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Food for a mushy thought


Human Rights Reader 387


SDGs: “We must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.” (Pope Francis)


  1. Unfortunately, the Sustainable Development Goal targets shied away from explicitly mentioning the need to address extreme wealth and the need to implement redistributive policies, the latter an essential tool to achieve meaningful widespread human rights (HR) enjoyment the world over.* (CESR)

*: Most of the SDGs are a monument to mushiness and wishful thinking. They give the impression that humanity has only to make a push, and the Goals will be ours. Do the statesmen and bureaucrats behind them live in an international fairyland? Think of all the resources that have gone into producing the SDGs –resources that have come out of official aid and NGO program budgets– and you may rightfully wonder if they could not have been better invested. The impression these fanfares create is that a vast effort to agree an international –sorry, global– agenda means that we are half way there. No wonder people are getting on boats and walking through barbed wire towards a better life. (Maggie Black)


  1. Pushing these Goals as an agenda for providing social safety nets as a response to an economic model that was and still is increasing inequalities is pure madness. The onus now falls squarely on public interest civil society groups to use the SDGs to make decisive course corrections. (S. Fukuda-Parr) No global agreement is going to save the day.** Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.

**: When the former General Assembly President Razali Ismail of Malaysia cautioned in 1996 about the “creeping irrelevance” of big international gatherings, he was almost branded a rebel.


  1. The SDGs-pursued aim of setting up more and more ‘multi-stakeholder platforms’ is clearly ideologically loaded; in them, the private sector is given an equal space and that ends up skewing political decisions to the right. Multi-stakeholder platforms essentially risk making some UN fundamentals voluntary (!). This process is not by chance. It is part of a neoliberal plan to reduce the UN’s capacity to hinder transnational corporations in achieving their plans. The institutions involved expect to be treated as development partners and not as, in the best of cases, donors. The UN can no longer play its critical normative part in development, because it is has to chase funds and align its priorities with those of the donors –almost whoever they are. (Ted Greiner)


In short, in the SDGs, it is as if power does not exist


-The chapter on inequalities nowhere mentions that the problem of poverty is inseparable from the problem of super-wealth; that exploitation and the monopolization of resources by the few is the cause of poverty. (N. Dearden)

All the language in the SDGs frames poverty as a disease: Eradicable, no match for the ingenuity of mankind, but fundamentally nobody’s fault. It is a landscape where everyone is a hero and nobody is a villain; one in which unfair trade agreements, land grabs, structural debt relations, privatization of publicly owned utilities and tax evasion never happened. (M. Kirk)


  1. Mind you, statistical-poverty-reduction is a good deal easier than achieving the needed substantive power-related-disparity-reduction… Consider this: Being multi-dimensionally poor ridicules the (now) $1.9 USD income/capita/day set by the World Bank as a pathetically convenient catchall figure. [So we achieve $2/cap/day and then we have solved the world’s disparity/poverty problem…??].


  1. Yes, in the SDGs there are many calls to pay special attention to the most disadvantaged in society and to adequately meet the needs of mothers and their children, especially the most disadvantaged. But these calls reflect the philosophical position known as ‘prioritarianism’which is favored by all those critical of any type of egalitarianism –the core basis of HR. Prioritarianism is based on a misguided humanitarian concern, i,e., to help to improve the situation of people living in extreme poverty –but without any reference to the need to reduce the appalling disparities underlying it. According to prioritarianism, it is morally most important to help people who are worse off –but not addressing the degree of inequality in the society they live in. What is important from the moral and HR point of view is not that everyone should have the same, but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of less moral consequence whether some had more than others.


  1. Unless you understand that the-poverty-of-some flows from the-wealth-and-power-of-others, efforts to fight poverty will not truly work. As relates to the SDG on poverty, the real problem is that its wish-list comes with no historical background of how we got here, and no political strategy for how we get out of it. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgment of colonial history, of slavery, of racism, of desperately unfair terms of trade, of structural adjustment policies that flushed dozens of countries’ economies down the drain only 20 years ago. Transnational corporations are not really mentioned in the SDGs. But, face it, it is impossible to achieve the targets of the SDGs without tackling corporate power and corporate control of knowledge. Of course this lack of analysis is not accidental. The answer to world poverty cannot be found among the development professionals and celebrities in New York or Geneva. Rather, it will be found among the many thousands of activists, community organizations and social movements who are really confronting power and HR issues in the world –from below. Let us join them. (N. Dearden)


  1. No problem can be solved while political institutions do not recognize that poverty has a disparity-in-wealth-and-power cause (!).


So should we just have poverty eradication goals?


  1. The answer is a categorical No. It is extreme wealth we should be targeting. Imagine: How would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their exploitative (and often tricky) enrichment strategies, their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created through wealth extraction. Any goal in the SDGs that fails to recognize 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. (Z. Williams)


Economic and fiscal policies are usually not openly discussed or reported-on in human rights fora.


  1. Despite the economic growth had in the last decade, in many countries this growth has not resulted in better public services or in better access to social and economic rights or better access to the judicial system for the majorities. Fiscal policy ought to play a transformative role in improving HR and the social and economic life of all citizens. Nevertheless, tax systems continue to be mainly regressive the world over.


  1. Moreover, the criteria used to allocate public funds are anything but transparent. The way and the purposes the state provides waivers, amnisties and tax breaks negatively impacts the state’s revenue collection so that it ends up neglecting funding activities with a potential positive impact on the social and economic rights of citizens thus perpetuating inequality and poverty.


  1. Fiscal policies are public policies and are thus to be accounted for publicly –this having an immense importance in relation to the state’s HR obligations. Therefore, fiscal policies must, from their design and implementation-on, include directives derived from HR principles emanating from HR treaties and from HR jurisprudence.


  1. In his report about the relationship between extreme poverty and HR, the Special Rapporteur for Poverty and HR, Philip Alston, unequivocally called for redistributive measures to be implemented by reforming tax systems to make them decisively more progressive. These reforms are to be considered part and parcel of a new social contract that will respect all HR for society as a whole. He further emphasized that one of the most important necessary steps that the international system of HR must take is to respond in a significant way to the threat of growing extreme inequalities so that disparity reduction becomes part of the HR equation. (CESR)


  1. Finally, to make things contemporary: More than terrorism, extreme poverty causes thousands of deaths every day and leads many human beings, helpless, to abandon their places of origin. Actually, terrorism, extreme poverty …and a falling-apart environment fuel migration. (F. Mayor)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein)

-Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. (Rita Mae Brown)

-We need to stop inventing and reinventing wheels and to start putting wheels on the wagons we have. (Alan Berg)


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