Here is my new piece for Diplomatic Courier in Washington. On The Language of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It turned out to be a bit of a slog to find the original SGD texts, but here they are in the UN General Assembly Resolution adopted on 25 September 2015:

Right in the preamble, the UNGA resolution asserts that “eradicating poverty … including extreme poverty is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement (sic) for sustainable development … bold and transformative steps are urgently needed”.

The word ‘poverty’ occurs 29 times in the resolution, not least in SDG Goal One (end poverty in all its forms everywhere). The word ‘wealth’ only three times. The word ‘rich’ not once.

This is interesting. It seems that it’s important to end ‘poverty’, but not good that we aim to make people everywhere ‘rich’. Don’t we end ‘poverty’ by creating ‘wealth’? Or is there a barely concealed lumpen Marxist subtext here that you ‘end poverty’ only by taking money from ‘the rich’ and giving it to ‘the poor’?

Back in real life that’s not how things work:

What if in fact the way to end poverty ‘urgently’ in the 783 weeks between September 2015 and September 2030 is for a few ‘Western’ corporate behemoths (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple) and some fast-growing Asian conglomerates to help myriad small businesses simply to ignore governments, and help the world’s people link up on their own terms?

Wait. 783 weeks to 2030? That’s not long. Can anything on a scale that matters for global poverty be achieved in such a short period?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Boo! That does not tackle ‘inequality’!

China’s growth creates lots more ‘global inequality’. But isn’t inequality an inevitable if not beneficial part of development? When one country or region forges ahead and gets richer, doesn’t the embarrassment of falling behind incentivise other regions to accept that their policies aren’t working and try a lot harder?

Seems not. Thus the leaden language, now readily analysable thanks to sassy computer technology.

This UNGA resolution glosses over such dreary realities to win support from all the word’s governments, be they good, or adequate, or appalling.

It accordingly is a sprawling text of nearly 16,000 words: 6,400 words of introductory language; 266 words giving in summary form the 17 SDGs themselves: 5,276 words elaborating on targets/themes for each SDG; and 3,758 rambling words on implementation.

What exact words recur, or not?

The dubious word ‘stakeholders’ gets in 13 times, closely followed by the no less shifty expression ‘civil society’ (10 mentions). The useless tautology ‘in order to’ appears 17 times. ‘Corruption’ appears twice. ‘Regulation’ twice. ‘Deregulation’ or ‘privatization’—not at all. ‘Clean energy’ two mentions; ‘nuclear energy’ no mentions.

The text sinks under hundreds of turgid pseudo-Latinised noun forms ending in –tion: desertification, implementation, adaptation, mitigation, risk-reduction, poverty eradication, sustainable industrialization, and so on.

And it even drifts into hippy-style babble:

“We reaffirm that planet Earth and its ecosystems are our common home and that “Mother Earth” is a common expression in a number of countries and regions”



It’s understandable (given the political sensitivities) that the SDGs don’t point out specific successes or not-so-successes. Yet the tone of the SDGs is depressingly old-fashioned. Far too much control; far too little liberation.

SDG Goal 8 assumes that ‘employment’ can be ‘full’ for ‘all’. Back in real life, robots and automation and AI are transforming everything in our lives around the world. Will future generations look back on ‘jobs’ as a baffling example of poor information technology?

Above all, in too many countries corrupt state structures supported by inept international ‘development assistance’ are the main obstacle to development. Where in the SDGs is the praise for the pell-mell technology-led private creativity that in Asia and now across Africa is setting millions of people free from the blundering state bodies that for decades have been holding them back?

Answers anyone?