The SDGs: What’s missing?

by Sasha Alyson

In 2000, the U.N. announced its Millennium Development Goals, eight goals that by the end of the decade dominated the field of international development. That fifteen-year program was to end on 31 December, 2015.

Six months before they even ended, the U.N. claimed unprecedented success for the MDGs. Quickly the U.N. General Assembly rushed through a successor, the Sustainable Development Goals.

Why the rush? Why didn’t they wait till the MDGs were finished, then have an independent evaluation of whether U.N. development goals were a good approach? Lots of reasons.

For starters, they didn’t want an independent evaluation. A self-evaluation gave more predictable results.

Second, by 2015 virtually every Western “development” project in the global South was pinning itself to a U.N. development goal. A new set of goals was the best way to ensure that funding not only continued, but would grow. And grow. The MDGs had 8 goals and 21 targets. The new plan has 17 goals and 169 targets.(1)

Furthermore, the U.N. did not want a pause during which the world might discuss whether it needed another round of U.N. goals. Arguably, the MDGs were a flop. Most goals were not met. Two goals were widely heralded as great successes were, on closer inspection, not so successful. The U.N.’s hunger-reduction “success” relied on two subterfuges: Changing 20-year-old data so that the hunger baseline looked higher (and thus the final hunger figures seemed like a greater reduction); and taking credit for China’s dramatic success in reducing hunger. But China’s policy wasn’t shaped by the U.N. goals, and most of its progress took place in the 1990s, before the MDGs even existed. The education “success” relied on accepting that requiring more children attend school, even as they were learning less, meant education was better. (Links below give details of both statements.) Where goals were met, there’s usually no reason to think it was because of the MDGs.

The new goals also serve another purpose: They keep everybody from thinking about any other possible goals. The plate is already overflowing with 169 of the damn things, why add more?

What the SDGs ignore

Were you to read all 169 actual goals — and stay awake — you’d probably say they sound pretty good. “Substantially reduce waste generation.” Who can argue with that?

But some big things items missing. Generally, these are:

  • Measures that would increase local control and sovereignty in developing regions;
  • Anything that could reduce corporate profits in the West;
  • In fact, anything at all that that would offend or annoy Western powers, particularly the U.S.

Let’s look at some.

Weapon sales. If we want to reduce death and suffering, and lay a foundation for development, what better first step than to reduce warfare?

Industrial nations sell about $40 billion worth of arms each year, resulting in immeasurable death, homelessness, and starvation. The world’s five largest arms manufacturers are American companies; #6 is British. Most of these arms go to developing countries, particularly to the Middle East where one might think more weapons should not be a high priority. Roughly three-quarters of the business at the global arms bazaar is conducted by just five nations: The United States, Russia, France, the U.K., and China.

The United Nations Security Council has five permanent members, who have veto power over U.N. decisions. Those five countries are the United States, Russia, France, the U.K., and China.

Class, does anyone have any questions about why, in its 169 targets, the U.N. cares about waste reduction, but says nothing about reduction of weapon sales?(2)

Land. Land reforms in China are widely credited with the impressive hunger reductions there. In that context, it’s important to know: Within individual countries, is land ownership becoming more concentrated? What about on a global scale? Is there greater foreign control of land, especially of arable land?

Many farm families have moved to cities in the past two decades, expecting to find better jobs and better lives. Some succeeded. But others discovered that the jobs didn’t exist, or were worse than what they’d left. If land is available, they can return. If the land has all been grabbed by conglomerates, they are stuck in urban poverty with less hope than before.

Tax shelters and tax avoidance. More than half of all world trade passes through tax havens. By artificially raising and lowering prices and interest rates as they move cash and goods between subsidiaries, Western corporations shift profits from the a country where they are earned, such as Ghana with a 25% tax rate, into a tax haven where they pay just one-eighth as much.(3) Other methods of tax evasion add to the burden.

The SDGs “encourage” Western countries “to consider setting a target to provide at least 0.20 per cent” of their Gross National Income to least developed countries. But researchers estimate that tax evasions by Western corporations rob developing countries each year of three to five times what they receive in official foreign aid.(4)

Most aid money boomerangs back to the donor country. Hey, that makes 0.2% feel like almost nothing! If it wants to help, the U.N. could stop “encouraging” this pathetically small measure, which often feeds waste and corruption even if it does arrive, and instead push to shut down tax havens and other loopholes. But that would draw fire from powerful corporations. Tax havens are not even mentioned amongst the 169 SDG targets.

The Corporate Tax Haven Index identifies the leading tax havens. The first three are British territories. The next three are the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Class, are there any questions about why the Western powers ignore this issue?(5)

Autonomy. Are people gaining more or less control over important forces in their own lives? Are governments largely accountable to their citizenry, or do they mostly take orders — albeit indirectly — from abroad?

Why not create a goal focused on this? It cannot be measured precisely, but neither can a lot of other SDG targets, such as “Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.” One indicator of autonomy would be the percentages of income a government receives from certain sources: taxes on citizens and locally-owned businesses; taxes on foreign-owned businesses; loans; aid; and sale of natural resources. This data won’t immediately change anything, but it would offer helpful insight about who’s paying the piper, and what tune we’re likely to hear.

Corporate abuse. Western-owned mining companies spew toxic waste into the air and water in countries where a weak government gets a small cut of the proceeds, but the villagers just get sick. Nestlé continues to endanger babies with its aggressive marketing of baby formula. In a world with growing water shortages, Coca-Cola uses ten liters of water a day for every person on earth. But the U.N. is not about to threaten these corporate giants. It simply calls for clean drinking water for all, encourages women to breastfeed, and ignores the systemic obstacles to these goals.

Environmental goals with teeth. Many experts believe that climate change poses the single greatest threat to development and quality of life in developing regions. The SDGs cannot ignore this one. Instead, they present toothless feel-good targets, such as: “Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.”

Good suggestion! But the last twenty years have been filled with good suggestions about the environment. One Millennium Development Goal (2000-2015) was to “ensure environmental sustainability.” But carbon emissions increased by 50%. Furthermore, the annual rate of increase after the year 2000 was more than three times what it had been in the previous decade.

The U.N.’s plan of action for this: It expressed hope that a global climate conference, to be held in Paris, would take decisive action. (Spoiler alert: It did not. Too many individuals and nations get too many short-term benefits by spewing carbon into the sky.)

What’s needed is global leadership to reach a binding, global agreement, with teeth — penalties for countries that blow off their responsibilities. That won’t be easy, but it may still be possible. It will never happen, though, if the U.N. hopes that lamely putting forward another toothless feel-good suggestion might, if we’re lucky, just be enough.

Accountability. Most U.N. jobs center around international poverty and development. If global poverty were actually eradicated, many jobs and even entire agencies would disappear. That creates powerful incentives to file a lot of reports, conduct studies, fly to conferences, collect data, set goals, and always have something to do – but never to actually get the big job done.

These incentives are so powerful that we should not expect the U.N. to eradicate poverty, any more than we would expect Coca-Cola to sponsor effective nutrition programs in primary schools. If world leaders and the U.N. wish to insist that it can do the job, at the very least they need to acknowledge the conflict of interest, and find a way to hold the U.N. accountable to the world’s poor. They’ve made no such effort, nor even acknowledged any innate conflict.


It would be reasonable to reply: This is a priority list, it can’t have everything. Certainly not. But the U.N. has dreamed up 169 targets, and it’s a revealing set of priorities. The U.N. emphasizes goals for which a U.N. agency or Western NGO can show up and say, “We’re here to help. In fact, we’re paid to help! And here’s how we’ll do it.” Then the U.N. calls for more aid funding, most of which will boomerang back to the donor countries.

In contrast, the list above puts an emphasis on clearing the way for people within each country to decide what they want, what they need to do, and to take the initiative themselves. The U.N. isn’t buying this approach.

Countries which the U.N. rates as “developed” are setting goals and monitoring performance of the others. But the reverse is neither expected nor permitted. Despite the endless talk of “partnerships,” this is not a relationship of equals, it is schoolmaster to student, parent to child. Or, if you prefer, colonizer to colonized. It is not a blueprint for development.

NOTES AND SOURCES

1. The U.N. terminology here is contrived. Their 169 “targets” are mostly goals, and the 17 “goals” are actually categories — poverty, health, and education — written so broadly that any goal any special interest wishes to push can find a comfortable home, as a target. But if you announce that you’re setting 169 goals for yourself, people might laugh.

2. Arms sales data is compiled from Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008-2015, from the Congressional Research Service and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

3. The Ghana story is told in How Tax Havens Plunder the Poor, by ActionAid UK: SABMiller’s Accra Brewery in Ghana had annual beer sales of over £60 million, yet claimed it was operating at a loss, and thus paid little or no corporate income tax to Ghana in most years. During that period, it took an £8.5 million loan, at a whopping 18% interest rate, from another SABMiller company in the tax haven of Mauritius. These high interest payments were booked as a loss to the Ghana company, where they would have been taxed at 25%, and showed up as profit in Mauritius, with a tax rate of just 3%.

4. By their very nature, tax havens thrive on secrecy, so exact numbers aren’t available. The three-times estimate is from a Guardian story, “Tax havens are entrenching poverty in developing countries.”

5. The Corporate Tax Haven Index. There’s no agreed definition of what constitutes a tax haven, and thus no definitive list. Other analysts rank the City of London among the world’s top tax havens.

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