Myths about the Sustainable Development Goals

Myths about the Sustainable Development Goals

As we head into the last half of the UN’s Agenda 2030, my progressive friends and colleagues continue to denounce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as “neoliberal” or even “the continuation of coloniality and a legitimisation of a global capitalist system”. Students tell me that the SDGs are a “Western” or a “Northern” agenda, imposed on an unwilling South by an all-powerful West (or North, depending on your preferred geographical metaphor). While I agree – and can demonstrate – that the SDGs are not universally accepted in the Global South, they are not universally accepted in the Global North either. Unhelpful and even dangerous myths about the SDGs continue to proliferate. My friends on the left are making a serious mistake in denouncing an imperfect but nonetheless progressive development agenda.

Many of the myths about the SDGs are easily dismissed. Claim that the SDGs are “neoliberal” amount to little more than ideological posturing by the speaker, since the term “neoliberal” means little other than “I’m on the left and I don’t like that”. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that the SDGs promote privatisation and free markets. Yet in all of its 35 pages, General Assembly Resolution A-RES-70-1 contains no references to either and only a single reference to trade liberalization and two references to public-private partnerships. That resolution does, however, contain dozens of references to poverty, gender, sustainability and the environment.

The claim that the SDGs are “Northern” or “Western” is empirically false. Many of the ideas and the scholars and activists behind the SDGs were from the Global South and were “deeply influenced by their local context or point of origin”.  The reaction to these “ideas from below” by the Global North was often tepid at best, hostile at worst. These Southern activists and scholars were “often dismissed or downgraded in the West”, and by decolonial critics in the Global North and South. Critics of the SDGs forget the long, hard struggles of Southern social movements in the 1980s and 1990s to get the promoters of the Washington Consensus to even talk about poverty, the environment, health, education or gender.

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The decolonial literature usually portrays the ideological and persuasive power of “Western” or “Northern” nations in a way that attributes to it an “almost undefeatable capacity to bend the will of the colonised… (and) denies or at least discounts the agency of the colonised”.  Recalling that the SDGs were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2015, I have to ask how the West succeeded in imposing its allegedly iron will on North Korea and Cuba to get them to vote for the “neoliberal” and “capitalist” SDGs, when the West cannot get those countries to do anything else it wants them to do. Ditto for many other countries that regularly refuse to bend to the West’s will: China, India, Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe…

The story of a united West imposing the SDGs on the rest of the world is also false. In the run-up to the 2015 election, Canada’s Conservative government argued against the SDGs, saying they were too numerous and diffuse. Canada also opposed the principle of the universality of the SDGs, arguing that the post-2015 development agenda should focus on developing countries. Under pressure from other countries, and in the midst of an election campaign that they were losing, the Conservatives decided to avoid controversy and voted for the SDGs. In so doing, they evoked criticism from the libertarian right wing (aka the people who really are neoliberal).

Since 2015, the Conservatives’ Liberal successors have barely even spoken to Canadians about the SDGs. When Prime Minister Trudeau talks about the SDGs on his website, it is almost always in relation to countries outside Canada or to Canada’s aid program. Colleagues working to influence Canada’s domestic environmental policies tell me they never use the SDGs to justify their policy recommendations, since both the Liberals and key public servants see the SDGs as pertaining only to things overseas. The Liberals don’t believe in the universality of the SDGs any more than do the Conservatives.

Nor is Canada alone in this. In the UK, the Conservative Party is much less SDG-friendly than the other parties. That paragon of development orthodoxy, the World Bank, has an ambivalent attitude toward the SDGs, as it did with their predecessor, the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). In early 2024, the Bank did not even mention the SDGs on the home page of its website.

As for the USA, it voted for the MDGs and the SDGs, but only at the end of Clinton’s and Obama’s second terms, when the President could not seek re-election. It is far from obvious whether even a more mainstream Republican administration would have voted for the MDGs or the SDGs. The Bush 41 Republican administration (2001-2009) was hostile to the MDGs, dismissing them as a UN “secretariat product”. The Trump administration (2017-21) did nothing to support the SDGs and much to undermine them. The core values of the SDGs – “universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination”, “gender equality”, and “collaborative partnership” amongst others – are simply anathema to the political right in America.

Myths are often harmless. But the left’s anti-SDG stance depends on unfounded myths and is ill-advised, misdirected and dangerous.


As I have shown elsewhere, the main alternatives to the SDGs are nationalist, authoritarian and patriarchal models of development.  I am not alone in seeing “the SDGs as a struggle for hegemony and in competition with other styles of politics… (notably nationalist and religious populism) over what counts as ‘development’”.

Myths are often harmless. But the left’s anti-SDG stance depends on unfounded myths and is ill-advised, misdirected and dangerous. The SDGs are admittedly an imperfect agenda. How could they not be, given that they had to be made acceptable to all 192 UN member states? But, politically speaking, the SDGs do represent the most viable progressive agenda on offer. It is time that progressive forces in academia and elsewhere faced the real enemy: intolerant, authoritarian, inegalitarian and patriarchal models of development.

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