Saturday, December 5, 2015

UN Sustainable Development Dreams: More Nice Ideas from the Beacon of Philanthropic Ideology

“The only consequence of inadequate progress on the solutions suggested by a UN summit is usually—another UN summit.”

– William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts[1]

Fifteen years have passed since the UN established the Millennium Development Goals, and here they are with more goals. The MDG’s were supposed to be realized by 2015, and the new Sustainable Development Goals are set for 2030. There are more goals than before, and these ones are more specific. What can be noted by an overview of these goals is that the UN has, if nothing else, gotten better at describing our dreams of world peace and harmony.
My most fundamental concern with these goals involves taking a step back and asking, Who among us really expects them to be accomplished? Is it not much more likely that in 2030 the UN will release another set of goals, perhaps aimed at 2045? I do not see around negative answers to these questions. Their own verbiage seems to even make way for the possibility of failure. William Easterly has called attention to various “escape clauses” in the goals. The 193 leaders that gathered for the summit are not actually bound to any of their commitments, but in fact are given quite a bit of leeway:
The signatories are committed to “respecting national policies and priorities.” The SDGs, we learn in paragraph 55, are only “aspirational,” with “each Government setting its own national targets.” In case you still don’t get this point, Target 17.15 is to “Respect each country’s policy space and leadership”—that is, to do whatever they want regarding the other 168 targets.[2]

The real message seems to be, “All of these things would be nice, so try to live up to them in the coming years.” But when has this not been the case? When has the UN not had grand goals for acquiring future peace and harmony? The story is an all too familiar one: they come out with goals, in the following decade some modest progress occurs in certain areas of the world, the UN takes credit for it, and then when it comes time they make more goals, which are justified by the meager progress “occasioned” by the previous goals. This logic depends on what Easterly calls a “Blank Slate” reading of contemporary situations, in which so-called experts ignore a country’s history and impose a narrative on the country’s situation.[3]
If these goals are not going to result in any remarkable change, we must ask, What are their function? What is it that these goals do for us time after time? Critical analysis of the UN goals, I think, reveals a supremely ideological function. These goals sustain the status quo by inviting us to think that things are getting better and will be ultimately better soon. The character Don Draper in Mad Men, while pitching an advertisement to the Lucky Strike cigarette company, reflects on the nature of advertising in the following way:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that, whatever you are doing…it’s okay. You are okay.[4]

The sustenance of happiness via reassurance that what you are doing is okay is depicted here as the ideological function of advertising. I find the UN development goals to have the same ideological function.
            In springing from an impulse for the privileged to act—to do something, anything—for the underprivileged, the concern of the UN development goals turns out to be not so much for the benefit of the underprivileged, but for the privileged. Bob Gedolf, organizer of the Live 8 concert which supported the movement to end poverty, stated, “Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.”[5] This statement makes one suspect that such movement organizing has more to do with alleviating the guilt of the privileged than alleviating poverty.
            In the recently launched Amazon.Smile program, Amazon committed to donating 0.5% of customer payments to a charity of the customer’s choosing—which means you’d have to spend $10,000 in order to donate $50 to charity. Little to no actual aid is given, and the only thing that changes is that the customer can now moralize and feel good about her consumerism.[6] A similar campaign by Starbucks was tellingly launched with the slogan, “It’s not just what you’re buying. It's what you’re buying into.”[7] Slavoj Žižek comments,
The point is that, in buying [coffee], we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and our global awareness, participating in a collective project.[8]

He calls this phenomenon “spiritualized hedonism.” The UN development goals, I claim, offer the same recompense. We do not need to question the systemic conditions which bring about the problems we address; we do not need to critically analyze our own contribution to the suffering of others; we need only to do something—anything. Or, at least, we need to know that there are organizations and bureaucracies taking care of the underprivileged on our behalf. And, we need to think that the underprivileged view our organizations and bureaucracies as agents of positive change. This is the ideological function UN development goals serve, and it is by this ideology that the status quo is perpetuated, and true change fails to be made.
            I join Žižek in calling for more theory, more critical analysis, and less emphasis on immediate action: “There are situations when the only truly ‘practical’ thing to do is resist the temptation to engage immediately and to ‘wait and see’ by means of a patient, critical analysis.”[9] We need to study the conditions which bring about the problems of poverty, government corruption, et al. We need to answer, How have things come to be this way? Who benefits from the status quo? How have the problems been addressed in the past? What was wrong with how they were addressed? How can we hope to approach the issue better? We need to subject our problems to relentless, scrutinizing analysis. Without comprehensive understandings of the issues we address, history is only going to repeat itself and we will only have more empty UN goals in the future.

[1] William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 206.
[2] William Easterly, “The Trouble with the Sustainable Development Goals,” Current History, November 2015.
[3] See Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts, 129–200.
[4] Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” episode 1, July 19, 2007.
[5] Quoted in William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 17.
[6] See Brady Josephson, “Why Amazon Is Smiling and Charities May Be Losing,” The Huffington Post, December 2, 2013.
[7] Quoted in Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (Brooklyn: Verso, 2009), 53.
[8] Ibid., 54.
[9] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 7.

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