02 August 2022

The New Economy and the SDGs (2)

Written by 
 “John Kirton, professor of political science and the director and co-founder of the G7 Research Group, co-director and founder of the G20 Research Group, speaking on Good Governance at the launch event for the Global Governance Project, an initiative in collaboration with the world-renowned G7 and G20 Research Groups covering compliance, accountability measures and good governance in connection with the annual G7 and G20 summits.” “John Kirton, professor of political science and the director and co-founder of the G7 Research Group, co-director and founder of the G20 Research Group, speaking on Good Governance at the launch event for the Global Governance Project, an initiative in collaboration with the world-renowned G7 and G20 Research Groups covering compliance, accountability measures and good governance in connection with the annual G7 and G20 summits.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4RHeXqNYfM

In the first half of this post, the economist delegated by the US to last year’s G7 meeting in Cornwall, Felicia Wong, told us that she and her colleagues from the other 6 nations have noticed a shift in economic thinking. Call it the Washington Consensus of the 1980s giving way to the Cornwall Consensus. Neoliberalism with its mantra of free trade, privatization and deregulation (business interests first) was judged and found wanting. The coronavirus pandemic had exposed the futility of a model that led to obscene inequality and healthcare systems that were woefully inadequate for such emergencies, and the American one clearly more so than other advanced economies.

How do humans flourish? The international consensus on this question today is summarized in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and as I tried to show, most of them cannot be reached without sustained, smartly targeted government investment. That is also what the “new economics” are saying. In order to achieve greater sustainable development on a global scale, we must prioritize common social goods above all. And they are all connected. Individual healthcare cannot be seen as detached from “environmental protections, affordable housing, living wages, and good public schools.” Science journalist Olivia Campbell quoted Sandro Galea, the dean of public health at Boston University, in her piece commenting on President Trump’s 2017 budget which called for reducing social welfare program funding by $272 billion:


“For the past 35 years, the U.S. has fallen further behind in health. This coincides with the Reagan policies of greater disinvestment in public good. We are now continuing along these lines — that’s what worries me.”


Trump’s healthcare policies followed the same reasoning that led to President Reagan’s drastic cuts to the programs initiated by President Johnson in the 1960s in order to create the “Great Society”: Medicare, Medicaid, substantial improvements to welfare, the National Endowment for the Arts, the national Endowment for the humanities, consumer protection measures, and a long list of environmental measures, including the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), and the Endangered Species Act (1966).

How did Reagan’s far-reaching cuts to these social programs affect Americans, asks Campbell?


“A million children lost reduced-price school lunches, 600,000 people lost Medicaid, and a million lost food stamps. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could only serve a third of those eligible. WIC provides low-income pregnant women and children with formula and healthy food staples. Nearly 500,000 lost eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (a less-stringent precursor to TANF). This caused a two-percent increase in the total poverty rate, and the number of children in poverty rose nearly three percent.”


As mentioned above, healthcare is affected by a host of other public policy domains. Campbell quotes Sandro Galea again: “although the public discourse around health focuses on medicine and health care, social, economic, cultural, and structural conditions have a far greater impact on overall health.”


Have we been bamboozled along the way?

Amy Laura Hall, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, wrote an OpEd piece for Religion News Service last week, entitled, “The ‘thousand points of light’ switcheroo: how conservatives made social welfare the province of private faith.” None of the recent Supreme Court decisions surprised her, she says, but she was taken off guard by how quickly and suddenly they had come. Women, in particular, were left “breathless.” In her words,


“The justices legitimated public funding for religious schools; relegated complaints about coercive public prayer to the churlish fringe; and tossed out half a century of rulings that keep old men from dictating how we use our private parts.”


But this chipping away at the dividing barrier between church and state has been going on for decades, she adds. Significantly, however, it’s not so much “pro-religion” as it is “anti-government spending on social services.” It was President George H.W. Bush who launched the euphemistic slogan “a thousand points of light” as a way to encourage faith leaders to step up and serve their communities in any way they could. President Clinton continued this trend, and it was President George W. Bush who formally set up the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, calling himself a “compassionate conservative.” But all of this was simply a more palatable way to cut government spending by urging religious leaders to help fill the gap in meeting the needs of the poor. It was an exercise in branding, and it very much lined up with the overall Washington Consensus about shrinking government and give wider berth to corporations.

Still, people of faith with a more liberal bent also fretted that Christian spirituality and values were becoming irrelevant in a society awash in secularism. She notes that the Lilly Foundation has funded research that seeks to connect human thriving with “community” and “faith.” Other major donors have supported a program in which she participated, “Project on Lived Theology,” at the University of Virginia. I also know first-hand that major funding has made possible a robust program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, where theologian Miroslav Volf remains the founding director (2003).

Yet these programs and the many wonderful charitable projects run by churches, synagogues and mosques around the country have made little progress in reducing the exorbitant rate of economic inequality and general indicators of dire poverty in this country. Hall leaves us with something important to think about in her conclusion:


“The whole shift from public to private, from material to spiritual, may appear not only normal, but part of a morally good, grand adventure.

In fact, it has been part of a grand strategy aimed at undoing the government’s involvement in what was once known as the Great Society. And it worked.”


Sadly, that strategy has also served to mask the real costs of structural racism. Why is it that, “According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers” (see here for more details)? So many indicators put the U.S. behind other high-income nations. That is why I am proposing to look at the SDGs – goals meant to enable poorer nations to catch up with richer ones and increase human flourishing all over the world.


Why democracy and sustainable development must go together

I promised I would bring up the topic of democracy in this second half. That word is absent from the 2015-2030 SDGs and their subgoals, or targets. But as I have been arguing so far, few, or perhaps none, of these goals can be accomplished without robust government intervention – yes, alongside business leaders and civil society. But what kind of government? Think about it: China and Russia and a host of other autocratic or autocratic-leaning states have signed on to these SDGs. The UN’s objective is always to “unite nations” around goals of peace and justice everywhere in the world, after all. So the UN’s job is always a delicate balancing act.

A British think tank started in 1983 as a foundation advocating environmental activism (“Environmental Foundation”). It was so successful (besides garnering the Queen’s Award for Industry and the EU’s Better Environmental Award) that it received funding for a series of high-level consultations at St. George’s House in the grounds of Windsor Castle in the 1990s and up to 2006. The result was an enlarged focus on “the challenges of sustainability in rapidly developing countries such as India and China.” By 2009, the foundation was renamed the “Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD).

Not surprisingly, FDSD turned its attention to the SDGs. Had the UN betrayed that necessary connection between democracy and sustainable development? Not at all, we read on a page devoted to this question. Besides expanding the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), the SDGs “include universal goals of addressing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting environmental resources.” Further on we read,


“The Goals, particularly through SDG 16, tackle another omission of the MDGs, that of governance, inclusion, participation, rights and security. The Goal’s aim is to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.


Each of the SDGs has targets, or subgoals, if you will – usually between 10 and 20. SDG 16 has twelve. These two are particularly relevant to the democracy/sustainable development issue:


16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels


The most granular level of making sure each SDG is accomplished is that of “indicators.” For SDG 16, each of the twelve targets has two indicators. One of these for 16.6 clearly reaches for a democratic structure, while both of those for 16.7 make crystal clear that transparency and inclusion for all in decision-making is essential:


Indicator 16.6.2: Proportion of population satisfied with their last experience of public services

Indicator 16.7.1: Proportions of positions in national and local institutions, including (a) the legislatures; (b) the public service; and (c) the judiciary, compared to national distributions, by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups

Indicator 16.7.2: Proportion of population who believe decision-making is inclusive and responsive, by sex, age, disability and population group


A democratic system is one in which its institutions and the mechanisms that keep them functioning (including voting, which isn’t spelled out here) are actually considered “inclusive and responsive,” and one in which those serving in the legislatures, public service, and the judiciary, reflect the population as a whole (“by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups”). No wonder that in a world in which many countries are becoming more autocratic, this SDG is seen as most “highly controversial.”


When democracy is slowly slipping away

So much more on this could be said, naturally. But I want to illustrate this with some thoughts on the situation in my country in this election year. I was listening to National Public Radio (also started in the 1960s!) in the car yesterday. It was the show “Here and Now” and Robin Young, the journalist, was interviewing Tom Verdin, the “first ever democracy editor” for The Associated Press. I don’t know about the New York Times, but they mentioned that the Washington Post now has seven journalists whose only assignment is to cover issues of democracy in the US. This is a brand-new development in the last two to three years, for reasons you might guess.

Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington are all holding primary elections today. Fifteen other states will follow between now and early November. Many candidates for the Republican Party, including those for governor or top election official in the state are running on the platform that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Some are even saying that if elected, they will annul the results of 2020 electoral races they deem were falsified. Add that fact to the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the slate of laws passed by nineteen states in 2021 to restrict people’s voting in one way or another, and you can see why American allies are worried that the US is beginning to lose its democracy.

Robin Young near the end of the audio clip asks Tom Verdin what he is most worried about in this erosion of democracy. He answers,


“I think the fire hose of disinformation. If you have a country where people cannot agree on the same set of facts, essentially you’re living in two separate worlds. They can’t trust – or won’t trust – the institutions; they won’t trust the vote; they won’t trust the outcome of elections. And a lot of that mistrust is not based on any facts or any evidence. That’s worrisome. It’s very difficult to hold together a democracy in a society where people don’t have trust in each other, don’t have trust in institutions, and are being bombarded with misinformation.”


Target 10 of SDG 16 touches on this: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” This is partially about transparency in the way government institutions operate – which of course is essential. But it's much more than that. The UN explains that this target has four components: press freedom, transparency, safety of journalists (over 800 have been killed while doing their jobs in the last decade), and right to privacy (see the one-minute video on this). This amounts to a bold statement that without a democratic system of governance, several important components of sustainable development will be scuttled.

Regarding the worrisome polarization of the American population these days, I recommend this recent column by Paul Krugman, “The Dystopian Myths of Red America.” We know that increasingly as a nation we have become politically divided into two parallel universes, as Tom Verdin was saying above. Krugman mentions Dave Weigel of The Washington Post reporting on political campaigns around the country: “many Republican candidates are claiming that Democrats are deliberately undermining the nation and promoting violence against their opponents; some are even claiming that we’re already in a civil war.”

There is also the widely held belief that “a lax attitude toward law enforcement has turned America’s big cities into dangerous hellholes.” Yet this has no basis in fact, despite a rise in crime in 2020, though it was about the same in the cities as it was in rural areas:


“In New York City, homicides so far this year are running a bit below their 2021 level, and in 2021 they were 78 percent lower than they were in 1990 and a quarter lower than they were in 2001. As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has documented, New York is actually a lot safer than small-town America. Los Angeles has also seen a big long-term drop in homicides, as has California as a whole. Some cities, notably Philadelphia and Chicago, are back to or above early 1990s murder rates, but they’re not representative of the broader picture.”


Last words

I admit that it’s hard to be optimistic about our American democracy at the moment. I agree with Krugman that since “a large segment of the U.S. electorate has bought into an apocalyptic vision of America that bears no relationship to the reality of how the other half thinks, behaves or lives,” and since armed militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are recruiting and arming themselves at will (left-wing militias exist, but they're fewer and smaller), some amount of violence is inescapable. We can only pray that enough leaders on both sides can to come together, truly work for the common good, and then recommit to the institutions that have kept this republic together for two and a half centuries.

At the same time, I find much comfort in the work of global governance spearheaded by the UN, many NGOs, and many multilateral organizations like the G7 and the G20, the World Bank, the EU or the African Union. I have been reading a book co-edited by two scholars, a Canadian (John J. Kirton) and a Russian (Marina Larionova), entitled, Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance (Routledge, 2017). John Kirton is “a professor of political science and the Co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group, and Director of the G7 Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto” (please listen to his 9-minute clip on YouTube, from which the picture above is taken). As part of my research for this book, I interviewed him on Zoom a couple of weeks ago. I had heard he was a practicing Anglican and I wasn’t disappointed. He had just come back from the G7 meeting this year, which was hosted by Germany. When I asked him what was becoming of his close relationship with many Russian scholars (about a third of authors in this book were Russian), he answered,


“They’re fine. Of course, with the war in Ukraine they have to be careful, but look, we cannot solve this world’s problems unless we all work together. The war with Ukraine will be over at some point. We need the Russians to solve the climate crisis. We also need the Russians’ cooperation in order to manage the Arctic region that is melting so fast.”


Human flourishing, as rightly defined by the 2015-2030 SDGs, in the end is determined by political leaders working together with all other stakeholders both locally and globally. My book is seeking to encourage Christians, and people of faith in general, to get involved in global governance. Much more of this to come . . .