‘We need to put the world back on track’! The objective of the SDG-summit to be held at the UN General Assembly Meeting in September in New York is very clear. Halfway on the road to 2030, the end date for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the future looks rather bleak. If nothing changes, it may well be that none of the seventeen goals will be met. It would be a serious blow to all UN efforts to build a world of ‘development’, economically, socially, politically and culturally.

One may have serious doubts and criticism about these objectives, but they are among the best our world has ever produced. Whatever the perspective, from North or South, from modernity or post-colonialism, one cannot deny the importance of teaching children to read and write, to have all people live in good health, and to build a world without poverty and with reduced inequalities. Our world is so immensely rich that it is difficult to understand why this does not happen.

Many answers are possible. One may refer to the recent pandemic, to bad governance, to unfair trade and terms of trade, or to the remnants of colonialism. All this may be true though; none of these explanations can be sufficient.

It cannot be denied that colonialism and the slave trade have seriously damaged African societies. But just imagine that all the development theories and programmes made and promised after the Second World War and the decolonisation of the 1960s had come true, would the world not be different today?

Again there are several possible explanations, such as the inadequacy of theories and programmes, their imperfect implementation, or the lack of political will to have them come true.

Just look at the numbers.

In 1971 the first UNCTAD list of ‘Least Developed Countries’ counted 25 extremely poor countries. In 1991 there were 52 already, until now only 6 countries ‘graduated’ and 46 are still on the list. In other words, there are, today, more very poor countries than fifty years ago.

Thirty-six of these countries are commodity-dependent and are net providers of most ecological resources to the world market. However, since 2010 their share of global merchandise exports remains at around 1%, according to UNCTAD.

As for their debt service, it more than tripled since 2011 and absorbs 5 to 13% of the value of their exports. According to World Bank statistics, the headcount for extreme poverty rate is now close to 10%, amounting to more than 700 million people. Even if the Bank pleads for a ‘correcting course’, it does remain with its recommendations to ‘better target’ and ‘promote growth’. And let us not forget that the poverty reduction since 1981 is mainly the result of China’s efforts!

For the first time since the indicators were introduced, human development is declining. The World Bank’s ‘shared prosperity’ works backward: the poorest 40% lost income twice as high as those of the richest 20%. There are setbacks in education and health.

As for inequality, Oxfam states that since 2020, the richest 1% have captured almost two-thirds of all new wealth – nearly twice as much money as the bottom 99% of the world’s population. Billionaire fortunes are increasing by $2.7bn a day, even as inflation outpaces the wages of at least 1.7 billion workers, more than the population of India. Food and energy companies more than doubled their profits in 2022, paying out $257bn to wealthy shareholders, while over 800 million people went to bed hungry. Only 4 cents in every dollar of tax revenue comes from wealth taxes, and half the world’s billionaires live in countries with no inheritance tax on money they give to their children. A tax of up to 5% on the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires could raise $1.7 trillion a year, enough to lift 2 billion people out of poverty and fund a global plan to end hunger.

Faced with all the different consequences of climate change, from droughts to floods, more and more people are trying to migrate, only to clash with racism and the unwillingness of rich countries to help.

This is the state of today’s world.

Old truths

Reading the old texts of the United Nations from the 1960s and 1970s, one is surprised to read about many policies that could indeed ‘correct course’, such as technology transfers, fair prices for commodities, equitable terms of trade, monitoring transnational corporations, sufficient aid, etc. A couple of specific texts such as the General Assembly Declaration on a New International Economic order (NIEO) or the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development are taken up again today because they never had any beginning of implementation and do indeed have very interesting viewpoints.

One can only hope these efforts will lead to policy changes because the current inequalities are simply not sustainable.

In a new document for a New Financial Architecture, the UN Secretary-General states that the current model has failed the stress test and is simply not fit for purpose, it lacks stability and possibilities for long-term financing. Borrowing costs are too high and there is underinvestment in global public goods. He therefore makes new proposals for global economic governance with debt relief, international public financing, global financial safety nets, regulatory measures for capital markets and a global tax architecture.

One obviously can think this does not go far enough but we can be sure that for the ‘Summit of the Future’, planned in 2024, many compromises will have to be made.

The most important point however is the awareness that the current model does not work and that we necessarily have to look for a new development paradigm.

The UN can be an important source of inspiration with its current work and also with its past ideas on the NIEO, the ‘unified approach’ concept (integrating economic and social development), the right to development, the Universal Declaration on human rights with its right to an adequate standard of living, coupled to the important progress at the ILO (International Labour Organisation) concerning labour rights. The recent document of the Human Rights Council on the Right to Development, coupled with social protection can be a real and immediate help.

Another source of inspiration can be found in the efforts made in the starting years of the Soviet Union as well as the many proposals from African leaders in the period up to decolonisation.

All these solutions, though, will require transforming the economic and financial structure.

Shifting geopolitics

The bleak outlook for the poorest countries could make us forget that some countries did do well these past decades. The foremost example is obviously China, but also Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico and some others. The sad thing is that in spite of the economic success, there is not always equal progress in democratic and social terms.

There is also a serious setback in terms of academic research and civil society actions. Research on development stalled, too many people reject the concept as being too ‘western’ or has changed track, passing from ‘improving the world’ to ‘improving people’s lives’. There is nothing wrong with this second perspective, but it cannot succeed if there are no structural changes in how the world is turning around. Development necessarily is a collective endeavour and can never become a reality if the world itself is not ‘developed’. In fact, with its priority for ‘poverty reduction’, introduced in 1990, the World Bank abandoned the development project for countries and societies.

As for civil society, the sad reality is that only a handful of big movements still have a global and systemic agenda, mostly also taking into account the urgent needs of care for the planet. The huge number of smaller movements and organisations are very fragmented, limited to community scales and spreading a moral discourse beyond that. Vijay Prashad calls it ‘neoliberalism from below’.

In brief, it seems there are three important lessons to be learned from the past.

One, development in terms of human rights, basic productive activities, social protection, democracy and cultural expression remains a worthy goal. New theories and new concepts should be developed to revalue the idea and help countries and societies reach their goals. One cannot deny there were real developmental aspirations in all countries that were de-colonized in the 20th century.

Secondly, one should never forget development necessarily comes from within and can never be brought from the outside. Obviously, the international community can help, most of all financially, but governments and societies should decide for themselves what kind of development and what modernity they want.

Thirdly, there is much talk today of strategic autonomy, a concept en vogue. This is very important, though it should never replace the old and important interdependence. This is a primary condition for peace and requires a well-functioning multilateral or unilateral system. The international institutional order should be examined and transformed from this perspective.

Today, there is again a huge gap between words and things, between what the UN and even the World Bank and the IMF preach, and the reality on the ground. This gap should be filled as much as possible. It is the root of many discourses rejecting all kinds of modernisation and development because people reject with good reason the practice of the past. However, they do not reject the ideas. Colonialism and neocolonialism have been very damaging. What is called ‘the West’, responsible for this damage, is currently losing its global influence. Faced with this fact, one should look at the past and at the future. It is far from sure that hegemonic powers will disappear and there is no certainty that the future will be better than the present and the recent past. As for the past, recent research is teaching us that this Western experience is nothing exceptional. For centuries, if not millennia, people have been subdued and exploited.

A very positive and recent development is the growing South-South cooperation. Even if it now lacks a clear democratic dimension, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) initiative could show a different way to take into account people’s real needs and aspirations.

The concept of development, however vilified it may be, still contains an element of utopia, equality, freedom and solidarity. Moreover, it is crystal clear that global development is perfectly possible if there is political will, at the local and national as well as the global level.

A first step should be to support all new U.N. efforts for democratising reform and transformational policies. Moreover, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is 75 years old. It deserves to be put in the spotlights. Most of all, we should stop doing ‘as if’ everything went well and we will soon be back on track. We will not be without a strong and united voice of resistance.