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Contribution | Sustainable Development Goals: A New form of foreign aid?

Maxime is an entrepreneur educated in Oceanography and Climate Modelling from The University of Southampton (BSc.), and in Environmental Technology and Business & Environment from Imperial College London (MSc.).

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is a set of 17 “Global Goals” aiming to tackle the world’s most pressing issues, spanning across social and environmental issues. Unlike the previous Millennium Development Goals between 2000 and 2015, which were conceived mainly for development centred on attaining a set of basic living standards in developing countries, the 2030 Agenda is universal in scope (SDG Fund, 2016).

Parallel to effective public engagement with Climate Change, it is crucial that the communication of the goals is done appropriately (see our previous article I’m too sexy to be an activist: The Psychology of Climate Change).

Public Engagement of the SDGs

Two years into the SDG “revolution”, roughly 3 in 10 citizens worldwide say they are aware of the SDGs (Globescan, 2016). However, if we are to convince more people, we need to pay close attention to the context in which the SDGs are being framed. A quick internet search, from progress reports, campaign brochure, to google images, will often reveal the following: a group of Indian kids with empty hands for SDG1, young veiled girls sat on the floor of a denuded classroom for SDG 4, smiling “African” kids around a well for SDG 6 and so on… This narrative affects how people perceive and engage with the SDGs.

We argue that not only is the SDG campaign still being consistently addressed at and for developing countries, but that such marketing similarities with foreign aid programs can bring about a dialogue that is counter-productive to effective public engagement. Amongst others, it raises the following three problems:

  1. Continues to perpetuate the stereotype of starving, begging Africa (“& others”);

Using a panel of up to 116 countries from 1970-2010, Young and Sheehan (2014) found “aid flows to be associated with a deterioration of both political and economic institutions, the recipient’s legal system and property rights, as well as the recipient’s openness to international trade”.

Others even saying that money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty (The Wall Street Journal, 2009).

The perpetuation of the “Saviour-Victim” paradigm continues to weaken African nations’ long-term development and voices in international discussions. This stands in radical opposition to the SDGs mission to be fair, inclusive, united.

  1. A feeling that development issues are for said “under-developed” countries only;

By marketing the Global Goals in such fashion, citizens of rich nations (i.e the most influential, pollution and energy-intensive players) cannot identify and accept the SDGs as being for them, nor do they feel that they can personally do anything about them.

This leads to impeded progress in public engagement as the problem is continuously portrayed as far away and “business-as-usual”. 45% of European citizens disagree with the statement that as individuals, they can play a role in tackling poverty in developing countries (European Commission, 2014).

It is only a small step to then associate the SDGs with charities or international aid.

  1. Decreased public support for governmental efforts towards the SDGs;

Not only can this dynamic in communication leave individuals of wealthy nations confused as to how they can do anything individually, it also affects their political support of governmental measures, policies, and allocation of funds toward the SDGs. From the moment the Global Goals start being interpreted as international aid, it can start instigating negative feelings of money being handed out as charity, or even wasted.

 Public Perception of Foreign Aid

 Achieving more inclusive and sustainable outcomes depends not only on economic and political structures, but also on social attitudes, norms and values (UNESCO 2016). By being associated with notions of charity and foreign aid, successful public engagement with the SDG is threatened.

Generally, the public has little interest in news about other countries and holds unformed, malleable views on most international issues. Additionally, public perception of aid appears to be surrounded by an extremely high degree of ignorance about what it does (Riddell, 2007), with 49% of Europe saying they know nothing at all or very little about where aid funds go (European Commission, 2014). Gilens (2001) suggests that this ignorance leads to an opposition to foreign aid.

Although a majority believes that the idea of foreign aid constitutes a moral duty (Van Heerde and Hudson, 2010), a significant minority expresses seems to hold an opposite view opposing views. Amongst the most prevalent opinions, we find i) the belief that their country spends too much on foreign aid, ii) the feeling that most aid is wasted (DfID survey, 2008), and iii) the desire to focus on domestic rather than international issues. (Frameworks Institute, 2001).

In Europe, 14% feel we should not increase aid to developing countries even though it has been promised, 15% feel we should reduce aid to developing countries as we can no longer afford it, 30% believe donating to help developing countries is ineffective, and 51% of Europe believes that tackling poverty in developing countries should not be one of the main priorities of the government (European Commission, 2014).

In the US, foreign aid programs are generally unpopular relative to domestic programs, with 44% of respondents wanting foreign aid cut in a 2008 American National Election Study (USAID, 2012).

Some countries even have a significant minority of people who think there should be no foreign aid spending at all (Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Germany, all around 20%) (Ipsos Public Affairs, 2015).

The Appropriate Discourse

It is then of paramount importance that the SDG discussion remains one where development opportunities stemming from the global goals are emphasized in each individual country, as opposed to yet another obscure international humanitarian or disaster relief scheme.

Global citizens need to feel confident that they can have an individual impact on sustainable development around them, as well as feel supportive of governmental efforts internationally.

Let us know your views on the way the Global Goals are being marketed and the consequences on effective public engagement!



Written by: Maxime Jullian

Founder of The Climate Hackademy 

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