Hacking the Sustainable Development Discourse
A Narrative Strategy for Changing the Story of Global Development
By Joe Brewer / therules.org
Sep 8, 2015

A course is now being set for the next 15 years of global economic development. As the Millennium Development Goals come to an end, the United Nations will officially adopt their replacement — the Sustainable Development Goals — in September of this year. After conducting a detailed frame analysis of these SDGs we have pinpointed a set of weak links in the logic that can be targeted to help humanity make the transition to a truly sustainable world.

We have set ourselves on a path to reframe the key narratives of economic progress — using the Sustainable Development Goals as a “historic moment” where a successful intervention has the potential to reach larger audiences. This will require that we work seamlessly as a team with a shared understanding of what we are attempting to do and how we are going about it.

/TheRules has been built on a body of research in two key areas: (1) Political analysis of economic history that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality. And (2) linguistic analysis of the cultural patterns that keep these structural causes hidden from view such that they are not adequately addressed.

Our intervention is to open up the mental space for inquiry among development professionals and change agents working to address systemic threats to humanity.

The strategy for doing this has two parts:

  1. Weaken the core logic of development-as-usual by challenging its assumptions and revealing covert, unpopular agendas.
  2. Ask three questions that are designed to initiate people on a learning journey that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality — thus opening up the conversation landscape to a new set of stories that give meaning to these emergent understandings.

This is built on a Theory of Change informed by the science of cultural evolution, which has observed that:

People live within stories that make sense of their social world. These stories become entrenched as institutional structures and practices, making them difficult to dislodge and change. Telling a “better story” is therefore a process of making the dominant stories less coherent and more difficult to understand, which opens up space for new meanings to fill in where they have broken down. Our theory of change is to challenge the logic of the problematic narratives while facilitating a learning process that helps people craft their own new stories that make sense of the knowledge and insights gained along the way.

We will “hack” the SDG discourse by asking three questions (listed below). These questions will be delivered in multiple forms — a series of blog articles written by our team and allies closely aligned with our mission; short videos posted to the web that challenge the dominant narrative; and a set of infographics that reveal key empirical findings about the structural causes of poverty and inequality.


Social reality is built on consensus of perception about what is real. Believe something else is possible and it may come to be true.

Our challenge is to unleash these waves of potential conversation in a synergistic manner. This is why we need to articulate our narrative strategy as clearly as possible.

First, the three questions:

How Is Poverty Created?
Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?

Who’s Developing Whom?
The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?

Why Is Growth The Only Answer?
The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?

We will use these questions as organising principles in our blog articles. They are woven into the infographics and web videos. And we have seen early evidence of their power in articles written earlier this year.

Outlining A “Script” for Our September Pulse

The SDG Framework will be officially adopted in late September, creating a media window when lots of people will be talking about them for a short period of time. We want our ideas to go viral — as a “pulse” or crescendoing wave of dialogue where people share our content and create their own in response to what we are sharing.

This is where we need to organise ourselves for synergistic action. We’ll need a script that we can follow to operate independently while ensuring that we support each other’s efforts in a manner that creates resonance across the landscape of conversations.

The script is our game plan. It is how we want things to play out. Just like in a theatrical play, the script is what we follow to know what the character roles are and how their behaviour is prescribed. It needs to be very simple and easy to use so we “know our proper role” for the settings we find ourselves in.

The play-by-play reality of this pulse is going to get messy. There will be waves of internet memes (think of #CecilTheLion from a few weeks ago) that cannot be predicted ahead of time. People will talk about and share whatever is creating synchronicity in the moment. Which means we need to be agile and able to improvise without losing sight of our end game.

That is the purpose of this script. It will tell us how to act as we improvise in different settings. Here’s an outline for what it might look like:

There will be opponents (people who advocate for and promote counter narratives). Some of them will be coordinating with each other and have substantial financial resources at their disposal for marketing and promotions. We don’t have large resources, which means we will have to use guerrilla tactics and asymmetrical manoeuvres that mobilise our opponents to respond in ways that turn their size against them. Our game plan in these contexts is to be the mosquito that agitates the elephant.

There will be NGO dissidents (people who work within the system, yet are frustrated because they know it is broken). We have a group of them that we are working with directly, but many more will remain hidden to us. These people are our hidden allies. We won’t know where they are or how many of them that might step up as internal saboteurs of the standard narrative. We must embrace this ignorance and “fly blind with full knowledge that our vision is obscured”. Our game plan in these contexts is toprovide narrative ammunition they can pick up and use with ease, wherever they are.

There will be concerned citizens (people who are generally aware of the problems but not formally engaged in addressing them). These people are distracted and filled with daily concerns of their own. They may be suffering from information overload or feeling powerless in the face of such huge problems. We must embrace their lived experience and honour it with humility and the respect it deserves. Our game plan in these contexts is to provide insights that make them feel more hopeful and empowered that something can be done.

In each case, the script we follow is a strategic mode of engagement. It is easy to understand and can be monitored by other members of our team. When one of us enters the discourse we will all be able to tell if they are following the game plans outlined here.

Unpacking the Harmful Narratives

Much can be said about the harmful narratives we are countering. Indeed, entire libraries of books and articles have been written about them. Our purpose here is not to be comprehensive. Rather it is to be focused on leverage points — like the Aikido master who knows just where and when to apply pressure to create a pivot and throw their opponent to the ground.

The Great Lie of Human Progress
A key battleground will be to challenge the “feel good story” of progress, which tells us that poverty is going down, wealth is increasing, and the world is like a car speeding along a well maintained highway toward Techno-Utopia. We have already seen how this has played out. It masks the chronic problems of our time and hides the culprits who are responsible for gaming the system in their favour.

We can challenge this story with killer statistics and critiques of the logic claiming that the secret ingredient to cure all ills is “economic growth”. This is where we show how statistical manipulation has been used to paint a false picture, how things really are getting worse (even though there has been authentic progress on several fronts), and that more of the same is a recipe for disaster.

Need to Question the Fundamentals
Our central critique is that the SDG’s have been framed in a way that removes all discussion of political agendas. Nothing is said about corporate power. Nowhere is the history of poverty creation (or ecological destruction) given its due as one set of people taking advantage of unilateral power to conquer and steal from other groups of people. Structural causes — the rules-of-play that create poverty and environmental harm — are left out of the conversation.

We can challenge this story by asking critical questions. Reminding people about the structures and history of exploitation. Articulating that a great deal is known about how these problems were caused, so it is possible to actually solve them. But only if we focus on the fundamentals.

Neoliberal Capitalism Is Not Descended From God
The notion that capitalism is the end game, the utopian solution for economies around the world, something we must assume as given and unchanging is naively and dangerously ignorant of history. Hegemonies and paradigms come and go. They have lifetimes. There are discernible patterns of incubation, early growth, maturity, and decay.

We need to understand this if we are to tell a compelling story about the end of capitalism. We can pose historical contexts and begin inquiries. Did the Roman elites think their empire would last forever? What kinds of delusions held sway among the Egyptian pharaohs just before their empire collapsed into oblivion? Why is it so difficult to understand Chinese history? Because there were wave after wave of dynastic orders each rising and falling across the span of deep time.

Our stories can remind people to think with historicity, to remember that to everything there is a season. We can note the increasing number and diversity of commentators who point out that corporate capitalism is subject to evolution (just as all of humanity is — evolution isn’t done, it is still happening).

We see voices among the elites (Paul Mason, Jeremy Rifkin, and others) who paint a picture of capitalism being so successful at wealth extraction that its days are becoming limited. It is literally too good at what it does and is driving productive processes toward “zero marginal cost” where profit-seeking is no longer possible. We see grassroots movements and social uprisings all over the world because the system of today builds its towers of opulence on the backs of the working poor. And we see that human population growth (combined with technological advances) has “made the Earth full” and we simply cannot grow much further before collapse becomes inevitable.

The laws of physics, biology, and economics are all pointing the way to a post-capitalist world. Neoliberal capitalism is a brief period of rapid growth, soon to be followed by collapse and decay — like the cancerous tissue that it actually is. We can tell this story and challenge the hegemony of 20th Century capitalism while calling for the paradigm to emerge that replaces it.

The Moral High Ground of “Greed Is Good”
This story, that rational self-interest is the only and best way to create wealth, is so full of holes that it only exists today because of the power inherent in shadow narratives. It is so vacuous that it can be all around us, lightly touching everything even though it has very little real substance.

We can point out that happiness and fulfilment are not the same as material accumulation. That those who hoard the most are not role-models, they are suffering from a sickness spawned in their constitutional insecurities. That the best way to create and maintain social good is by managing the commons — a set of criteria for collective governance that won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Our inquiry here is into the nature of human nature itself. What kind of creature are we? How does this selfish trait fit within the bigger picture of our profoundly social and moral nature? What kind of future do we truly want? Is it one built on inequality through exploitation? Or is it one built on shared visions and collective effort?

Our Strategy — Inquiries That Birth New Stories

In closing, our narrative strategy is not to “tell a better story.” It is to facilitate inquiry and learning by “asking better questions.” We know that people don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be part of creating something better.


Ask better questions and you will change the world.

We will ask our three questions — using the multi-media forms listed at the beginning of this brief — and do so with the script that outlines our game plan for engaging with different types of players in this conversation. Our measure of success will be the extent to which other people are asking the same questions we are and coming to similar conclusions. Even better will be if they uncover new insights and find better ways to move forward than we could have done on our own.

We know that we don’t know the best way to transform our civilization in the next few decades. We also know that a small group like /TheRules can make impacts much larger than our size by holding tight to the spiritual integrity of humble inquiry for the truth. As we role-model this behavior in our own actions, we just might be of service to others as they make their own inquiries on these, the most important issues of our time.


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Hacking the Sustainable Development Discourse