The glitter has settled over New York, celebrities and world leaders have flown home and the party is over. A week after the adoption of the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, we take a moment to reflect on the Global Goals and the efforts of The Rules community to question their dominant narrative that economic growth at all costs and a few technical fixes can end global poverty by 2030.
Our intention for the ‘How To Feel Good About Poverty” campaign was to stage an intervention that “opened up the mental space for inquiry among development professionals and change agents working to address systemic threats to humanity.”
The strategy involved weakening the core logic of development-as-usual by challenging its assumptions and revealing cover, unpopular agendas; and asking three questions designed to open up the conversation to a new set of stories by initiating people on a learning journey that revealed the structural causes of poverty and inequality.
To-date /TheRules community has written over 25 blogs and articles and created a collection of videos, infographics and memes challenging the narrative of the SDGs. We’ve also seen and spread many more from the community and allies drawing on the same three key questions:
- How Is Poverty Created?
Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?
- Who’s Developing Whom?
The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?
- Why Is Growth The Only Answer?
The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?
So where are we now?
It’s no surprise that this has been another campaign of twists and turns and a great deal of learning, de-learning and relearning for all of us; support, solidarity, relief, resistance, denial and anger have all played a part along the way.
However, with friends and allies our questions about the story of poverty have been told and heard. With relatively limited financial resources compared to those telling the dominant ‘good news’ story, we’ve mobilised those both within and outside of the global development ‘system’ to be the mosquito that agitates the elephant.
We’ve seen these questions popping up all over the place, in The Guardian, FastCo, Daily Nation, Vice Motherboard, Jacobin, The Nation, African Arguments, Pambazuka News, Truthout, The Conversation, Humanosphere, Occupy and many more. Our open letter to the United Nations appeared in the Huffington Post signed by Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler, Medha Patkar, Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges and many others.
Our measure for success was the extent to which other people are asking the same questions and coming to similar conclusions. We also hoped that they would uncover new insights and find better ways to move forward than we could have done on our own.
The fact that the animations have been watched nearly 200,000 times and that the campaign reached more than 2.8 million people on social media is exciting. The hundreds of emails, comments and conversations we’ve with people around the world, including those directly involved in the SDG process and those who are opposed to our campaign, have been transformational and inspiring. Who knows how far this small ripples might spread.
Here’s just a flavour of what’s been said:
“Seriously. Why do you want to piss everyone off. I’m trying to pitch new biz in the London development sector and they keep asking me if I know you ;)”
“A million LIKES for all that you are posting! Having worked on the MDG’s and now having been a bit involved with the SDG’s (my focus is on HOW will they actually be implemented and monitored) these posts are like water to a dry plant! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for doing all of this great work!!!!”
“This really makes me want to question situations more of why’s this this way or that way.”
“The negativity of your campaign and lack of solution is so detrimental to people like me who are doing their best within the current confines (and finding new ones) to see equality, opportunity and access for all.”
“Thank you. This is great. Agree! I will use it in class with my Political Sociology 2nd year sociology students.”
The SDGs have seemingly set the agenda for global development for the next fifteen years, but our work has only just begun. We’ll continue to ask questions, we’ll continue to listen and feel our way into new ways of challenging narratives and reframe ‘business as usual’ when it’s only working for the few.
We also reaffirm the commitment we made at the very outset of the ‘Poverty is Created’ campaign:
“We know that we don’t know the best way to transform our civilization in the next few decades. We also know that a small group like /TheRules can make impacts much larger than our size by holding tight to the spiritual integrity of humble inquiry for the truth. As we role-model this behaviour in our own actions, we just might be of service to others as they make their own inquiries on these, the most important issues of our time.”