The flawed utopianism of the SDG process

Everything is premised on an unrealistic understanding of the structures and dynamics of the global political economy

Graham HarrisonThomas Pogge and Mitu Sengupta set the scene for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as ‘that cosmopolis of the future whose foundations are now being shaped’, offering more than a hint of utopian thinking. The foundations to which the authors refer are the great raft of goals and targets set out in the SDGs. I want to argue in this post that the SDGs are indeed a utopian political project, and that this renders the goals less a set of achievable and quantifiable targets and more a fantastic future vision. The numbers in the targets matter mainly because they give credence to the vision.

Within the post-1945 political economy of global governance, there have always been goals and targets, but it is certainly the case that these have tended to proliferate and expand. And it seems that targets and goals proliferate regardless of their feasibility or achievement. A good example of this is the commitment to 0.7% GNP allocated to overseas development assistance adopted by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. But there are many more in relation to international debt, carbon emissions and contributions to specific United Nations projects and funds.

Politically, target-setting is as much normative as scientific: the targets are there to motivate agencies, to frame issues, to unite organisations. In rather stark contrast to team ball sports, a missed goal can be celebrated. This is because a little utopian thinking might go a long way in dealing with major development challenges, precisely because it inspires, motivates, and coordinates progress.

But utopias are slippery creatures. They can lead to all manner of highly idealised thinking and excuse all kinds of ideological assertions. And, of course, they can trip from imaginative discussions of the present to imaginary discourses of the future. My argument here is that the SDGs, and the deeper processes that have enabled them, have crossed a boundary from consideration of a desirable future connected to recognisable features of the world as it is, to the elaboration of a future based in a series of premises which have little connection to the actualities of global political economy.

Let’s start, though, with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Ending in 2015, these goals have been partially met. The common refrain is heard that the MDGs have succeeded enough to warrant the generation of a refreshed and even bolder set of targets. In this sense, the MDGs become a success through political effort, rather than quantifiable efficacy – a means to frame another bold target-setting exercise.

But it is important to mention that the partial success of the MDGs also raises very important issues about the nature of the goals themselves. For example, the extent to which MDG-related actions reduced global poverty is far from clear – it is often simply asserted that global falls in the numbers of extremely poor are evidence enough. The ways and means of data generation have been increasingly questioned in a range of ways. There are also important questions about the extent to which ‘numbers’ can really tell us much about development in any case. There is plenty of case-specific evidence that poverty reduction has left behind ‘functionally poor’ groups, such as the elderly or oppressed minority groups. There is also a major set of issues to be assessed concerning the impact of the global economic crisis and the reversals in progress that this has generated.

The kind of utopian thinking that underpins the MDG-SDG process does not compel a full and frank reflection on these issues because the partial success of the MDGs has been widely deemed sufficient to regenerate global utopian thinking within the same paradigm. The focus is on the cosmopolis of the future, not the realities of the present. The SDGs in effect offer us ‘MDG-plus’: more goals, more ambitious goals, a broader remit, more encompassing involvements of stakeholders, more institutionalisation, all packaged into another fifteen-year timeframe.

The SDGs unquestionably set out a utopian vision in which a great many of the world’s more serious and intractable development problems are resolved. Not only global poverty, but environmental crisis and human rights… everywhere by 2030! The goals themselves and certainly the public narratives around the goals are remarkably idealistic.

One can see the idealism in the intense work that the notion of sustainability is doing, suturing all manner of difficult realities and tenaciously remaining a signifier of a future perfect. Sustainability within the SDGs means ‘sustainable growth’: in one fell swoop skipping over the major concerns that exist about the pursuit of growth and its impact on climate change.

Sustainable development – now wedded to a certain unrealistic understanding of growth – also means a kind of development within which no-one is left behind and everyone benefits. Even the very rich have nothing to worry about. There is no redistributive justice, just a gentle and brisk upwards mobility of the poor to converge in some degree with the livelihoods of the richest. There is also no recognition of the fact that global capital is driving persistent and even expanding inequalities as well as processes of intense exploitation. In its place, business has a role in the SDGs, some leading by example, others being persuaded that their best interests are served by their participation in the big project.

This vision of the world is of global political economy within which continued growth and environmental stability can coexist, in which the rich can relax and the poor can be aided out of indigence, in which the seeking of profit can be tweaked to be ‘socially responsible’, and in which there are no major perturbations in the way the global economy presently operates. This is not a world I recognise. As a result, we have a kind of double utopia: firstly, more ambitious goals constructed on the basis of less ambitious goals that were not fully achieved; and, secondly, the whole effort premised on an unrealistic understanding of the structures and dynamics of the global political economy.

As a result of this double-idealism, we can expect fifteen years of entreaties for more political effort, the advancement of a set of assertions of success, and constant display of a prospective vision in which deeper reflections on the whole exercise are short-circuited by narratives about lessons learned. If this is the essence of the SDG utopian project, then it cannot succeed but nor can it fail.