This article was written, by invitation, for the FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) Journal, Vol. 34, No. 3 Fall/September 2020.
Poverty is not a new issue and ending it is not a new cause. In his January 1949 inaugural address, President Harry Truman launched the U.S. foreign aid program, then called Point Four, to eliminate poverty and thereby block the spread of communism.
In 1959, the end of my senior year of college, I committed my life to that cause. I was 22 and a conservative Young Republican headed for business school. I believed that taking the secrets of America’s economic success to the world’s poor countries would solve the poverty problem. I would have enthusiastically endorsed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as many do today.
Much of my career has tracked the subsequent history of the badly failed global effort to end human deprivation. I lived and worked for 21 of my now 83 years [as of July 30, 2020] as a member of the foreign aid establishment in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Those years included my service as a Ford Foundation advisor to the heads of the world’s leading population programs and later with the U.S. Agency for International Development as a senior advisor to the U.S. aid missions in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Based on what I have learned, I believe the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals need serious revision.
The United Nations launched its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. The SDGs followed in 2019 with 17 targets to be met by 2030. Many of the goals are laudable and obvious, for example “Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” And “Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”
But to reach its goals, the SDGs repeatedly call for “inclusive and sustainable economic growth.” They call for foreign direct investment. They call for “doubling the least developed countries… share of global exports by 2020.” And they call on developed countries to fulfill commitments of 0.7 percent of gross national income for official development assistance…to developing countries.” These are the same policies that bear major responsibility for deepening the suffering the SDGs call on the world to end. Continued economic growth, which economists measure by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is simply not sustainable on a finite Earth. And the overall consequence of development assistance has been to strip the poor of control of their means of living. That is why I cannot endorse or recommend the SDGs
as currently presented.
The 2019 UN document launching the SDGs explicitly acknowledged the failure to achieve the earlier MDGs. It did not mention, however, that the failure had a more than 70-year history. It made no effort to identify and correct the causes of the environmental destruction, concentration of wealth and power, deadly conflict, and loss of institutional credibility that has characterized those years.
The Global Footprint Network estimates that total human consumption is already 1.7 times what Earth can sustain. Yet a substantial majority of the world’s people experience daily desperation attempting—and often failing—to meet essential basic needs. It is now evident that the primary beneficiaries of a growing GDP are the world’s 26 billionaires who now control more financial wealth than the poorest half of humanity, 3.8 billion people.
The economic theories in vogue since shortly after WWII focus on growing consumption, profits, and financial assets without regard to what is consumed by whom for what purpose, who benefits from the profits, or who owns the assets. Known as neoliberal economics, these theories build from false assumptions to produce a flawed ideology that poses as a science to serve the short-term financial interests of billionaires. A theologian might describe neoliberal economics as a religion devoted to money worship and the promotion of the mortal sins of greed and gluttony.
Neoliberal economics embraces GDP as its defining indicator of economic performance. Economic activity counts as a contribution to GDP only if it involves a market transaction, i.e., an exchange of money. War, obsessive materialism, planned obsolescence, and auto dependent infrastructure all grow GDP. But if you and your neighbor each care for your own children and voluntarily help each other out from time to time you contribute nothing. If, however, you charge one another fees for your services then you both contribute to GDP. For most of the human experience, we have lived and organized as tribal and village communities in which we together harvested our own food and water, cared for and educated our own children, and freely exchanged labor to build our homes and care for our fields. Many of us enjoyed rich cultures, lived healthy lives, and experienced greater joy than many people do today. But by the test of GDP, we lived in absolute poverty.
By the logic of GDP, a person becomes economically productive when they separate from their land, family, and community to labor far away from home as agricultural or sweatshop workers stripped of rights, love, and joy to be paid pennies a day by a transnational corporation to produce products for sale to people in distant places. As the process we call economic development unfolds, people suffer. Corporations flourish. And the UN celebrates development’s success in lifting people from “absolute poverty” to an income of a $1.25 or more a day.
The role of debt in advancing this debacle bears special attention. Foreign aid has long featured loans made in foreign currencies to poor countries to facilitate their buying foreign goods and hiring foreign contractors. The earliest such loans supported construction of infrastructure to open farmlands, forests, and minerals to foreign investment, thereby accelerating foreign control and exploitation. The loans were to be repaid in foreign currencies, which could only be earned by selling domestic resources or the products of domestic labor to foreigners who had the money to buy them.
As debts grew, more foreign money was needed to finance repayment of the previous foreign debt and to provide services to the poor who had been stripped of access to their traditional means of living. All the while, the so-called development process shifted ever more control from the poor to the rich. When it became evident that recipient countries had no means to repay their outstanding loans, the IMF and World Bank stepped in to impose “structural adjustment” policies to further facilitate foreign ownership and use domestic resources and labor to produce goods for export to foreign consumers.
By the logic of neoliberal economics, if a country’s people are starving, the answer is to export farm products to get money to import food. Transnational corporations serve as middlemen in both directions. GDP and corporate profits grow. A few local people benefit. Most people struggle to survive.
Debt is an age-old strategy by which the rich consolidate ever more power over the poor: Lure them into debts they can never repay and thereby reduce them to perpetual indentured servitude. In the United States we see this process playing out in ever-growing consumer, student, and medical debt. Many of the hapless debtors can never hope to repay their debts with the low-wage jobs available to them.
Might people living in more traditional ways have benefited from support from richer countries? Certainly. But only if assistance was provided in ways that secured their control of their means of living, built their resilience and that of the resources that sustained them, did not burden them with debt, and did not unleash a human population explosion.
If we had from the beginning followed SDG guidelines for combining basic healthcare and family planning services we might have achieved major improvements in wellbeing while maintaining population stability. That remains a good idea. The call of the SDGs for universal access to communications technologies can be highly beneficial, but only if used to facilitate mutual learning to manage global interdependence through mutual caring and sharing rather than to promote consumerism, corporate profits, and social conflict.
To move forward to a world of inclusive and sustainable wellbeing, we will need to:
- Replace GDP with indicators of wellbeing,
- Achieve an equitable distribution in the ownership of essential assets,
- Break up global corporate monopolies,
- Root power in local communities that are self-reliant in meeting most of their basic needs with their own labor and other local resources, and
- Relieve ourselves and Earth of the burdens imposed by war, advertising, financial speculation, consumerism, unpayable debts, planned obsolescence, human population growth, and an auto-dependent infrastructure.
GDP and corporate profits will decline as the wellbeing of people and Earth grows.
The SDGs merit support only if revised to call out economic growth, foreign debt and investment, and exports from the poor to the rich for what they are—diversions from an essential commitment to inclusive and sustainable wellbeing. To endorse the UN SDGs as currently presented is to endorse the same policies that have brought unconscionable harm to people and Earth since the mid-20th century. The SDGs valid priorities can be achieved only if the contradictions are eliminated and the reasons for development’s monumental failure are clearly and explicitly acknowledged and addressed. Humanity faces a defining and mutually exclusive ethical choice between securing the wellbeing of people and Earth or growing GDP and the financial assets of the already obscenely rich. Life must come before money.
v. Ibid. For sustained or sustainable economic growth see Introduction paragraphs 9, 13, 21, & 27, and Goal 8. For direct investment see goal 10.b. For exports see goal 17.11. For development assistance see goal 17.2.