How the SDGs are being highjacked and what to do about it

By Marie-Luise Abshagen, German NGO Forum on Environment and Development

The use of the SDGs as a reference in the political discourse has more or less become quite a mainstream thing to do. We can see this in domestic policies, on the EU level as well as in international processes. This can be a good thing. It means we can have a discussion on this global plan of action, without having to spent time to convince our political counterpart of the validity of this framework.

Nevertheless, after three years of the 2030 agenda, we still see little willingness to go about it and actually start doing what is written in the SDGs. We see lots and lots of talk. And, what might be even worse, we see that the SDGs are increasingly being misused for inherently unsustainable structures and processes, and that they are being captured by those who are not the least interested in changing the current status quo.

The SDGs, for example, have become a justification for agribusiness worldwide. Even though it has been proven false that highly-productive agricultural systems through resource intensive, GMO-based industrial farming can achieve the objectives of decreasing hunger, malnutrition and poverty – these have also been the cause of the worldwide destruction of ecosystems and livelihoods. Yet, corporations, governments and international institutions argue big agribiz will help implement the SDGs.

We also find the goals as a rationale behind the push to mine the oceans’ mineral resources. In this deceptive logic, deep sea mining is being framed as a sustainable form of resource extraction necessary to achieve a renewable, fossil free energy system – and thus necessary for the better of humanity. Conveniently, its supporters, among them many governments as well as UN bodies, leave out the fact that there cannot be any sustainable mining in the oceans. Every intrusion will inevitably destroy biodiversity, the relevance of which for the earth’s systems, the food chain and eventually for humans we cannot even begin to fathom.

Banks, monetary institutions, economists, development agencies, governments – all of them link the SDGs to economic empowerment and sustainable growth. Yet, we know that the global economy is not working for the vast majority of people. The gap between rich and poor, between and within countries continues to grow at a worrisome trend. Even in the richer countries, many are beginning to feel this gap. Those in the Global South have lived with this reality for decades and centuries. How is it that hardly anyone dares to challenge the logic of implementing the SDGs through economic growth with yet again the same development tools? Isn’t it absurd to believe that in order to end poverty we need to install the same kind of economy we know to actually be the main driver for poverty. Or is one only a proper citizen of the world if you are a digitally connected entrepreneur?

Finally, speaking of corporations – four in ten of the world’s largest companies already reference the SDGs in their corporate reporting. Does this really make them more sustainable? Should we trust in partnerships with these multinationals, simply because they have understood the modern sustainability narrative and included some form of SDG reference into their business plans, reporting or PR campaigns? I would argue not, if this does not change business practices as a whole – which means opting out of their consumption driven business model based on ever more resources and cheap labor and as little regulation as possible.

The 2030 agenda has become a sort of endorsement for some of the most problematic processes in our current economic system. Just slap on the SDGs, and people won’t be suspicious of the validity of what you are doing.

In some ways, this is the fault of the SDGs themselves. They are not by nature a progressive text but highly subjective to interpretation, full of contradictions. If you believe in the current economic model, the SDGs can be your go-to guidelines. Similarly, if you want to achieve progressive change, they are a projection screen for almost any political strategy you might be following.

It is so very important to understand this properly and to actively act against it. The logic of big singular and mainly economically driven solutions has again and again proven to be false, and only leading to more profits for the already rich elites. This cannot be what we agree to when we call for the implementation of the SDGs.

For all of us, the leading question has to be: What kind of development and sustainability model am I actually (maybe involuntarily) promoting? We have to be careful using the goals the right way and not to fall into a system reassuring role. All to happily governments use NGOs and other civil society actors to support their own policies. And while it is good in some cases and necessary in others for us to play the cooperative part, we must be careful not to lose our power of opposition and to apply pressure where change is so urgently needed.

If we don’t refuse the debt-driven economic model with its one-size-fits-all solution, if we don’t defy the idea that the key to protecting nature lies in a more efficient use of ever new resources, and if we don’t reject the notion that technologies will save us from ourselves simply because humans will be smart enough to finally invent that one thing to solve our crises – the story of the SDGs will not be a happy one.

We must be aware of the flaws of the SDGs, the way they are being used and by whom. We must carefully and continuously set the narrative around them. We must constantly challenge our partnerships with other stakeholders. This also means to reflect on our own communication strategies and political practices.

The good news: In order to reduce inequalities and protect the planet, most of the steps are clear to all of us. Whether we argue within the capitalist norm or not. Solutions range from alternative money systems to a financial transaction tax, from cooperative economies to binding regulations on multinational companies, from establishing protected areas with the help of indigenous communities to cradle-to-grave resource usage and production systems.

It is our responsibility to link real change to the SDGs and challenge anything that only pretends to be.

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