I.) The 2030 Agenda between transformation and cooptation

The UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development commits to “transform our world”; both the Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change invoke human rights, an eradication of poverty, universal access to social services, and safeguarding the planet.

Implementing the Agenda would require challenging the dominant economic rationale and political powers. At intra-country, inter-country and global levels, the economic system is characterised by extreme asymmetries in wealth, productivity and power. Individuals, communities and societies face systemic economic, social and political exclusions, based on myriad vectors – from gender and age through ascribed identities. In and between countries, the exploitation of planet earth is the privilege of those with power.

One could argue that the 2030 Agenda is thereby caught up between transformation and cooptation.

II.) Need for 3 shifts

If the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to have real impact, there need to be three major shifts:

  •  around principles or norms towards a common vision of economic, social, gender and climate justice. This would necessitate reversing the prevalent hierarchy and replacing the rationale of unfettered capital accumulation and profit maximization with a different set of goals around social and climate justice. This has been termed “hierarchy reversal” (UNRISD 2016).
  •  at the policy level. This would necessitate coherent policies for decent work and full employment, for guaranteed incomes and access to high-quality and inclusive social services, with sustainability or ecological goals. Income and wealth inequalities would also need to be addressed. There are many policy outcome conflicts here that need to be reconciled.
  • around practice. Alternative forms of productive collaboration, or free and equitable exchanges, often referred to as the sharing economy and the social and solidarity economy, would need to gain more traction. It would need different employment profiles and time use, which would in turn alter the work-life balance. If scaled up, it would help to rebalance global and regional production patterns, and move the high income countries into a de-growth or altered growth (services instead of manufactures)  mode.

The 2030 Agenda could be measured against these three shifts.

III.) Germany’s ‘performance’ as an example

It is of interest to me, as a German citizen, to look at the German experience: how do the German government’s commitments to the 2030 Agenda and its national  Sustainability Strategy (German Sustainability Strategy (GSS)), adopted in 2017,  tally with, ignore or contravene sustainability goals? Superficially, Germany compares favourably to many other countries, which made the same commitment to the 2030 Agenda, but have not taken similar steps in terms of national policy making. Germany with the Energiewende, its self-definition as a ‘social state’, and a performant civil society, could – at the face of it – be a policy leader.

However, a critical examination of the GSS with its commitments, examined for 7 of the SDGs, shows a mixed picture at best:

  • SDG 1. Poverty

The GSS sees employment as the main route to overcoming all forms of poverty, and connects the poverty goal with the employment goal, which is positive.


  •  it does not look at the structural causes of poverty – including the lacunae in decent work which it mentions.
  • it downplays the extent of income poverty and ignores child poverty which is betwem 15 and 21 per cent
  • the income minimums of the social assistance transfers are extremely low, making participation in social life extremely difficult and reinforcing intergenerational poverty

So, while some normative positives, there is policy and practice failure.

  • SDG 2. Hunger

The GSS normatively ascribes to the right to food. However, hunger is cast narrowly as an issue of sustainable agriculture, agricultural productivity and of awareness of healthy eating patterns.

 Issues of food security in low-income households are not broached, even though in Germany, 1.8 million people have to resort to free food banks.

Again: policy and practice failure

  • · SDG 5. gender empowerment and equality

The GSS confirms the commitment to gender equality – made in the German constitution. However,

  • women in Germany remain systemically disadvantaged, t

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