Politics in the Way of Progress: The seventeen—seventeen!—sustainable development goals are: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and "Partnerships for the Goals https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_Development_Goals.
It is clear to me that seventeen is too many. Napoleon is supposed to have said: "he who defends everything defends nothing". Similarly, those who prioritize everything prioritize nothing.
The point to having goals and forging a consensus about what those goals are is to find goals working toward which carries you onto and then rapidly along the turnpike: you make faster progress in key areas, and then, when you later get off the turnpike and head to your various final destinations, you find you have gotten there faster and easier than if you had not taken the turnpike. Consensus goals should not be a wish list of everything that will be when the New Jerusalem descends. Consensus goals should be directions to the turnpike.
Can we make progress by taking a look at what people are warning against? Against what people fear will be wrong turns taken as we try to get to the turnpike are people giving warnings? Perhaps we can. For example:
Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sdgs-global-cooperation-trump-un-speech-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2017-09 fear "technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality", but above all they fear "populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism". They see us as in a world in which "the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives... [and so] paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing... [while] both democratic and authoritarian governance have failed to promote equitable development..." And they conclude that with "no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods... no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace... [and with] the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states, achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible."
Mark Suzman https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/better-data-for-gender-equality-by-mark-suzman-2017-09 fears that we do not have enough information to even figure out how the world as a whole is misusing its female more-than-half. The world as a whole has over the past two centuries shifted away from the high infant mortality world that saw the typical woman spend roughly five years pregnant and ten years nursing to our low infant mortality world. Yet patriarchy continues to block women, so that they do much less than they could do. But how can development progress if we cannot even see where, exactly, the most important patriarchal blockages are?
Michael Spence https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/tackling-non-inclusive-growth-by-michael-spence-2017-09 warns that "non-inclusive growth patterns... fail.... They underutilize and misuse valuable human resources... give rise to political or social turmoil... polarization... wide policy swings... policy paralysis.... Sustained growth requires a coherent, adaptable strategy that is based on shared values and goals, trust, and some degree of consensus... requires a discontinuous leap in expectations and policies..."
And Kaushik Basu https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/reversing-india-growth-slowdown-by-kaushik-basu-2017-09, focusing on India, calls for "identif[ying] specific economic sectors to boost.... with health and education... particularly promising... India’s medical tourism industry... a hub for higher education. For the government, the imperative is to create more regulatory space and provide a facilitating ethos for the private sector..."
The message comes through clearly, to me at least: politics and people—and a politics of people. We have a world today that is richer, astonishingly richer, per capita than in any previous generation. It should be easy for us, collectively, to get people the nutrition and the health care they need to enable all to live full lives. It should be straightforward for us, collectively, to get people the education and connection so that they can easily learn both how to utilize our gigantic technological and other resources and where they can make useful contributions. And it should be obvious to us all—even the richest—that their old ages will be much more comfortable and their grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's lives much more secure and richer in a world in which today's rich pay the taxes to enable truly equitable growth.
But there seems, underneath, by all of those writing the most intelligent contributions to the SDG debate, the same great fear: the fear that those with an eye for plausible political confidence jobs will rally the world's rich who have benefited most from inequitable growth with those non-rich who feel that something they deserved has been taken from them. We see this in America, where every hour on Fox News you can see blame attached to Mexican auto-parts workers in Hermosillo, immigrants from El Salvador, Muslims in general, native-born non-whites who are insufficiently grateful, and "globalists" who in an earlier age would have been called "rootless cosmopolites". But we see this all around the globe.
And I think that we—at least the "we" who read these commentaries, who are overwhelmingly from the top 50% of the Global North and the top 20% of the Global South—need to recognize and say that every opportunity that we are all lucky: some of us have more than others, but we all have much more than we deserve. And than I think we should stop thinking in terms of "deserve" at all. And I remember a character in a long-ago science fiction novel by Ursula K. LeGuin https://amzn.to/2xIuDCc, Odo, who said:
For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think...