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Sustainable Development Goals: The politics of ‘development’

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2015 – 13:46One Comment

As part of Government Gazette’s extended focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Olivia Arigho Stiles argues that the logic of sustainable development has been co-opted by transnational corporations and fails to tackle the power structures which allow global inequalities to persist.  


Uganda (Photograph: Ron Waddington)

(Photograph: Ron Waddington)

Sustainable development is universally recognised as a defining policy objective of the 21st century. The field of development studies has mushroomed since the 1970s while NGOs and corporate bodies dedicated to advancing the development agenda have likewise proliferated. Starting from the premise that the needs of today must be met without compromising those of the future, ‘sustainable development’ broadly covers a myriad of themes from anti-poverty, economic growth in the global south to climate change. Yet it has been a policy area sufficiently elastic as to encompass a diverse and frequently contradictory assortment of ideological currents and international actors. This has obfuscated the ideology implied by ‘development’ and has led to the appropriation of sustainability logic by forces whose interests are actually inimical to it. This obscures the degree to which ‘development’ at its most meaningful, represents a site of political contestation between neoliberal tendencies on the one hand, and transformatory socio-political movements on the other.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a clear indication of this. In 2000, world leaders committed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as part of a drive to alleviate global poverty. These MDGs expire in September 2015 and a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted at the UN general assembly. These SDGs are a collection of 17 broad aims agreed by UN member states, bringing together governments, multilateral organisations and NGOs in an effort to tackle global poverty, gender equality and climate change.

The SDGs encompass impossibly broad policy areas, including anti-corruption, providing secondary level education to children, investing in rural infrastructure and affordable housing, and awarding women equal inheritance rights. Under the SDG’s capacious umbrella there is very little in the realm of development that is not alluded to.

 ”development represents a site of political contestation” 

On one level this represents an encouraging recognition of the necessity of a holistic and integrated approach in advancing sustainable development. As a rhetorical affirmation of intent, this is progress. Yet the SDG’s vast scope exposes the frailty of political leaders’ commitment, and their lack of any legally binding mechanisms mean they afford countries considerable manoeuvrability when it comes to realising these goals.

The SDGs, like the MDGs, ignore the self-evident injustice in universal agreements which do not acknowledge that the prosperity of developed countries is achieved at the ecological expense of poorer countries in the global south.  As northern nations have high levels of consumption and polluting technologies which damage their own environments as well as those of poorer nations, their resulting wealth means that they should take on a greater share of financial responsibility in tackling climate change.

Delhi (Photograph: Geoff Stearns)

(Photograph: Geoff Stearns)

Another conspicuous omission is apparent in one of the goals vis-à-vis reducing inequality, which states that countries should ‘adopt policies especially fiscal, wage, and social protection policies and progressively achieve greater equality’. This is so vague as to be rendered meaningless. A more exacting method of achieving this aim might be to mandate national governments to legislate for a minimum wage, or even a citizen’s income as way of lifting the poorest out of poverty and move to an equitable distribution of wealth in developed and developing countries alike.

Yet more fundamentally, here the SDGs fail to offer any robust solution to the rising levels of inequality in the world. In recent years, the wealth ratio between the richest and poorest countries has increased exponentially; in 1973 the gap was around 44:1 but today it’s nearly 80:1. In January 2015 Oxfam published a report showing that the richest 1% have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014.

“the SDGs fail to offer support for the empowerment of trade unions”

Similarly, although ostensibly broad based and non-partisan by design, the SDGs fail to offer support for the empowerment of trade unions and other non-governmental actors which play an integral role in social development. They therefore serve a political function in erasing the role of unions from the development agenda. In countries such as Colombia, which is the world’s most dangerous country to be a trade unionist, the labour movement is an important but marginalised actor in protecting workers in the formal and informal economy. By omitting any provisions for the protection of trade unions, the SDGs reveal a tacit bias in favour of transnational corporate power which is often complicit in labour rights abuses in LEDCs. In Colombia, the link between multinationals and the paramilitary’s anti-union activities has been well documented for example[1]. Between 1989 and 2002, at least eight union leaders from Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia were killed after protesting the company’s labour practices[2].

Failure to adequately challenge the role of multinationals in environmental degradation is also evident in the proposal to “encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.” Yet there is no reference to any quantifiable targets or legal parameters through which to enact this. The same sentiment has been expressed by many multinational corporations but has been sufficiently malleable as to allow the persistence of practices which harm biodiversity and displace indigenous communities. Unilever for example, is the world’s largest palm oil user, a commodity which is linked to extensive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Over 40,000 km² of Sumatran rainforest have been destroyed during the past two decades with deforested land used primarily for oil palm (Forest Watch Indonesia/Global Forest Watch 2002). Currently 50 million tons of palm oil are produced annually and Indonesia overtook Brazil as the number one rainforest destroyer in 2012.  Although 22 large companies including Unilever, Nestle, Kellogg’s and Proctor & Gamble have strengthened their commitment to sustainable palm oil in the past year, strong political pressure needs to be maintained to ensure these commitments materialise. The SDGs fail to provide a global political framework which would achieve this.

Ultimately the SDGs represent an insufficient framework for achieving genuinely sustainable development across the world. As a statement of intent they are useful in placing issues such as gender equality, environmental degradation and social aid at the heart of UN discourse. But in offering a strategy which will lead to tangible, quantifiable improvement in these areas, the SDGs are simply an empty vessel. More deeply still, they reflect the persistent fallacy that meaningful action against climate change and in favour of social equality can be taken within the same economic power structures which have permitted these problems to arise in the first place.


 Olivia Arigho Stiles is an Editorial Assistant at Government Gazette. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Government Gazette.





[1] Jasmin Hristov, Neoliberalism and Paramilitarism in Colombia: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond, (Pluto Press, 2014).

[2] International Labour Rights Forum, http://www.laborrights.org/