Welcome to the end of poverty – sponsored by Gucci

foreign affairs, international development, international politics, Ireland, multilateralism, pope francis, sustainable development goals

There is something very strange going on. I’m not sure whether it has to do with the blood moon eclipse, the strange rainbows over Manhattan during the Pope’s visit, or something they put in the water, but my head has been scrambled.
I have just returned from the UN General Assembly where, amid much fanfare, the new Sustainable Development Goals were signed-off by 190 Heads of State. The week’s events were a non-stop caffeine fuelled tour-de-force involving side events, receptions, road blocks, concerts and papal masses. It was a veritable who’s who of global society – from nearly being run over by President Xi Jinping, to bumping into Christine Lagarde in a UN lift. Anyone who is anyone in the global elite and/or the global fight against poverty was in New York for this momentous occasion. The Taoiseach and the President were both in town, together with a large representation from civil society and entertainment world. Ed Sheerin was one of the headline acts at the massive launch party in Central Park.
So what’s not to love? Surely this veritable global gathering of the great and the good, endorsing the new Sustainable Development Goals agenda, will save the world? Maybe I should just stop moaning and ‘get behind the goals and tell the world about them’ as Project Everyone has been contracted by the UN to tell us to do. If only we could all declare the new world order – and it shall be done. But when Gucci, the world’s most luxury brand, worth €12.2 billion, is the lead sponsor for a launch party to celebrate the quest to end global poverty, as happened on Saturday night, you must admit – something very strange is happening.
There is much to love about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Don’t get me wrong. When taken together, most of the goals are motherhood and apple pie. The new agenda could have been a lot less progressive had NGOs like Trócaire not applied significant pressure on the UN and governments. Arguably, the Irish co-facilitation role also played a key role in keeping more progressive elements on the table such as a human rights approach and gender equality. None of that can be taken for granted. These goals are potentially transformative. They represent a kind of re-interpretation of human rights for the modern era within the context of environmental sustainability. To say “no one should be left behind” in fact, is another way of saying “everyone has rights.”
And therein also lies the rub. Whilst the SDGs effectively re-interpret human rights for the modern era, they say virtually nothing about the primary duty of states to deliver human rights for their citizens. Taken in the context of the recent Financing for Development Summit, the SDGs, it seems, will not be delivered by empowering poorer states and citizens to claim their rights through progressive, corrective public policies including taxation and regulation. The sub-text is that they will be realised by a further deepening of the expanding network of transnational corporations, now in active partnership with global NGOs and international agencies. Public Private Partnerships, blending public and private finance initiatives and new forms of privatisation are central to the delivery of this new agenda. New contracts to deliver on these goals were most likely signed in New York over the weekend at one of the many lavish corporate lunches.
The first off-shoot of the SDGs, in fact, are the ‘Global Goals’, massive feel good global campaign funded by major corporations, and backed by many leading NGOs. These are global household names and a taste of things to come. Their mission is to use their brand power tell everyone about the global goals. Of course, in doing so, there is one thing they may wish to avoid at all costs– anything that could remotely challenge their brand power and their bottom line. In fact, to do so would contravene the licensing agreement of the Global Goals campaign. The public SDGs have already been co-opted into private hands.
The problem is, however, that the very economic model of affluence, waste and excess on which many of these brands such as Gucci rely, is actually at the heart of our current ‘socio-environmental crisis’ as Pope Francis calls it. The SDGs avoid asking the difficult questions around corporate tax avoidance, fossil fuel divestment, public finance for development, consumerism culture and so on. They are loaded with assumptions of unending economic growth and now can harness the poverty eradication agenda to fuel growth. If the corporations backing the global goals campaign were serious about their role in eradicating poverty they could start with paying their fair share of tax, doing human rights due diligence, and safeguarding the environment. Governments and NGOs would do well to support them in this quest!
There is a serious risk that many NGOs could be co-opted into this new agenda too, with a chilling effect on really important conversations on what really needs to change to tackle consumerism, inequality and climate change. Or they could become a massive administrative distraction, as Pope Francis has warned. The big funding in the future will lie in supporting the delivery of the SDGs – but most likely only in ways which do not challenge the power of global brands.

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Mother's milk and climate justice

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, environment, ethics, Ireland

When you start talking about climate change you can expect some unusual, difficult questions. I find that the implications of climate change are so far reaching, when people actually take notice, it touches on something very core. On the whole questions relate to issues like ‘what can I do about it?’ ‘how do we know it’s real?’ ‘how can we tackle it and ensure economic growth?’ and the like.
At this week’s Social Justice Ireland Event on climate justice and policy coherence someone in the audience asked me one of the most left field questions yet: should we be encouraging women to breastfeed to combat climate change? The question raised a few eyebrows, not to mention a few laughs (not least because it was a rather elderly gentleman who asked it!). Having breastfed my boys for very different reasons, I was trying to understand his viewpoint. I struggled to do justice to his sincere question. He got me thinking however: breast milk is free, has no food miles, has zero carbon footprint, is a natural process. I began to see he had a point – not only is it good for mother and baby, it is also environmentally sustainable too.
This sense that he may be on to something grew as I sat at the Fine Gael National Conference in Castlebar last night and listened to the Taoiseach speech about our national strategy for economic recovery. The aggressive export driven development of the agri-food sector is central to that recovery. Ireland sees itself as a quality food basket for emerging economies, providing beef and dairy to burgeoning global middle classes. A significant increase in our national beef and dairy herd is central to it’s achievement. That is sure to please many many rural communities who have been decimated by the crash. The only ‘small’ problem is that it will be near on impossible to lower national climate emissions if the national herd increases. Agriculture already contributes around 40% of all Irish emissions.
One key part of this strategy is to grow Ireland’s role in the infant formula industry: “Developing countries across the world have a growing thirst for dairy products, especially infant formula. Irish companies are already making strong inroads into these markets, including China, and this is expected to grow in the coming year as we ramp up production. (Taoiseach Enda Kenny)  I have to say I let out an audible gasp when the Taoiseach said that (to the disapproval of the party faithful surrounding me!)
Haven’t we learnt anything? It only seems like yesterday we were protesting against the Nestlé powdered milk scandals, where mothers were being targeted to substitute breast milk in poor countries where access to clean water remains an issue of life and death. That scandal has not gone away, as this recent Guardian article shows. Ireland, however, has become a champion of infant nutrition both through its first thousand days campaign nationally, and internationally via the SUN initiative. And here we are, literally exporting a heavily industrialised model of food production globally, at great cost to the environment and vulnerable populations. There is a deep contradiction at the heart of these policies.
It points to the need for a transformative shift in how we view food and agriculture if we are to really address climate change. At present there is little sign it is happening – at least in official circles. There is an uphill battle ahead on that front. So the man who asked me the rather odd question clearly had a point. Everything is interconnected – and it starts with mother’s milk.

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