Excessive suspicion of private-sector interests does not help

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von Hans Dembowski

In defence of the SDGs

I've recently noticed that some civil-society activists and left-leaning observers are disparaging the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Their main point of criticism is that the SDG agenda relies on economic growth and emphasises the role of private sector businesses. I think this reasoning is wrong. Implicitly, the critics suggest that any serious SDG agenda would have to overcome capitalism. The way I see it, it makes more sense to regulate capitalism prudently, and that is indeed what the Agenda demands.

The UN 2030 Agenda was adopted in 2015. It spells out 17 SDGs with 169 targets. It includes the promises to eradicate poverty, leave no one behind and gear economies to sustainable growth. The agenda repeatedly invokes the implementation of all human rights. It also calls on all stakeholders to contribute. It insists that nations must define and implement their own policies for achieving the SDGs.

The agenda is not as strong as one might wish because it is not legally binding. It does not foresee any sanctions for countries that fail to live up to the SDG promises. Regrettably, we do not have a system of global governance that would be strong enough to enforce such things.

Nonetheless, the SDGs are useful even as soft law. They provide us with a universal yardstick to assess countries’ performance. The strong emphasis on human rights shows that the underlying norm is solidarity, both at national and international levels. Anyone interested in global development should not belittle this valuable agenda.

I’ll happily concede that the concept of “sustainable growth” can seem like a paradox in itself. There is an inherent tension between sustainability and growth. Something that grows forever must eventually exceed ecological limits. That said, economic growth does not necessarily mean increased resource consumption. Therefore, the adjective “sustainable” can and should be read as “environmentally sparing” or “ecologically responsible”. What is even more important is that investing in making industries and infrastructures more resource-efficient will in itself drive growth is measured by GDP statistics. In the short or medium term, humankind needs more, not less, investments to make the transition to sustainability, and that means growth. We should consider, moreover, that the world population is still growing, so we will have to feed more people in the future. Sustainable growth is indeed what we need.

It is true that the 2030 Agenda appreciates the relevance of the private sector in this context. That makes sense. After all, the private sector shapes societies and people’s lifestyles. If the SDGs are to be achieved, private businesses will have to play their part. Therefore, I think that paragraphs 67 and 68 of the agenda make perfect sense. They read as follows (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld):

“67. Private business activity, investment and innovation are major drivers of productivity, inclusive economic growth and job creation. We acknowledge the diversity of the private sector, ranging from micro-enterprises to cooperatives to multinationals. We call on all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges. We will foster a dynamic and well-functioning business sector, while protecting labour rights and environmental and health standards in accordance with relevant international standards and agreements and other on-going initiatives in this regard, such as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the labour standards of ILO, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and key multilateral environmental agreements, for parties to those agreements.

“68. International trade is an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction, and contributes to the promotion of sustainable development. We will continue to promote a universal, rules-based, open, transparent, predictable, inclusive, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as meaningful trade liberalisation. We call on all WTO members to redouble their efforts to promptly conclude the negotiations on the Doha Development Agenda. We attach great importance to providing trade-related capacity-building for developing countries, including African countries, least-developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing states and middle-income countries, including for the promotion of regional economic integration and interconnectivity.”

The critics argue that language like this invalidates the entire agenda. Some say that this kind of phrasing limits the SDGs to what is achievable through private sector activity. They insist that market forces will not, by themselves, lead to broad-based prosperity.

I think this interpretation is misguided. The 2030 Agenda does not claim that the private sector will do everything by itself. Rather, its message is that economies must be regulated prudently in order to deliver on the SDG promises. As history shows, those nations which managed to regulate capitalism well performed best in terms of fulfilling all human rights, including civil liberties, social welfare and cultural freedom. Costa Rica, for example, has consistently outperformed Cuba over decades. Capitalism is not the core issue - what is really worrisome is the increasing unwillingness of vested interests and right-wing populists to countenance the reforms that are needed, as I aruged in my blogpost last week

Activists who care about these issues should use the SDGs for their campaigning purposes. The main thrust of the SDGs is what governments must achieve. It is not about the details of implementation, and it is certainly not about enforcing market-fundamentalist orthodoxy. At a point in history when narrow-minded nationalism is gaining force, the SDG yardsticks for assessing a government's performance are valuable. They must be applied.


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