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How To Feel Good About Global Poverty

Tell yourself it’s easy to fix–and that you’re not responsible for it.

Hope sells. Not quite as well as sex, but certainly better than despair. Politicians know this, marketers know this, and the politicians and marketers in the organizations concerned with global poverty know this.

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There is a line, though, that separates real, meaningful hope from marketing and spin. At the upcoming UN General Assembly, we are all about to be told some stories as part of what’s being called the “world’s largest advertising campaign” by the UN, NGOs, governments, and large corporations. The campaign is to sell us on the new global plan to tackle poverty. It’s up to each of us to determine whether these stories are full of hope we can believe in, or just a big serving of marketing and spin.

This plan, called the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is going to be launched later this month. Heads of State from all over the world will descend onto New York to formally sign it. There will be fanfare, celebrity endorsements, concerts, and photo ops, and a general air of “let’s all celebrate what we’ve achieved so far, and what we can do together next.”

The “what we’ve achieved so far” part of the equation is summed up in the idea that global poverty has been halved since 1990; testament–so the official logic goes–to the great success of the last big poverty plan, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And this leads effortlessly to the “what we can do together next” part, which is, largely on the basis of this progress, actually eradicate poverty “in all its forms, everywhere” by 2030.

It’s an almost irresistible story. What craven, miserable misanthropes could possibly take issue with it?

Well, that depends on how true it all is. If it’s not true, we should all take issue with it, and withhold our support. And there is, unfortunately, every reason in the world to question the deployment of such grand hope to sell this particular plan.

There are few things more important when it comes to the collective endeavor to rid this world of the violent and terrible blight of mass poverty than whether we all basically believe that the world is heading in the right direction right now, which is what the official story wants us to believe. If we believe that, we are more likely to be politically passive, thinking that things are basically in hand.

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If things aren’t as rosy as the official story would have us believe, however, and there is reason to believe the plan can’t deliver what it promises, then we are more likely to demand different approaches from world leaders and, indeed, each other; we are more likely to demand change in the direction this plan–and the system that surrounds it–are set to take us in.

This isn’t an academic question; 4.1 billion people currently live on less than $5 a day, and almost everyone on earth will be affected in some way by the UN’s plan to decrease that number. The least we should expect from the people selling it to us is truth and honesty.

We made this video to highlight three particularly important questions we think need asking by as many people as possible:

1: How is poverty created?

There is an assumption buried deep in the logic of the SDGs that mass poverty is essentially a natural condition that occurs in the absence of any action to overcome it (you can check our assessment of this in our linguistic analysis). But this assumption isn’t accurate at all. It simply takes what feels like intuitive common sense about poverty at the individual level and presumes it works for countries and, indeed, the whole world, over time. But is that right? Is it true that everyone is born with equal access to the means of ensuring they never live in poverty? Do power dynamics between countries have any part to play in who gets rich and who doesn’t?

Consider this: there has been a globalized economy for at least 400 years (you could easily argue it has existed for considerably longer). In that time, some parts of the world have increased their wealth exponentially, notably those who have created and run systems of control and domination stretching around the world in the form of empires, slavery, and colonialism and, in more recent years, trade deals and structural adjustment programs.

It’s hardly a strange idea, that those with the money make the rules, and this is a truth that is writ large in the global economy today, and has been for practically all of the last 400 years.

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In light of this reality, if it seems to you that there is a lot more to mass poverty than what the individual has control over, then you might want to question why the SDG framework denies this. And what this denial says about their promise to end poverty by 2030.

2. Why is growth the only answer?

Right now, economic growth sits at the root of the SDG plan to tackle poverty. The SDGs are aiming for at least 7% per year in the least developed countries, and higher levels of economic productivity across the board. Goal 8 is entirely dedicated to this objective.

This feels intuitive and logical. If economic growth equals more money, and poverty equals a lack of money, then economic growth equals less poverty. It stands to reason. But, now consider this: since 1990, global GDP has increased 271%, and yet both the number of people living on less than $5 a day, and the number of people going hungry has also increased, by 10% and 9% respectively. Add to that the wage stagnation across the developed world, and increasing inequality both within and between countries pretty much everywhere, and the shakiness of this basic logic becomes evident. Aggregate economic growth does not translate into less poverty; the stated objective of the SDGs.

Maybe this would only be problematic, something that could be fixed by tweaking the growth model while keeping the basic imperative in place, were it not for the second part of the problem. The imperative for every country, every company, and every individual to constantly grow their material wealth is destroying us, in the most real and painful way. The consumption-driven mechanisms we use to achieve it, and the GDP measure we use to define it, have us locked on a path to ruin by actively encouraging us to treat finite natural resources as if they were infinite, and prioritize the growth of the money supply over everything else. Said another way, the perceived moral imperative for economic growth actually contradicts the laws of nature.

Are there any other reasons why endless growth, everywhere, might be so attractive to the designers of the SDGs? Could there be reason buried in the fact that, in recent years, 95% of all income from growth has gone to the richest 40%? This leads us to the third question.

3: Who’s developing who?

The common assumption is that the rich countries of the global north, through foreign aid programs and by participating in projects like the SDGs, are helping the less wealthy countries of the global south develop. But how true is this?

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Right now, for every $1 that is given in foreign aid to the global south, around $18 is taken out by other means, most notably rigged trade deals than benefit the most powerful countries and corporations, debt repayment on debts already paid off many times over, and massive tax evasion and other forms of corruption, committed by political and business elites north and south, and facilitated by a large and growing web of tax havens. So in the grand scheme of things, who’s actually developing who?

The answer to this question will also affect your opinion of the SDGs. They don’t have a lot to say about this dynamic, and in fact riff pretty heavily on the basic idea that it’s the north that is the generous party. They do acknowledge both the vast level of illicit finance, and that the global financial system is relevant to their project, but capture their level of concern in vague statements about the need to “enhance global macroeconomic stability” through “policy coordination.” There are no specific responsibilities for anyone, or any actual targets.

This is a very rich world, filled with determined, smart, compassionate people and mind-bending technology. Everything we need to tackle poverty and climate change is at our fingertips. We just need to add to this mix of possibilities the honest and credible intent. Honest and credible.

We treat the goodwill of people lightly at our peril. Every time we over-hype a claim today, we create the conditions for disillusionment and political disengagement tomorrow. It is short-termism of a very damaging kind. Although it may feel harsh to question the idea that the SDGs can eradicate poverty by 2030, we owe it to ourselves–and those that will come after us–to do just that.