The US election shows us why the SDGs are so important right now

10 November 2016
Articles and blogs
Donald Trump supporters demonstrate on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC on Thursday afternoon, 9 July 2015. Photo: Elvert Barnes CC-BY-NC-ND

The US election result, along with Brexit and the rise of other populist movements and parties around the world, is telling us something: economically open countries have not been able to deliver the right outcomes for too many people.

The return to favour of protectionism and closed borders is an instinctual – and in many ways logical – response to personal insecurity. (See Branko Milanovic’s now famous elephant graph, which shows the plight of the ‘squeezed middle’.)

The world needs new solutions to fix this crisis of confidence in globalisation. This could mean a complete rethink of how economic systems function. Or it means improving, adjusting, and better targeting existing policies; compensating the losers if you can’t prevent the losses; and better understanding what people really want and need.

Enter the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are explicitly designed as a framework for policies that can work better for the most disadvantaged, and they provide a blueprint to heal societies riven with divisions. This applies as much to the US and UK as it does to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Goal 10 sets targets for reducing inequality: one is to progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average. It is now clear that the left and the right, the establishment and new political leaders, need to converge on this issue.

Goal 8 – on full, productive, decent work for all – also cuts across newly re-entrenched political and social divides. Delivering on its targets of achieving full employment, fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, and focusing on labour-intensive sectors, would speak to several of the deeply-held concerns that voters on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed this year.

The SDGs are also the focus for analysis and political impetus around generating better data – data that are disaggregated to the level of the individual. Pollster-sneering should be put into the context that there are significant gaps in microdata in all countries. Under the SDGs’ auspices, there is now a political and technical process in train to better measure what all individuals need.

If politicians are to understand what people really want without having to hear it first from the ballot box, all countries need to invest in better data. Could the data revolution be, at least in part, a response to the current political one?

Finally, ‘leave no one behind’, a phrase repeated by many political leaders and policy makers in the US and UK in the past few weeks, is also baked-in to the global goals’ agenda. Inherent in this is that it’s no longer acceptable to have an intergenerational underclass, and that their concerns must be prioritised.

It would be extremely naive to imagine that incoming US policymakers will see the SDGs as their first port of call in the national policy making process (although Jeff Sachs has set out a thoughtful agenda for interpreting them in the US context).

Nor of course do the SDGs and their ‘leave no one behind’ pledge talk about how these new public goods should be delivered. They don’t provide a solution to the issue of automation, for instance.

But if policy makers, thinkers and campaigners are reaching for a response to the rejection of current political and economic models we’ve seen this week and earlier this year, using the SDGs as a way to frame their analysis and model new solutions would be a good starting point.

Paradoxically, although the SDGs are global, they can similarly be a framework for rebuilding political structures from the local level up.

Villages, towns and cities will be responsible for implementing the goals as much as national governments, and given the autonomy to do it the way they want, may also rebuild trust at the same time.

Governments, both local and national, may also need to introduce specific measures to directly redress anti-globalisation fears (which may or may not be warranted), similar to the immigration fund that initially introduced by the UK Labour Party, and is now being reintroduced by the Conservatives under a slightly new guise to relieve the pressure on public services caused by additional migration.

Iconoclast Bill Easterly has long argued that development means no more or less than how you run your country and conceptualise (or don’t) your society. As the demarcation lines between traditional left-right territory blur, the SDGs may be the post-politics way forward.

If so, that would make the 17 goals and 169 targets a far more palatable vehicle for ‘people power’ than extreme political figures.