The Language of the Sustainable Development Goals

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Written by Charles Crawford

In September 2015 the UN General Assembly proclaimed (UNGA resolution A/RES/70/1) the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

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.

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.

Look at how China and India have changed over the past 30 or so years. Significant proportions of all the poor people on Earth live in these two huge countries: how they tackle development has a strategic impact on global development numbers.

Back in 1990 both countries had large poor populations subsisting on an average of less than $400 per person, per year, but with India’s GDP per capita a clear notch ahead of China’s. Since then China has soared ahead towards $8,000 per person, with India trailing at some $1,500 per person. These two countries had roughly equal (and equally modest) total GDPs in 1990. China’s is now hurtling beyond $11 trillion, while India has passed only $2 trillion.

China’s accelerating advantage has taken place in the past 15 years or so—in just 750 weeks! Wealth-creation on this scale and pace is quite unprecedented in human history. It sets a formidable operational and philosophical example to other governments on what works, or not.

How has that miraculous Chinese development happened? Could it be down to the liberating effects of what might loosely be called ‘capitalism’? Where poverty drags on, what exactly is happening or not happening, and why?

Note too that 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?

A startling example of sustained state-sponsored stupidity is the contrasting development outcomes achieved by Singapore and Cuba over long decades. In 1960 both were very poor islands. Singapore’s per capita GDP is now $50,000 per head. Cuba’s per capita GDP stagnates well below $10,000.

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.

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?

About the author: Charles Crawford CMG is an award-winning speechwriter. He worked for 28 years in the U.K. Diplomatic Service including three postings as British Ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw before starting a private consulting career in communication technique. He is the author of Speeches for Leaders, available worldwide in Kindle format and in print in North America.