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How to hack the mainstream discourse on ending poverty


How to feel good about poverty

The Rules team have initiated an ambitious campaign to ‘hack’ the official logic of the Sustainable Development Goals, in which they highlight the true reality of poverty and point the way towards real solutions for a fair and sustainable world.

In less than three weeks’ time, the world’s heads of state will gather at the United Nations in New York to officially adopt the post-2015 development agenda, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A massive publicity machine will soon move into gear to promote the good news of this global plan of action, which on the surface appears truly laudable in its quest to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet”. But is the high-minded and progressive rhetoric everything it’s cracked up to be, or is there more to this ‘feel good story’ of progress than meets the eye?

According to the campaign group The Rules, there’s so much wrong with the SDGs process that its 17 goals and 169 targets are not only misleading and inadequate, but even dangerous. They argue that while the SDGs represent a significant step forward by aspiring to completely eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, the new agenda fails to provide an answer for how to realise its objectives within the means of our shared planet. While the overarching goals themselves have always been attainable, there is a delusion at the heart of the SDGs process that suggests we can achieve them without challenging dominant economic interests and radically overhauling the status quo.

Hence the danger that hides behind the noble intentions: by playing along with the star-studded narrative that subtly tells us ‘the world is getting better and there is nothing wrong with business-as-usual’, we risk locking in the global development agenda “for the next fifteen years around a failed economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes”.

The bigger questions                          

For these reasons, The Rules team have initiated an ambitious campaign to ‘hack’ the official logic of the SDGs and reframe the narrative on eradicating global poverty. Rather than buying into the mainstream story that we can “end poverty and hunger everywhere” by 2030 within the defunct economic paradigm of endless growth and debt-fuelled consumption, they have proposed a contending set of questions that encourage engaged citizens to see how the SDGs cannot possibly succeed within the existing political context.

As Joe Brewer explains in his piece on Hacking the SDG Discourse, these three basic questions can help us to acknowledge the root causes of poverty and environmental harm, thereby focusing on the bigger picture issues of power and politics that also point towards the real solutions to our civilisational crisis. Anyone can use these scripts to contradict the ‘feel good story’ of progress and reframe the fundamental issues. In so doing, we can also become more hopeful and empowered if we are asking the same questions, reaching similar conclusions and embracing a shared vision of a better world. To quote one of The Rules' maxims: "To fix a problem, you first have to know why it exists".

Click on the links above each question to see the short video animations that neatly summarise each one. See also the infographics further below that succinctly illustrate some of the key points of analysis and highlight the true reality of poverty and hunger, which sharply contradicts the received wisdom of global development. You can also sign The Rules’ open letter to the United Nations that declares how the SDGs are not in fact representing the best interest of the world's majority – “those that are currently exploited and oppressed within the current economic and political order”.

How Is Poverty Created? #PovertyIsCreated
"Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?"

Who’s Developing Who? #WhosDevelopingWho
"The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?"

Why Is Growth The Only Answer? #WhyGrowth
"The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?"

Further resources:

The story of poverty – The Rules

How To Feel Good About Global Poverty, by Martin Kirk, Fact Co.Exist

Hacking the SDG Discourse: A Narrative Strategy for Changing the Story of Global Development, by Joe Brewer, Medium.com

Who Framed Global Development? Language Analysis of the Sustainable Development Goals, by Joe Brewer, SlideShare

Three Ways Humans Create Poverty, by Jason Hickel, Joe Brewer, and Martin Kirk, Fact Co.Exist

SDGs and the Problem with Saving the World, by Jason Hickel, Jacobin