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9 reasons the International Development Sector needs to get political, address power relations, and adopt a transformative agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals are sending out distress signals. They won’t eradicate global poverty whilst they’re hitched to a broken neoliberal paradigm of development, new evidence suggests.

Stephen McCloskey
31 July 2019
Humanitarian aid convoy, South Sudan.
Humanitarian aid convoy, South Sudan.
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Mohamed Babiker/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 by the United Nations and its member states as an ambitious programme “to promote shared prosperity and well-being for all over the next 15 years”. Two new reports, on food security and education, cast serious doubt on their capacity to meet their goals, just four years into delivery. More fundamentally, they raise questions about the development process that the Global Goals represent. This debate goes right to the heart of contemporary international development delivery. Does it remain a largely technical, managerial and depoliticised discourse on aid? Or does the development sector need to start agitating for systemic change and political influence addressing the root causes of economic inequality?

I’d argue that the latter, transformative approach is urgently needed to achieve poverty eradication. Central to this approach is the need to start seriously tackling the question of our broken, neoliberal economy which has concentrated unprecedented levels of wealth in fewer hands. For the poorest half of humanity, neoliberalism has brought stagnating wages, deepening gender inequality, faltering public services and growing levels of public alienation with the political process. The Global Goals and overseas aid, for all their good intentions, are neither equipped nor designed to alter this reality. Here’s why.

1. Failing on food security

820 million people worldwide are still going hungry and reaching the SDG target of zero hunger by 2030 is “an immense challenge”, a new report on food security from a UN multi-agency taskforce has found. SDG 2 aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” but the report finds that “The pace of progress in halving the number of children who are stunted and in reducing the number of babies born with low birth weight is too slow”. Moreover, the number of children overweight and obese – indicators of malnourishment - continues “to increase in all regions, particularly among school-age children and adults”. The report adds that “The chances of being food insecure are higher for women than men in every continent”.

And food insecurity is not confined to the global South. The Trussell Trust, which manages a network of foodbanks in the UK, has said that it distributed 87,496 food parcels to children in the UK during the summer holidays in 2018. Food parcels are needed to feed increasing numbers of children who are not in receipt of free school meals in the summer, suggesting the extent to which poverty has enveloped the global North over the last decade.

2. Failing on education inclusivity

SDG 4 aims to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. But one in six 6 to 17-year-olds will still be excluded [from school] in 2030”, finds a second recent report, this time published by UNICEF. The report goes on to suggest that “40% of children worldwide will fail to complete secondary education, a figure that is forecast to reach 50% in sub-Saharan Africa where the proportion of trained teachers has been declining since 2000”.

And a 2017-18 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report found that the education share of total aid fell for six consecutive years, from 10% in 2009 to 6.9% in 2015. World leaders have “a lot to answer for” in letting education slip “down the aid agenda”, according to Helen Clarke, the former prime minister of New Zealand and chair of the Global Education Monitoring Report advisory board. Clarke added that “complacency” and lack of progress toward SDG 4 had “worrying implications for the whole 2030 agenda on sustainable development”.

3. Failing on climate change

SDG 13 calls for “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, and SDG 8 for “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth”. How do the goals square the circle of combating climate change while enabling poor and middle-income countries to higher levels of growth with the enhanced global consumption of carbon which that implies? The goals seem to be fatally hitched to the same tried and failed economic system that created climate change in the first place. As Jason Hickel says of this apparent contradiction:

“The pursuit of endless industrial growth is chewing through our living planet, producing poverty and threatening our existence. And yet the core of the SDG programme for development and poverty reduction relies precisely on the old model of industrial growth — ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption”.

4. Aid is dwarfed by outflows

While Helen Clarke bemoans the lack of aid and collective commitment of nation states as the chief impediments to SDG delivery, it is doubtful that increasing development assistance to countries in the global South alone will eradicate stubborn levels of poverty. For example, Hickel reported in 2017 that “for every $1 of aid that developing countries receive, they lose $24 in net outflows”. Most of the outflows represent the illicit flow of capital from the global South to the global North. The World Bank has defined illicit flows as “Money illegally earned, transferred, or used that crosses borders’ and argues that they ‘reduce domestic resources and tax revenue needed to fund poverty-reducing programs and infrastructure in developing countries”. Shouldn’t NGOs invest greater resources on preventing illicit financial flows and pressure governments into closing off loopholes in the financial sector that make them possible?

5. Aid is dwarfed by remittances

Aid also pales alongside the remittances sent by migrants working abroad back home to countries in the global South. The World Bank reported that remittances reached a record high of $689 billion in 2018 which is nearly four times the OECD-estimated total of official donor assistance in 2018 of $153 billion. As World Bank economist, Dipti Pardeshi, suggests: “Remittances are on track to become the largest source of external financing in developing countries”. In spelling out the benefits of remittances, Dipti Pardeshi
Chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration UK, said:

“Remittances help to cover the costs of basic needs. This includes education, housing, food and health. They also impact positively on savings, investments and job creation in communities. They represent an important safety net in times of crisis, providing critical resources which can help families cope with sudden shocks, for example a poor crop yield, or a natural disaster”.

6. Wealth is getting more concentrated

The full scale of global inequality and the limitations of development aid were starkly revealed in an Oxfam report this year. It showed the wealth of the world’s billionaires to have increased by $900 billion in 2018 alone while the wealth of the poorest half of humanity fell by 11 percent. The report also showed that wealth is becoming more concentrated with 26 billionaires controlling the same wealth as the bottom half of humanity (3.8 billion people). For example, “Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the richest man in the world, with a fortune of $112bn on the 2018 Forbes list. Just 1% of his total wealth is the equivalent of almost the whole health budget of Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people”.

7. Women are losing out more than men

The unpaid work of millions of women across the world is often ignored by the standard economic measurement of development, Gross National Product (GNP). According to Oxfam: “If all the unpaid care work done by women across the globe was carried out by a single company, it would have an annual turnover of $10 trillion – 43 times that of Apple’. The report goes on to argue that the main driver of gender inequality, social injustice and wealth concentration is neoliberalism:

“Our economic rules have been written by rich and powerful men in their own interests. The neo-liberal economic model of today has made this worse – cuts to public services, cuts to taxes for the richest individuals and corporations, and a race to the bottom on wages have all hurt women more than men”.

8. The safeguarding crisis is reflective of a broader need for change

In Ireland, a study by Kleibl and Munck argued that “there is a shared discourse across the government, NGO and academic sectors which does not really encourage critical enquiry”. However, in light of the safeguarding crisis which has enveloped Oxfam and other NGOs in the development sector, they argue now is the time for “honest self-reflection” and propose “a carefully crafted and openly debated research project” to consider the role of NGOs as agents of development. This debate is overdue, particularly as the development process to which so many NGOs have imbued with their social capital and policy formation – the Sustainable Development Goals – is already sending out signals of distress.

9. Redistribution is missing

An academic study carried out in the Spanish city of Valencia considered whether the SDGs can address structural problems in development aid, “such as the lack of accountability and coherence, unequal power relations, or depoliticization”. The study found that:

“the SDGs do not overcome the depoliticisation of aid discourses and policies as they still frame development problems as technical, managerial and measurable problems. For example, issues of power and key political issues such as redistribution are totally absent from the Agenda”.

The international development sector appears reluctant to leave the policy comfort zone of overseas development assistance and become more politically engaged with the structural causes of poverty. As John Hilary, former director of War on Want, said: “Over the past two decades, a highly professionalised NGO sector has increasingly moved to identify international development with overseas aid, despite the numerous critiques of such an elision from the majority world itself”. The SDGs appear to be locked in a similar managerialist and technical approach to development with the Valencian academic paper arguing that:

"Despite the references to structural issues, the new global agenda has been criticised for reproducing the status quo and for not addressing the causes of impoverishment created by the existing dominant capitalist and developmentalist model”.

International development NGOs need to start working with unity and purpose toward a more just and heavily regulated economic system that is built on social justice, green innovation, gender equality and properly funded public services. The worrying alternative is a sector detached from the lives of those on the front end of austerity and a deepening of the kind of social fragmentation suggested by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

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