Criticism of the SDGs Just a Fig Leaf?

Postcolonial criticism of the SDGs
Photo (detail): © Thomas Köhler

Six years ago, the United Nations defined a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at tackling and overcoming ecological and social problems following a holistic approach. The political scientist Dr Aram Ziai believes that the SDGs have failed. In our interview he explains how he has arrived at this conclusion.   

Dr Ziai, what is the idea behind the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations?  

Essentially, the SDGs aim to promote “globally sustainable development”, that is to say a lifestyle that combines social, economic and ecological improvements. Sustainability means that today’s generations should not live at the expense of future generations, for example by using up non-renewable resources or otherwise driving climate change. This is the concept of intergenerational equity. In addition, there is the idea of intra-generational justice, justice within the present generation, i.e. between the people currently living. 

The SDGs were adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in 2015. They were a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to fight poverty and incorporated the sustainability goals from the Rio+20 process, which was the follow-up to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the “Earth Summit”.  

Can you briefly explain how the SDGs differ from their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, and why it was necessary to set new goals? 

The difference concerns the greater emphasis placed on the ecological goals, which in view of the acceleration of climate change made it seem necessary to involve the North. Ecology and sustainability played more of a marginal role in the MDGs. 

The SDGs have been in place for roughly six years, and many international institutions and governments refer to them in their decisions. What is your assessment of the goals that have been set, and what is their status today, in your opinion? 

In my view, the function of the SDGs – as with all of their predecessors since the mid-twentieth century – is to signal that global inequality has been recognized as a problem and to simulate resolute action to address this. In this sense the SDGs follow entirely in the tradition of development policy, which was established in the context of the Cold War and the decolonization of the USA and its allies with the aim of preventing those countries that were becoming independent from defecting to the socialist camp. This was done by promising them that they could become, with the support of the West, prosperous or “developed” countries within a capitalist world economic order.  

This promise came true for only a very small minority of the countries – there are very few rags-to-riches stories in reality. The SDGs are a renewal of this promise. However, if they really meant to fight poverty seriously, as they promise to do, they would need to control and regulate the global economy, and especially multinational corporations, to a much greater extent. The annual transfer of wealth from the so-called Global South to the Global North, in the form of the repatriation of profits by multinational corporations, debt service, tax avoidance and illicit financial flows (which total around 1,000 billion US dollars per year on a net basis, according to the European Network on Debt and Development) remains just as unaffected by the SDGs as free trade, which is so harmful for many producers in the South. The opening of markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America – mainly brought about by the rules of the World Trade Organization or requirements tied to loans given by the World Bank and IMF – subjects domestic producers to competition from financially robust, competitive and – in the area of agriculture in particular – often subsidized suppliers from the North, who crowd them out of the market. Subsidized EU imports caused the market share of poultry famers in Ghana for example to plunge from 95 to eleven percent in the space of one decade. Hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods as a result. 

But the SDG were supposed to take a holistic approach and improve the North-South relationship, breaking up the power dynamics. Have they managed to achieve this at all? 

Breaking up the power dynamics was never the aim of the SDGs, and this is precisely where the problem lies.

Development cooperation has always sought to combat poverty without questioning the power relationships at the local, national or global levels. However, wanting to help the poor without hurting the rich is an extremely difficult undertaking. 

Where do you see the difficulty? After all, the SDGs were adopted by all UN member states. 

Heads of government do not necessarily represent the interests of the weakest in society, and politics is by no means the rational realization of the common good. What is meant for example by responsible climate policy is something about which energy companies like RWE, unions like IG BAU, the anti-coal activists of Ende Gelände or people in the southern hemisphere who are affected increasingly often by extreme weather events have entirely different views. And it is power relationships, among other things, that determine whose ideas politicians end up implementing. This is something that Armin Laschet and his interior minister Reul made abundantly clear when they illegally cleared Hambach forest so that RWE could mine for lignite there. 

Can you give any concrete examples that illustrate this problem? 

The aforementioned problematic aspects of the global economy are hardly mentioned at all – let alone seriously addressed – in the SDGs. Creating legal opportunities for economic migration would likewise be an effective way of combating global poverty – after all, more than twice as much money is transferred to the countries of the South by migrants than by so-called development aid. However, it is precisely in this context that Europe and North America seal themselves off. Another example is the coronavirus pandemic: heads of government in the EU (and especially in Germany) are blocking the lifting of patent protection for vaccines, which would otherwise make them accessible to the poorer segments of the world’s population. The profits of pharmaceutical companies clearly have priority over the right of poor people to health. 

Are there also goals or projects that have profited from the SDGs or that owe their success to them in the first place? 

There are certainly some sensible projects and initiatives relating to the SDGs; one of them is the supply chain law that requires companies to demand that their suppliers also comply with social standards. However, such projects also existed before the SDGs. And it is still characteristic of development cooperation to function as a fig leaf within the framework of an unjust capitalist world economic order – and this is also true of successful projects.

Is the concept of development cooperation still relevant at all nowadays? 

Development cooperation has always been driven by the idea that the people in the South are less “developed” and are reliant on the expert knowledge of the North, and that fighting poverty in global capitalism could be a win-win solution for poor and rich countries alike. Strictly speaking, both were already very dubious assumptions even back in the mid-twentieth century. 

Ultimately, it is of course the case that the countries of the so-called Global South are suffering most from climate change despite having the lowest per-capita carbon emissions. How could the SDGs be better enforced to counter this imbalance?  

That depends on the political will and indeed on the societal pressure that is brought to bear by actors such as Fridays for Future or Ende Gelände. In the past, relying on governments alone has proven fairly unsuccessful. Since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, carbon emissions have risen every year – apart from in years of massive economic crises such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus crisis.  

So what responsibility do the countries of the so-called Global North have? What needs to happen to ensure a fair global climate policy?  

They are responsible for by far the largest proportion of the carbon emitted so far. Theoretically, the countries of the South could say: “So, now it’s our turn until we have generated just as much pollution as you have.” Luckily, they are not saying this. A fair global climate policy would have to include a radical reduction in carbon emissions from industrialized countries, including in the sensitive areas of air transport, meat consumption and industrial production. In my view, this is not something that can be achieved in consensus with companies, as it would diminish their profits. What we need here are clear legal rules and regulations in the sense of democratic control of corporations. 

The economy should no longer be oriented solely towards private profit. 


This interview was conducted in written form. The questions were asked by Natascha Holstein, online editor at the Zeitgeister magazine.