Poverty Goals? No, It's Extreme Wealth We Should Be Targeting
If we had focused on the real causes of poverty over the past 30 years we probably wouldn’t need the United Nations’ sustainable development goals now
By Zoe Williams / theguardian.com
Illustration for UN sustainable development goals by Robert G Fresson

‘If the problem facing the UK economy had been identified as the destabilising effects of extreme wealth, how long would it have been before the wealthy themselves came to be scrutinised?’ Illustration: Robert G Fresson

The sustainable development goals – 17 in all, starting with “end poverty, in all its forms, everywhere” – were officially adopted at the UN in New York last month. Celebrities approved immediately, experiencing the goals as a kind of moral brand-building exercise, choosing their favourite and inviting fans to favourite it too.

The pope was a little more reserved, issuing the thought-provoking, slightly wordy critique: “We must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.” But the mood overall was triumphant – the millennium development goals had worked, repaying the ambition of the international community last time around, so why not think even bigger?

If the pope and a few rogue academics expressed unease, it took a whimsical Swedish electro band to get to the root of the problem. The Knife produced a graphic novella announcing a new millennium goal: end extreme wealth. “As we all know,” says a UN official with a forbidding fringe, “extreme wealth is a huge problem in this world.”

“Sometimes I felt overwhelmed with hopelessness,” adds a UN researcher. “Many of these people live in a very limited environment … their lives are restricted by old traditions and cultural ideas about how to live. For example, Ben, a 45-year-old, very wealthy man: his life revolves around very trivial things. He collects antiques similar to how the squirrel collects nuts.”

Here, rushing towards your face like the ground after a pratfall, is everything that’s wrong with sustainable development goals – the reason their hopeful language sounds so tinny and unconvincing, the reason dyed-in-the-wool atheists find themselves siding with the pope, even when he isn’t entirely explicit about his objections.

The international community, having first established that it speaks for everyone (The Future We Want was the title of the foundational document from Rio – as though challenge or dissent, if it came, would be from those opposed to modernity), proceeded to look through the wrong end of the telescope. It is impossible to fixate on an income problem – whether a low income or a high one – without finding implicit fault in the people who are on that income.

The pope

 ‘The pope was reserved, issuing the thought-provoking, slightly wordy critique: ‘We must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.’’ Photograph: AGF srl/Rex Shutterstock

Furthermore, as Martin Kirk from the activist network the Rules pointed out, all the language of sustainable goals frames poverty as a disease: eradicable, no match for the ingenuity of mankind, but fundamentally nobody’s fault. It is a landscape where everyone’s a hero and nobody’s a villain; one in which unfair trade agreements, land grabs, structural debt relations, privatisation of publicly owned utilities and tax evasion never happened.

Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created though wealth extraction. Any goal that fails to recognise this is not only unlikely to succeed, but can only be understood as a deliberate act of diversion, drawing attention away from what might work; in its place, the anodyne, fairytale language of hope, in a post-ideological world where all politicians just want what’s best and a billionaire is just a benefactor you haven’t met yet.

 

Joe Brewer, also for the Rules, undertook an analysis of the language of growth in the sustainable goals. GDP, perpetually growing by no obvious means beyond enthusiasm, is the principle, indeed the only driver of poverty eradication – as well it might be, once it has obliquely been established that you’re not going to do anything about wealth extraction, either by governments or by corporations.

Corporations don’t feature at all in the report, even while many have more wealth and greater reach than governments and indeed an ever more important“partnership” role in the UN. The glaring contradiction is between relying on endless growth to end poverty while at the same time taking “urgent action to combat climate change” (goal 13), and vowing to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems” (goal 15).

The incompatibility was pointed out in trenchant and unarguable language by the economist David Woodward, one of the UN’s own senior advisers. And yet Incrementum ad Absurdum (as Woodward’s paper was called) does indeed appear to be the plan: grow your way out of poverty while simultaneously shrinking your way to sustainability.

United Nations building in New York

 The United Nations’ sustainable development summit - which coincided this month with the 70th anniversary of the UN. Photograph: Li Muzi/Xinhua Press/Corbis

These basic assumptions – poverty is the problem, growth is the answer, climate change can be tackled separately to consumption, and corporate behaviour is neither here nor there – extend far beyond the UN, into political cultures everywhere.

One is constantly told, on the progressive side, that social democracy has had its day because people generally have become meaner; attitudes to poverty have hardened, and generosity has withered, the man on the street is actually very judgmental about people who can’t support themselves or their families. But how would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? If the problem facing the British economy had been identified as the destabilising effects of extreme wealth, how long would it have been before the wealthy themselves came to be scrutinised?

“He and his family,” the Knife’s researcher continues, of the High Net Worth Individual Ben, “are caught in a vicious circle of wanting more and more crap. They have very little or no concept of what democracy is.”

Asking questions about the rich has been portrayed since the dawn of wealth as envy; asking questions about the poor is considered practical and sympathetic, moral and problem-solving. But no problem can be solved while political institutions won’t recognise that poverty has a cause.

4.0 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 7,787 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 6,660 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
The Orwellian War on Skepticism
Robert Parry · 5,770 views today · Official Washington’s rush into an Orwellian future is well underway as political and media bigwigs move to silence Internet voices of independence and dissent, reports Robert...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 4,833 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Projext X: Using Leaked Documents to Reveal the NSA's New York Spy Hub, Hidden in Plain Sight
10 min · 3,935 views today · A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on...
Where Do You Draw the Line? (2016)
60 min · 3,025 views today · Why is the Ecuadorian government proposing to extract oil in an area frequently classified by ecologists as one of the most bio-diverse rainforest regions left intact on earth?...
Twelve Things To Remember After The US Election, From Front Line Organizers
Bill Quigley · 2,132 views today · When you find yourself in a suddenly darkened room, what do you do?   Some rush blindly to where they think the door might be.  Others stand still, let their eyes get...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,932 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 1,681 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 1,264 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,169 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,028 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 787 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 723 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Why We Need Big Picture Activism
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 569 views today · Despite the countless grassroots projects already under way, the global economic juggernaut can seem too powerful to stop. But because more and more of us are becoming aware of...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 456 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
Dreaming Beyond Capitalism: a Culture Without Fear
Martin Winiecki · 410 views today · In the 1990s an unusual encounter took place in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In plant rituals, shamans of the Achuar, a tribe living in pristine forest that had never been in touch...
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 365 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 343 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 318 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Poverty Goals? No, It's Extreme Wealth We Should Be Targeting