This post is part of our ‘When it clicked’ series. They are stories from people working within the ‘international development’ sector who want to share their experience of challenging the dominant narrative around poverty and development, how it felt and why it’s important to question. Find out more about it here.
I could have been the biggest fan in the world of the SDGs. But I peeked behind the curtain… will you?
Rewind a decade and I was one of the biggest fans of the MDGs. Like the most loved track on your favourite album, I had the education goal on repeat. I would literally walk into work, at the big international NGO where I was based, with a spring in my step thinking about what more we could do to achieve it for children in some of the poorest places on earth.
I was in my mid twenties, buzzing with energy and had a beautiful purpose to throw myself into. It felt like the best of times.
Despite that, I’m so much gladder I know now what I didn’t then.
I f***ing love big, audacious goals. We need them, they energise people, give us purpose and vision. Now with the Sustainable Development Goals we’ve got seventeen — seventeen! — it’s like the best ‘best of’ album ever, hit after hit. End poverty? Hell yeah! No more hunger? Sign me up! Equality for women? Let’s get started already!
As long as you don’t look too hard. And I started looking some time back.
It wasn’t one thing (it never is, right?). But little by little, I began to notice things. Things that didn’t quite “fit” with the comfortable NGO-UN-corporate-government world I inhabited.
I didn’t want hard realisations. I wanted shiny goals alone. But the unvarnished truth is, too often when the world was f***ed, I was complicit. Where I thought the solution lay, I found the problem.
The education campaign I was working so hard on? It was for children in war and conflict. But the government I voted for had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in just a handful of years, not to mention the rest of our foreign policy. We were escalating the very issue I wanted to solve.
My culture was responsible for war too. I’ve stood in villages in Congo where men have been killed, women raped and children kidnapped to be soldiers. It wouldn’t solve it all, but stopping the mad grab for minerals from there that make up the iPhones in our pockets would be a great start.
I work on a climate change campaign now. We often talk about having to “act on” climate change or “deal with” it. But really we have to stop causing it. That’s mostly down to our societies, yours and mine, burning and killing off more and more of the world to feed our lifestyles. (China? they’re mostly just making stuff for us.) I know it’s not nice to hear, but climate change starts heart-and-soul-and-pound-and-dollar-and-euro where we live, although others will feel it worse than us. We can live a better way than this — but not through economic ‘growth’ that’s actually destruction.
Let’s talk money, cos so much comes down to money, right? It blew my mind when I heard… the city I live in, London, is the global home of tax havens and tax income lost to ‘developing’ countries is 3 times more than they get in aid. Yeah, I know, I struggled to accept it at first too. But multinational companies from the West, the ones we could regulate, are screwing Southern countries out of more money than the SDGs will ever bring — fix that and they can turn their own lives around.
And these are just some of the issues we need to confront.
Our well-intentioned benevolence, the posters with sad looking African kids that fill our bus shelters, they mask a much bigger truth needing our attention. Poverty is very, very manmade — often close to home.
We in the West are like a screwed-up boyfriend who’s constantly cheating — no, worse, hitting and abusing — and then trying to make it up with gifts and apologies. The SDGs are the chocolates and flowers that can never make up for the black eyes and bruises of capitalism, conflict and climate.
(While we’re at it, who’s really “developed”? Families I’ve met from Uganda to Guatemala would offer their last food to me, a stranger, yet I barely even know my neighbours. We don’t even pay our farmers the price of the milk we live on. We’re growing unhappier by the day. Who are we to lecture anyone about what makes a good society or economy?)
I’m sure you as an individual are probably not actively trying to do the bad s**t, but we’ve got to wake up.
Stories throughout our culture remind us to take the braver road and look deeper. Jesus told us to pay attention to the plank in our own eye. The Wizard of Oz taught us to work as a team and find the con behind the gloss and glitz of the powerful. The Matrix asked us to take the red pill — open our eyes to what’s truly there, come together and take on the powerful who would deceive and oppress us.
It’s time to listen again to these parables. Things like the Sustainable Development Goals have a childlike wonder because they seem so simple, so pure, so tantalising. But put away childish things: you’re an adult. If you work in international ‘development’ or care about it, I bet you’re an amazing, compassionate, intelligent, ambitious person. Use this goodness, these gifts — there are much bigger underlying challenges that need solving than the SDGs would have you believe.
What I’m asking you is less glamorous, less easy, less comfortable.
But if you believe in real change, this is your mantle to pick up. Ask the difficult questions about power and money and politics, who runs your organisation and for whose benefit.
Don’t settle for the easy answers. Come up with the deeper goals. Strive for the better world you truly believe in.
It’s there waiting for us.
The author of this story is a campaigner based in London who has worked for several major international NGOs.