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Inequality and the SDG agenda: every victory has its price

René Grotenhuis | 23 February 2017

Four years ago I identified inequality as one of the most relevant themes for the post-2015 agenda. At the same time, I was doubtful about the role that inequality would play in the aid agenda. Now that it has become one of the key issues for the next 15 years, all those NGOs, activists and scholars who have advocated for the inclusion of inequality should take note of the drawbacks of this victory. 

Since the adoption of the SDGs by the UN General Assembly, the issue of inequality has become more prominent in political and economic discourses. The landmark study ‘Capital in the 21 Century’ by Thomas Piketty and the many studies that have highlighted growing inequality, the stagnation of middle class salaries, and tax evasion all reflect a growing awareness of inequality as one of the key political and socio-economic challenges of the day. The economic and political model of the past 35 years (based on Reagan-Thatcherism), which produced this growing inequality is coming to the end of its lifecycle. Increasingly, economists and political scientists are aware that system change is needed to find answers in the new era.

Trump can be seen as the end of the old era. Acting as a hyper-capitalist tycoon, aiming for business hegemony (America first, a cabinet from the corporate sector), he is trying to prove that the system ‘still works’, but he will simply prove the opposite, that the system is in fact broken. Trump is implementing a traditional ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ policy in a corporate, western style. He does not want to understand that the world has changed and that new forms of cooperation are needed. Looking to the past and with his back to the future, he tries to assuage the anger and fears of his electorate.

In the same way as climate change has moved from the margins of the societal and political debate into the spotlight and become mainstream politics, so the inequality agenda has moved from the margins of the development discourse to become a center stage topic. The SDG agenda is in fact a big victory for the development world, supported by the increased power of developing countries that no longer want to be treated as the world’s ‘problem’, as they were in the MDGs.

But every victory in politics has a price, and this victory seals the end of development and development cooperation as separate areas. The development agenda has evaporated and the challenge for development agencies is to take a role in the broader mainstream political and socio-economic discourse. This will require new alliances with other social movements, with political parties, and with trade unions, as well as the development of a new narrative for their constituencies (supporters, donors). Inequality will definitely be part of this narrative as one of the main drivers of the required system change.