The sustainable development agenda may be well-intentioned, but it is too fixated on endless growth.
The UN will launch its 2030 Sustainable Development agenda at the end of this month in New York City, where it will be formally adopted by over 150 world leaders after years of consultations between governments, communities, and businesses.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to end poverty and hunger while creating sustainable societies, look like great news at first glance.
But a report circulated to UN officials argues that the entire SDG process has been "fundamentally compromised" by powerful corporations with an interest in sustaining business as usual.
Commissioned by Washington DC-based nonprofit TheRules.org, a global activist network campaigning to address the root causes of poverty, the report is based on "frame analysis"—a scientific method examining linguistic and conceptual patterns to reveal how people define, construct, and process information.
Their new report, authored by systems theorist Joe Brewer, director of research at TheRules.org, concludes that the UN's vision is "doomed to failure" because it ignores the major structural causes of global poverty.
"Right now, the rules are set-up to extract wealth and horde it in the hands of a tiny elite," the report says. "Only when we recognize that these are logical outcomes of a system designed for wealth hoarding will we be capable of redesigning the system to achieve a state of shared prosperity."
Brewer's report, published in June and sent to several officials involved in the SDG process, commends some UN policies as worthy of being "promoted or celebrated as the progress they represent," but criticizes others for being "problematic or unclear."
"Add to this the myopic focus on growth as the only solution, and we get the antithesis of sustainability."
"The single biggest problem is the structural absence of any discussion about political agendas," said Brewer. "Add to this the myopic focus on growth as the only solution, and we get the antithesis of sustainability."
According to Dr. Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics (LSE), who advises TheRules.org on economic policy, global inequality is on the rise because concentrations of wealth in industrialized countries are linked inextricably to the extraction of developing countries' resources.
By ignoring the role of prevailing capitalist structures and untrammelled economic growth in generating poverty and climate change, the SDG process loses meaning, argues Hickel.
"Corporations and banks are not mentioned anywhere," Brewer told me. "This omission is very telling in its own right. We know that multinational corporations are the most powerful political actors, and are profoundly concentrated vehicles for wealth consolidation."
The UN says its previous Millennium Development Goals helped halve global poverty since the 1990s, but there's reason to question that.
That success rate is calculated from the World Bank poverty measure of $1.25 a day, a level of very extreme poverty. The problem is that this poverty measure is too low. While the numbers of people living in extreme poverty has indeed halved, many of those people are still poor, deprived of their basic needs.
As the London-based development charity ActionAid showed in a 2013 report, a more realistic poverty measure lies between $5 and $10 a day. By this measure, although very extreme poverty has declined, the number of impoverished overall has increased.
World Bank data shows that since 1990, the number of people living under $10 a day has increased by 25 percent, and the number of people living under $5 a day has increased by 10 percent. Today, 4.3 billion people—nearly two-thirds of the global population—live on less than $5 a day.
Yet Brewer's language analysis shows that the SDG process is unable to acknowledge, let alone ready to solve, this problem.
"Corporations and banks are not mentioned anywhere."
That's partly because the UN's very concept of "development" relies on the idea that the solution to poverty remains "undifferentiated, perpetual growth."
That kind of thinking is why humans' ecological footprint is on track to exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth, he says.
The UN has declined to engage with this critique, says Alnoor Ladha, co-founder of TheRules.org. Indeed, when I contacted the UN Sustainable Development Division, a representative declined to comment.
Insiders at the heart of the UN's intergovernment engagement negotiations have also lambasted the international body for pandering to big business and ignoring grassroots stakeholders who represent the world's poor.
In late July, for instance, the UN Major Group for Civil Society criticized the SDG process for overlooking the role of "corporate tax evasion" and "lack of accountability for human rights abuses" in developing countries, and for advocating privatization as a solution despite "growing evidence that privatization of essential social services exacerbates inequalities in access and marginalizes the poorest."
For Brewer, the way forward must therefore make evaluating the agendas of the powerful a "central focus" of the process.
In other words, the role of the prevailing economic system in creating poverty has to first be acknowledged before it can be transformed.