Ever since the early 1990s the international development consensus has fixed itself to the idea that development can be achieved alongside human rights. For even longer – at least since the Brundtland Commission report in 1987 – the development community has also essentially, though at times uncomfortably, embraced the parallel concept of “sustainable development”.
Unlike human rights, however, quite what sustainable development means in any given context is pretty unclear. Perhaps driven by the perception that human rights don’t need to challenge the prevailing political-economic consensus – while sustainable development could – we have had Millennium Development Goals addressing human rights since 2000 (along with one goal addressing sustainability that has been far from successful). Conversely the international community has only just got round to considering which Sustainable Development Goals it might like to see in writing, for the first time placing sustainability front and centre.
Justine Greening, International Development Secretary, has made clear that she supports the amalgamation of the two apparently distinct sets of goals. This is largely a good thing. Keeping development goals and sustainability goals distinct would have been more likely to lead to a situation in which Development continues to be privileged over Sustainability. She had this to say:
“There should be one set of development goals that enables us to discuss what the priorities should be… It is not sensible to have competing frameworks and the risk that we won’t succeed on either.”
This is not to say, however, that any set of conjoined goals would represent a positive move forward. Much depends on their content. In this respect Ms Greening had more to say:
“No doubt there will be challenging discussions to have [on human rights] and there will be red lines they [some developing countries] won’t go beyond.”
It’s not wholly clear what she meant. Perhaps most visible are the differences in opinion over things such as homosexuality. Both Liberia and Uganda currently, or intend to, criminalise homosexuality. It’s clear that Western nations may struggle to convince countries such as Liberia that they’re in the moral minority.
But I think it goes further than this. A good example is child labour. It’s commonly said that child labour is a vile thing. It’s also said, not quite as commonly, that it’s the best we can hope for in certain countries. Child labour offers a welcome break, we’re told, from child poverty. But this is a bad rationalisation. We simply move the analysis from the problem to the symptom. We try to make child poverty better by allowing those children to work for our corporations for low, but real, wages. Local elites do well and so do we. But the children, in at least relative terms, don’t. At no point do we address the real problem: why those children remain trapped in poverty.
A rights-based approach to development presumes that we adhere to a reasonably universal set of standards. It suggests that we must care about other nations and societies because rights are something that, in many respects, we share. Another word for this is ‘solidarity’.
Consider, against this, what Ms Greening said. She mentioned – pointedly – that the emphasis would remain on absolute poverty reduction. Quite apart from whether or not you believe that the better short-term goal is relative or absolute reduction of poverty, these proposed goals are intended to represent a mid- to long-term approach towards sustainable and equitable development. Fixatedly concentrating on absolute poverty concedes a significant part of that goal. What Ms Greening is implying is that she is content to set development policy that continues to embody the view (i) that each developed country arrived at where it is today solely through its own effort and only by earnestly pulling on its own hypothetical bootstraps, (ii) that it is acceptable for “us” to live the lives we lead while “the others” must keep trying, and (iii) that we will make nominal efforts to help out but only so long as those efforts don’t require us to address the largely unrecognised – though with some notable exceptions – excesses within our own societies.
This, alongside the explicit focus on growth and competition laid out by David Cameron, suggests what is really at the heart of this. We – so we are told – must strive to remain competitive. Only through being competitive can we hope to hold on to the level of consumption that we now take for granted. At its simplest competition assumes winners and losers: some countries will inevitably compete better. And this competition is not an entirely fair one. Resource-rich but otherwise-poor countries will be coerced into parting with their resources for short-term wealth but long-term poverty. Rich but resource-poor countries buy the resources of their neighbours and allies to ensure their populations the very best. The rich countries, consuming the resources of an area many times their size, deny to other poorer countries those same resources. On the assumption that resources and technology are finite we come up against mostly-immovable limits to growth. If growth is limited, and some countries have more of it than others, then growth is – and will always be – unevenly divided, both within and between countries.
What is left unsaid by Ms Greening is that to achieve a form of sustainable development – one that represents a socially just compromise as well as a sensible long-term solution that will preclude the possibility of climate-related violence – will require a much more explicit acknowledgment of the need for much greater equality, particularly between countries. This kind of equality – on such a grand scale – inevitably will have to pull in more than one direction: those at the bottom are pulled up while those at the top level off and drop back. “Levelling down”, this is frequently called. But escape the pejorative, and consider the facts, and it ought to become clear that our present model for development, that everyone can – even should – be like us in the West, is at best plainly unsustainable and at worst a beguiling deceit.
This is not just an apologia for regimes that are abusive to minorities, it is an apologia for our place in the world. We must hope that Ms Greening’s words are lost in translation when Mr Cameron takes up his role chairing the UN High-Level Panel on the Development Goals, which is to report back in May next year. My fingers are crossed.