; or higher taxes for the rich because you believe historically there has been an unfair allocation of resources? Do you reduce or increase social benefits, like unemployment or child benefits?


In other words, the way we ‘frame’ poverty has a direct link with our political response.

It’s worrying, then, that an upcoming report from /The Rules suggests that the understanding of poverty that underpins the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) is faulty. Worrying because the SDGs, which replace the Millenium Development Goals, represent the political response of the entire international community to global poverty.

How do the SDGs frame poverty?

Poverty in the SDG documents is consistently framed as a disease. The authors of /The Rules’ report suggest that given that eradication is unlikely with disease, the best we can hope for is to manage poverty rather than rid ourselves of it altogether. This would be in direct contradiction to the Goals themselves.

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The metaphor also suggests that poverty is naturally occurring and something to be expected. The question of where poverty comes from is thus never addressed, and the result is clear: we lose any reference to the structural changes that might make a genuine impact on poverty.

How do we solve poverty?

The architects of the SDGs are critical of the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a tool for eradicating poverty, but then fail to suggest an alternative, revert quickly back to using GDP as a measure of progress, and are constrained by a very particular model of how the world economy should run. How development is connected to the environment is confused at best. Instead of moving beyond the current, narrow model of economy and progress, as the authors of /The Rules’ report suggest, ‘it passes this challenge to future generations’.

This is inescapably ironic.

Perhaps most worrying, there’s a glaring omission of any reference to the role of corporations. But we know how much power and influence corporate interests wield; and we know that they have been involved in shaping the SDGs. That they aren’t included as a relevant political actor raises concerns that we might not like how corporations are going to be involved.

How do we really solve poverty?

If we don’t tell the real story of poverty, we’re stuck at the first hurdle. So we first need to tell a clear story of how poverty was created: through our colonial and imperial histories, and through stories of domination, control and the linear nature of ‘progress’.

We need to talk about how poverty is maintained through unjust trade laws, tax rules and labour practices. And we must acknowledge the interconnection between the wellbeing of human and non-human nature.

The solutions fall out of this understanding. We must strengthen the bonds between people and the natural world: no targets we make can be truly sustainable without doing so. We must rethink the meaning of work and purpose so that we can adequately sustain the full spectrum of human needs: not just financially but in having time to enjoy, garden, and spend time with loved ones. Lastly, we must fix the rules of the game so they’re fairer, such as by implementing progressive taxes that begin to redistribute power and resources.

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