It's Not a Wage Gap, It's Poverty - and It's Why The U.S. Needs a Development Agenda

Saturday, July 16, 2016 - 10:26 am EDT
Vikki Spruill

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in The Guardian on July 16, 2016.

There is no doubt that the U.S. is suffering from what feels like the unravelling of social order.

Recent shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas have heightened deep-seated tensions relating to race and criminal justice. The presidential election has felt more like a schoolyard brawl than democracy in action. And anger continues to grow among millions suffering from joblessness, poverty and disenfranchisement.

In this difficult moment for America, The Onion perhaps best captures popular frustration over these killings: “‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens.”

We are facing the harsh reality that perhaps we’re not the country we aspire to be, that the gap between America and the less wealthy countries we strive to help is narrower than we thought. Amid calls for policy change and punishment, we’re looking in the mirror and seeking a better reflection. America is hungry for a compass – a framework that addresses the root causes and intersections of our country’s deepest injustices.

But where?

Last December, a group of philanthropic executives gathered at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas to discuss the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs were familiar to only a quarter of the 50 or so people in the room, despite the fact that every individual present worked on issues that directly and explicitly overlapped with the goals. To many, the SDGs felt like objectives for someone else, somewhere far away.

Yet the goals represent a historic and universal consensus about the need to tackle 17 areas of development, from eradicating hunger and poverty to advancing environmental sustainability, reducing inequality, and improving education and health.

The SDGs emerged from the Millennium Development Goals, which were primarily focused on human development. The SDGs, in contrast, incorporate all dimensions of development – economic, social, and environmental – and are intended not just for developing nations, but for all nations.

The SDGs could be our roadmap.

While many in the developed world don’t view a “development agenda” as applicable to their communities, evidence suggests they might be wrong. Many countries lack healthcare or water. Some lack a free press. Others are beset by violence. At the heart of the SDGs is the idea that all countries – including the U.S. – are in need of development.

Too frequently, our policymakers boast of American exceptionalism but fail to acknowledge the serious needs facing millions of Americans. On a surprisingly large number of targets used as development indicators, the U.S. fares poorly – in some cases, even worse than developing countries. In the 2016 Social Progress Index, the U.S. ranked 19th overall – it came 21st on basic human needs and 32nd on wellbeing – and was the only western democracy on the list of “underperformers”, a ranking of social progress relative to each country’s economic wealth.

We often speak euphemistically about these shortcomings with terms like “income inequality,” “wage gap,” or a “dysfunctional justice system”. But for millions of Americans, these dynamics represent real hardship, which often leads to frustration, anger, and a sense that our country is in trouble. It’s not a “wage gap”. It’s poverty. And it’s the kind of challenge we devote billions to addressing globally but ignore in our own backyard.

The fact that the SDGs apply to every nation is what makes them such a powerful force. The goals provide a framework that helps to align the work of disparate actors, encourage the sharing of best practices, galvanise action on neglected issues, and ensure accountability and transparency. The SDGs provide a way for policymakers and philanthropy – along with the private sector – to set funding priorities and measure progress. Foundations are already using the SDGs to further collaboration in the communities in which they operate, and policymakers and community leaders can too.

In short, the SDGs allow Americans to address the root causes of the problems that have led to social unrest and feelings of alienation. They allow all of us to be change-makers as part of a meaningful effort.

A year ago, I gave a speech opening the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People national convention, where I argued that racially motivated violence is inconsistent with American values, but unfortunately consistent with the American experience for millions. No parent should ever fear the loss of a child, yet millions of mothers and fathers face that fear as an everyday fact of life. This is as true in Louisiana as it is in Lesotho, as urgent in Minnesota as it is in Myanmar. Even police tasked with protecting protesters are a target. Too many don’t feel safe in our society.

Achieving sustainable development around the world has never felt as necessary as it does today. Equally, it has never been more feasible. That doesn’t mean the task is any less formidable. No one sector can do it alone: philanthropy, government and business all need to be at the table. Political and social will is required, as are significant resources.

First though, achieving development requires that we come to terms with the fact that the U.S. is a country in need of development. Just as the foundation staff in Little Rock were working on areas addressed by the SDGs but didn’t know it, so many of our leaders fail to recognise the underlying causes of social unrest.

An American development agenda is needed. Fortunately, the SDGs offer us a needle and thread to repair our own tattered fabric.

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