In this first instalment of a new series, Iain Davis and Whitney Webb explore how the UN’s “sustainable development” policies, the SDGs, do not promote “sustainability” as most conceive of it and instead utilise the same debt imperialism long used by the Anglo-American Empire to entrap nations in a new, equally predatory system of global financial governance.
The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is pitched as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” At the heart of this agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.
Many of these goals sound nice in theory and paint a picture of an emergent global utopia – such as no poverty, no world hunger and reduced inequality. Yet, as is true with so much, the reality behind most – if not all – of the SDGs are policies cloaked in the language of utopia that – in practice – will only benefit the economic elite and entrench their power.
This can clearly be seen in fine print of the SDGs, as there is considerable emphasis on debt and on entrapping nation states (especially developing states) in debt as a means of forcing adoption of SDG-related policies. It is then little coincidence that many of the driving forces behind SDG-related policies, at the UN and elsewhere, are career bankers. Former executives at some of the most predatory financial institutions in the history of the world, from Goldman Sachs to Bank of America to Deutsche Bank, are among the top proponents and developers of SDG-related policies.
Are their interests truly aligned with “sustainable development” and improving the state of the world for regular people, as they now claim? Or do their interests lie where they always have, in a profit-driven economic model based on debt slavery and outright theft?
In this Unlimited Hangout investigative series, we will be exploring these questions and interrogating – not only the power structures behind the SDGs and related policies – but also their practical impacts.
In this first instalment, we will explore what actually underpins the majority of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, cutting through the flowery language to deliver the full picture of what the implementation of these policies means for the average person. Subsequent instalments will focus on case studies based on specific SDGs and their sector-specific impacts.
Overall, this series will offer a fact-based and objective look at how the motivation behind the SDGs and Agenda 2030 is about retooling the same economic imperialism used by the Anglo-American Empire in the post-World War II era for the purposes of the coming “multipolar world order” and efforts to enact a global neo-feudal model, perhaps best summarized as a model for “sustainable slavery.”
The SDG Word Salad
Most people are aware of the concept of “Sustainable Development” but, it is fair to say that the majority believe that SDGs are related to tackling problems allegedly wrought by climate disaster. However, the Agenda 2030 SDGs encompass every facet of our lives and only one, SDG 13, deals explicitly with climate.
From economic and food security to education, employment and all business activity; name any sphere of human activity, including the most personal, and there is an associated SDG designed to “transform” it. Yet, it is the SDG 17—Partnerships for Goals—through which we can start to identify who the beneficiaries of this system really are.
The stated UN SDG 17 aim is, in part, to:
Enhance global macroeconomic stability, including through policy coordination and policy coherence. [. . .] Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships [. . .] to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries. [. . .] Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.
From this, we can deduce that “multi-stakeholder partnerships” are supposed to work together to achieve “macroeconomic stability” in “all countries.” This will be accomplished by enforcing “policy coordination and policy coherence” constructed from the “knowledge” of “public, public-private and civil society partnerships.” These “partnerships” will deliver the SDGs.
This word-salad requires some untangling, because this is the framework that enables the implementation of every SDG “in all countries.”
Before we do, it is worth noting that the UN often refers to itself and its decisions using grandiose language. Even the most trivial of deliberations are treated as “historic” or “ground breaking,” etc. There is also a lot of fluff to wade through about transparency, accountability, sustainability and so on.
These are just words which require corresponding action in order to have contextual meaning. “Transparency” doesn’t mean much if crucial information is buried in endless reams of impenetrable bureaucratic waffle that isn’t reported to the public by anyone. “Accountability” is an anathema if even national governments lack the authority to exercise oversight over the UN; and when “sustainable” is used to mean “transformative,” it becomes an oxymoron.
Untangling the UN-G3P SDG Word Salad
[P]artnerships between business, NGOs, Governments, the United Nations and other actors.
These “multi-stakeholder partnerships” are supposedly working to create global “macroeconomic stability” as a prerequisite for the implementation of the SDGs. But, just like the term “intergovernmental organisation,” the meaning of “macroeconomic stability” has also been transformed by the UN and its specialised agencies.
While macroeconomic stability used to mean “full employment and stable economic growth, accompanied by low inflation,” the UN have announced that isn’t what it means today. Economic growth now has to be “smart” in order to meet SDG requirements.
Crucially, fiscal balance—the difference between a government’s revenue and expenditure—must accommodate “sustainable development” by creating “fiscal space.” This effectively disassociates the term “macroeconomic stability” from “real economic activity.”
Climate change is seen, not just as an environmental problem, but as a “serious financial, economic and social problem.” Therefore “fiscal space” must be engineered to finance the “policy coordination and policy coherence” needed to avert the prophesied disaster.
The UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) notes that “fiscal space” lacks a precise definition. While some economists define it simply as “the availability of budgetary room that allows a government to provide resources for a desired purpose,” others express “budgetary room” as a calculation based upon a countries debt-to-GDP ratio and “projected” growth.
UN-DESA suggests that “fiscal space” boils down to the estimated—or projected—“debt sustainability gap.” This is defined as “the difference between a country’s current debt level and its estimated sustainable debt level.”
No one knows what events may impact future economic growth. A pandemic or another war in Europe could severely restrict it, or cause a recession. The “debt sustainability gap” is a theoretical concept based upon little more than wishful thinking.
As such, this allows policy makers to adopt a malleable, and relatively arbitrary, interpretation of “fiscal space.” They can borrow to finance sustainable development spending, irrespective of real economic conditions.
The primary objective of fiscal policy used to be to maintain employment and price stability and encourage economic growth through the equitable distribution of wealth and resources. It has been transformed by sustainable development. Now it aims to achieve “sustainable trajectories for revenues, expenditures, and deficits” that emphasise “fiscal space.”
If this necessitates increased taxation and/or borrowing, so be it. Regardless of the impact this has on real economic activity, it’s all fine because, according to the World Bank:
Debt is a critical form of financing for the sustainable development goals.
Spending deficits and increasing debt are not a problem because “failure to achieve sustainable development goals” would be far more unacceptable and would increase debt even further. Any amount of sovereign debt can be heaped upon the taxpayer in order to protect us from the much more dangerous economic disaster that would allegedly befall us if the SDGs aren’t quickly implemented.
In other words, economic, financial and monetary crises will hardly be absent in the world of “sustainable development.” The rationale outlined above will likely be used to justify such crises. This is the model envisioned by the UN and its “multi-stakeholder partners.” For those behind the SDGs, the ends justify the means. Any travesty can be justified as long as it is committed in the name of “sustainability.”
We are faced with a global policy initiative, affecting every corner of our lives, based upon the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. The effective destruction of society is necessary in order to protect us from something that we are told is to be much worse.
Obedience is a virtue because, unless we adhere to the policy demands imposed upon us, and accept the costs, the climate disaster might come to pass.
Armed with this knowledge, it becomes much easier to translate the convoluted UN-G3P word-salad and figure out what the UN actually means by the term “Sustainable Development”:
Governments will tax their populations, increasing deficits and national debt where necessary, to create financial slush funds that private multinational corporations, philanthropic foundations and NGOs can access in order to distribute their SDG compliance-based products, services and policy agendas. The new SDG markets will be protected by government sustainability legislation, which is designed by the same “partners” who profit from and control the new global SDG-based economy.
“Green” Debt Traps
Debt is specifically identified as a key component of SDG implementation, particularly in the developing world. In a 2018 paper written by a joint World Bank-IMF team, it was noted on several occasions that “debt vulnerabilities” in developing economies are being addressed by those financial institutions “within the context of the global development agenda (e.g., SDGs).”
That same year, the World Bank and IMF’s Debt Sustainability Framework (DSF) became operational. Per the World Bank, the DSF “allows creditors to tailor their financing terms in anticipation of future risks and helps countries balance the need for funds with the ability to repay their debts.” It also “guides countries in supporting the SDGs, when their ability to service debt is limited.”
Expressed differently, if countries cannot pay the debt they incur through IMF loans and World Bank (and associated Multilateral Development Bank) financing, they will be offered options to “repay” their debt through implementing SDG-related policies. However, as future instalments of this series will show, many of these options supposedly tailored to SDG implementation actually follow the “debt for land swap” model (now re-tooled as “debt for conservation swaps” or “debt for climate swaps”) that precede the SDGs and Agenda 2030 by a number of years. This model essentially enables land grabs and land/natural resource theft on a scale never before seen in human history.
Since their creation in the aftermath of World War II, both the World Bank and IMF have historically used debt to force countries, mostly in the developing world, to adopt policies that favour the global power structure. This was made explicit in a leaked US Army document written in 2008, which states that these institutions are used as unconventional, financial “weapons in times of conflict up to and including large-scale general war” and as “weapons” in terms of influencing “the policies and cooperation of state governments.” The document notes that these institutions in particular have a “long history of conducting economic warfare valuable to any ARSOF [Army Special Operations Forces] UW [Unconventional Warfare] campaign.”
The document further notes that these “financial weapons” can be used by the US military to create “financial incentives or disincentives to persuade adversaries, allies and surrogates to modify their behavior at the theater strategic, operational, and tactical levels.” Further, these unconventional warfare campaigns are highly coordinated with the State Department and the Intelligence Community in determining “which elements of the human terrain in UWOA [Unconventional Warfare Operations Area] are most susceptible to financial engagement.”
Notably, the World Bank and the IMF are listed as both Financial Instruments and Diplomatic Instruments of US National Power as well as integral parts of what the manual calls the “current global governance system.”
While they were once “financial weapons” to be wielded by the Anglo-American Empire, the current shifts in the “global governance system” also herald a shift in who is able to weaponize the World Bank and IMF for their explicit benefit. As the sun sets on the imperial, “unipolar” model and the dawn of a “multipolar” world order is upon us. The World Bank and IMF have already been brought under the control of a new international power structure following the creation of the UN-backed Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) in 2021.
At the COP26 conference that same year, GFANZ announced plans to overhaul the role of the World Bank and IMF specifically as part of a broader plan aimed at “transforming” the global financial system. This was made explicit by GFANZ principal and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink during a COP26 panel, where he specified the plan to overhaul these institutions, saying:
If we’re going to be serious about climate change in the emerging world, we’re going to have to really focus on the reimagination of the World Bank and the IMF.
GFANZ’s plans to “reimagine” these international financial institutions involve merging them with the private-banking interests that compose GFANZ; creating a new system of “global financial governance”; and eroding national sovereignty (particularly in the developing world) by forcing them to establish business environments deemed friendly to the interests of GFANZ members.
As noted in a previous Unlimited Hangout report, GFANZ seeks to use the World Bank and related institutions “to globally impose massive and extensive deregulation on developing countries by using the decarbonization push as justification. No longer must MDBs [multilateral development banks] entrap developing nations in debt to force policies that benefit foreign and multinational private-sector entities, as climate change-related justification can now be used for the same ends.”
Debt remains the main weapon in the arsenal of the World Bank and IMF, and will be used for the same “imperial” ends, only now with different benefactors and a different array of policies to impose on their prey – the SDGs.
The UN’s Quiet Revolution
GFANZ is a significant driver of “sustainable development.” It is, nonetheless, just one of many SDG related “public-private partnerships.” The GFANZ website states:
GFANZ provides a forum for leading financial institutions to accelerate the transition to a net-zero global economy. Our members currently include more than 450 member firms from across the global financial sector, representing more than $130 trillion in assets under management.
GFANZ is formed from a number of “alliances.” The banks, asset managers, asset owners, insurers, financial service providers and investment consultancies each have their own global partnership networks that collectively contribute to the GFANZ forum.
For example, the UN’s Net Zero Banking Alliance affords Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan, HSBC and others the opportunity to pursue their ideas through the GFANZ forum. They are among the key “stakeholders” in the SDG transformation.
In order to “accelerate the transition,” the GFANZ forum’s “Call to Action” empowers these multinational corporations to stipulate specific policy requests. They have decided that governments should adopt “economy-wide net-zero targets.” Governments also need to:
[R]eform [. . . ] financial regulations to support the net zero transition; phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies; pric[e] carbon emissions; mandat[e] net zero transition plans and [set] climate reporting for public and private enterprises by 2024
All of this is necessary, we are told, to avert the “climate disaster” that might happen one day. Therefore, this “global financial governance” policy agenda is simply unavoidable and we should allow private (and historically predatory) financial institutions to create policy aimed at de-regulating the very markets in which they operate. After all, the “race to Net Zero” must happen at break-neck speed and, per GFANZ, the only way to “win” involves scaling “private capital flows to emerging and developing economies” like never before. Were the flow of this “private capital” to be impeded by existing regulations or other obstacles, it would surely spell planetary destruction.
King Charles III, explained the new global SDG economy that will relegate elected governments to “enabling partners.” Then titled Prince Charles, speaking at COP26, in preparation for the GFANZ announcement, he said:
My plea today is for countries to come together to create the environment that enables every sector of industry to take the action required. We know this will take trillions, not billions of dollars. We also know that countries, many of whom are burdened by growing levels of debt, simply cannot afford to go green. Here we need a vast military style campaign to marshal the strength of the global private sector, with trillions at its disposal far beyond global GDP, [. . .] beyond even the governments of the world’s leaders. It offers the only real prospect of achieving fundamental economic transition.
Just as the alleged urgency to implement the SDGs exonerates public policy makers, it also lets the private sector, that drives the antecedent policy agendas, off the hook. The fact that the debt they collectively create primarily benefits private capital is just a coincidence; an allegedly inescapable, consequence of creating the “fiscal space” needed to deliver “sustainable development.”
The UN’s increasing reliance upon these “multi-stakeholder partnerships” is the result of the “quiet revolution” that occurred in the UN during the 1990s. In 1998, then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, told the World Economic Forum’s Davos symposium:
The business of the United Nations involves the businesses of the world. [. . .] We also promote private sector development and foreign direct investment. We help countries to join the international trading system and enact business-friendly legislation.
The 2017 UN General Assembly Resolution 70/224 (A/Res/70/224) decreed that the UN would work “tirelessly for the full implementation of this Agenda [Agenda 2030]” through the global dissemination of “concrete policies and actions.”
In keeping with Annan’s admission, these enacted policies and actions are designed, via “global financial governance,” to be “business-friendly.”
A/Res/70/224 added that the UN would maintain:
The strong political commitment to address the challenge of financing and creating an enabling environment at all levels for sustainable development. [. . .] [P]articularly with regard to developing partnerships through the provision of greater opportunities to the private sector, non-governmental organizations and civil society in general [. . .], in particular in the pursuit of sustainable development [SDGs].
This “enabling environment” is synonymous with the “fiscal space” demanded by the World Bank and other UN specialised agencies. The term also makes an appearance in the GFANZ progress report, which states that the World Bank and Multilateral Development Banks should be used to prompt developing nations “to create the right high-level, cross-cutting enabling environments” for alliance members’ investments in those nations.
This concept was firmly established in 2015 at the Adis Ababa Action Agenda conference on “financing for development.” The gathered delegates from 193 UN nation states committed their respective populations to an ambitious financial investment programme to pay for sustainable development.
They collectively agreed to create:
…an enabling environment at all levels for sustainable development; [. . .] to further strengthen the framework to finance sustainable development.
The “enabling environment” is a government, and therefore taxpayer-funded commitment to SDGs. Annan’s successor and the 9th Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, authorised a 2017 report on A/Res/70/224 which read:
The United Nations must urgently rise to the challenge of unlocking the full potential of collaboration with the private sector and other partners. [. . .] [T]he United Nations system recognizes the need to further pivot towards partnerships that more effectively leverage private sector resources and expertise. The United Nations is also seeking to play a stronger catalytic role in sparking a new wave of financing and innovation needed to achieve the Goals [SDGs].
While called an intergovernmental organisation, the UN is not just a collaboration between governments. Some might reasonably argue that it never was.
The UN was created, in no small measure, thanks to the efforts of the private sector and the “philanthropic” arms of oligarchs. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF’s) comprehensive financial and operational support for the Economic, Financial and Transit Department (EFTD) of the League of Nations (LoN), and its considerable influence upon the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), arguably made the RF the key player in the transition of the LoN into the UN.
In addition, the Rockefeller family, which has long promoted “internationalist” policies that expand and entrench global governance, donated the land on which the UN’s headquarters in New York sits, among other sizeable donations to the UN over the years. It should come as little surprise that the UN is particularly fond of one of their main donors and has long partnered with the RF and praised the organisation as a model for “global philanthropy.”
The UN was essentially founded upon a public-private partnership model. In 2000, the Executive Committee of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published Private Sector Involvement and Cooperation with the United Nations System:
The United Nations and the private sector have always had extensive commercial links through the procurement activities of the former. [. . .] The United Nations market provides a springboard for a company to introduce its goods and services to other countries and regions. [. . .] The private sector has also long participated, directly or indirectly, in the normative and standard-setting work of the United Nations.
Being able to influence, not only government procurement, but also the development of new global markets and the regulation of the same is, obviously, an extremely attractive proposition for multinational corporations and investors. Unsurprisingly, UN projects that utilise the “public-private” model are the favoured approach of the world’s leading capitalists. For instance, it has long been the favoured model of the Rockefeller family, who often finance such projects through their respective philanthropic foundations.
In the years since its inception, public-private partnerships have expanded to become dominant within the UN system, particularly with regard to “sustainable development.” Successive Secretary Generals have overseen the UN’s formal transition into the United Nations’ Global Public-Private Partnership (UN-G3P).
As a result of this transformation, the role of nation state governments at the UN has also changed dramatically. For instance, in 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO), another specialised agency of the UN, published a report on the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in healthcare titled Connecting for Health. Speaking about how “stakeholders” could introduce ICT healthcare solutions globally, the WHO noted:
Governments can create an enabling environment, and invest in equity, access and innovation.
As King Charles III noted last year in Glasgow, governments of “democratic” nation have been given the role of “enabling” partners. Their job is to create the fiscal environment in which their private sector partners operate. Sustainability policies are developed by a global network comprised of governments, multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations and “other actors.”
The “other actors” are predominantly the philanthropic foundations of individual billionaires and immensely wealthy family dynasties, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates (BMGF) or the Rockefeller Foundations. Collectively, these “actors” constitute the “multi-stakeholder partnership.”
During the pseudopandemic, many came to acknowledge the influence of the BMGF over the WHO, but they are just one of many other private foundations that are also valued UN “stakeholders.”
The UN is, itself, a global collaboration between governments and a multinational infra-governmental network of private “stakeholders.” The foundations, NGOs, civil society organisations and global corporations represent an infra-governmental network of stakeholders, just as powerful, if not more so, than any power block of nation states.
Public-Private Partnership: An Ideology
In 2016, UN-DESA published a working paper investigating the value of public-private partnerships (G3Ps) for achieving the SDGs. The lead author, Jomo KS, was the Assistant Secretary General in the United Nations system responsible for economic research (2005-2015).
UN-DESA broadly found that G3Ps, in their current form, were not fit for purpose:
[C]laims of reduced cost and efficient delivery of services through [G3Ps] to save tax payers money and benefit consumers were mostly empty and [. . .] ideological assertions. [. . ] [G3P] projects were more costly to build and finance, provided poorer quality services and were less accessible [. . .] Moreover, many essential services were less accountable to citizens when private corporations were involved. [. . .] Investors in [G3Ps] face a relatively benign risk [. . .] penalty clauses for non-delivery by private partners are less than rigorous, the study questioned whether risk was really being transferred to the private partners in these projects. [. . .] [T]he evidence suggests that [G3Ps] have often tended to be more expensive than the alternative of public procurement while in a number of instances they have failed to deliver the envisaged gains in quality of service provision.
Citing the work of Whitfield (2010), which examined G3Ps in Europe, North America, Australia, Russia, China, India and Brazil, UN-DESA noted that these led to “the buying and selling schools and hospitals like commodities in a global supermarket.”
The UN-DESA reports also reminded the UN’s G3P enthusiasts that numerous intergovernmental organisations had found G3Ps wanting:
Evaluations done by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Investment Bank (EIB) – the organizations normally promoting [G3Ps] – have found a number of cases where [G3Ps] did not yield the expected outcome and resulted in a significant rise in government fiscal liabilities.
Little has changed since 2016 and yet the UN-G3P insist that public-private partnership is the only way to achieve SDGs. Ignoring the assessment from its own investigators, In General Assembly Resolution 74/2 (A/Res/74/2) the UN declared:
[UN member states] Recognize the need for strong global, regional and national partnerships for Sustainable Development Goals, which engage all relevant stakeholders to collaboratively support the efforts of Member States to achieve health-related Sustainable Development Goals, including universal health coverage [UHC2030] [. . .] the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders is one of the core components of health system governance. [. . . ] [We] Reaffirm General Assembly resolution 69/313 [. . .] to address the challenge of financing and creating an enabling environment at all levels for sustainable development. [We will] provide [. . .] sustainable finances, while improving their effectiveness [. . .] through domestic, bilateral, regional and multilateral channels, including partnerships with the private sector and other relevant stakeholders.
This UN commitment to global public-private partnership is an “ideological assertion” and is not based upon the available evidence. In order for G3Ps to actually function as claimed, UN-DESA stipulated that a number of structural changes would need to be put in place first.
These included careful identification of where a G3P could work. UN-DESA found that G3Ps may be suited to some infrastructure projects but were damaging to projects dealing with public health, education or the environment.
The UN researchers stated that diligent oversight and regulation of pricing and the alleged transfer of risk would be required; comprehensive and transparent fiscal accounting systems were needed; better reporting standards should be developed and rigorous legal and regulatory safeguards were necessary.
None of the required structural or policy changes recommended in the UN-DESA 2016 report have been implemented.
Sustainability for whom?
Agenda 2030 marks the waypoint along the path to Agenda 21. Publicly launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Section 8 explained how “sustainable development” would be integrated into decision making:
The primary need is to integrate environmental and developmental decision-making processes. [. . .] Countries will develop their own priorities in accordance with their national plans, policies and programmes.
Sustainable development has been integrated with every policy decision. Not only does every country have a national sustainability plan, these have devolved to local government.
It is a global strategy to extend the reach of global financial institutions into every corner of the economy and society. Policy will be controlled by the bankers and the think-tanks that infiltrated the environmental movement decades ago.
No community is free of “global financial governance.”
Simply put, sustainable development supplants decision making at the national and local level with global governance. It is an ongoing, and thus far successful, global coup.
But more than this, it is a system for global control. Those of us who live in developed nations will have our behaviour changed as a psychological and economic war is waged against us to force our compliance.
Developing nations will be kept in penury as the fruits of modern industrial and technological development are denied to them. Instead they will be burdened with the debt foisted upon them by the global centres of financial power, their resources pillaged, their land stolen and their assets seized – all in the name of “sustainability.”
Yet it is perhaps the financialisation of nature, inherent to sustainable development, that is the greatest danger of all. The creation of natural asset classes, converting forests into carbon sequestration initiatives and water sources into human settlement services. As subsequent instalments of this series will show, several SDGs have financialising nature at their core.
As openly stated by the UN, “sustainable development” is all about transformation, not necessarily “sustainability” as most people conceive of it. It aims to transform the Earth and everything on it, including us, into commodities – the trading of which will form the basis of a new global economy. Though it is being sold to us as “sustainable,” the only thing this new global financial system will “sustain” is the power of a predatory financial elite.