De-Provincializing Development

By Angelique Haugerud

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #1: No Poverty.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have garnered praise from anthropologists precisely because they flip common frames about economic disparities and so-called development (see Moore 2015). As the editors of this “De-Provincializing Development” series (Adia Benton and Yarimar Bonilla) observe, the SDGs unsettle prior assumptions about the asymmetrical and often patronizing relationship between the Global North and South. While the UN aimed its earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the Global South, the SDGs are intended to be universal, since poverty and inadequate access to health care, housing, and education are not problems confined to the Global South. Indeed, as Henrietta Moore put it in The Guardian, “we’re all developing countries now.” Even as the SDGs unsettle prior assumptions and policies, critical questions remain: Are the SDGs a departure from the unambitious targets that allowed the UN to claim “success” under the earlier Millennium Development Goals? Do they have the ability to meaningfully challenge the politics of poverty?

It is also crucial to look beyond income metrics or the imaginary lines drawn by statistical representations of poverty and to consider indicators such as perceptions of well-being, opportunities, satisfaction, happiness, health, life expectancy, political participation, and qualities of community life

Observers such as Jason Hickel (2017) see in the SDGs missed opportunities and unnecessarily low target metrics. SDG #1 initially defined extreme poverty as living on less than $1.25 a day, though many argue instead for a standard of $5 a day (a level that still embodies substantial hardship). Furthermore, Hickel suggests, an apparent absence of monitoring mechanisms and the adoption of lower income targets could enable “the kind of statistical manipulation that so blighted the MDGs” by feeding illusions of progress and success euphoria (59). It is also crucial to look beyond income metrics or the imaginary lines drawn by statistical representations of poverty and to consider indicators such as perceptions of well-being, opportunities, satisfaction, happiness, health, life expectancy, political participation, and qualities of community life (many of which are included in the UN Human Development Index). Eliminating extreme poverty, according to the United Nations, is to be accomplished “through . . . the promotion of social protection systems, decent employment and building the resilience of the poor.” (For a critical analysis of assumptions underlying the polyvalent “resilience” buzzword, see Romain Felli 2016.) Promoting social protection systems and “decent employment,” however, entail deep political changes in many nations and in global financial and governance institutions. How effectively the SDGs might help to propel such change remains to be seen.


For much of the past two centuries, poverty has increased (Chang 2014). Even in wealthy nations, poverty is significant: forty million people in the United States live in poverty, child poverty rates in the United States are surprisingly high (18 percent of US children in 2016), fifty-eight million Americans earn less than $15 an hour), and income differences between African Americans and whites have widened in recent decades. In addition, income inequality is higher in the United States than in most other rich nations (see Alvaredo et al. 2018).

Still more telling are the subjective experiences of economic hardship—immeasurable degrees of anxiety, humiliation, despair, rage, indignity, and erosion of social bonds—which, in the United States, are unfolding in the wake of post-1970s deindustrialization and recent home foreclosures, and amidst the opioid epidemic, expensive or unattainable health care, and unemployment. Bankruptcies and suicides are rising among US farmers (Weingarten 2017, cited in Edelman 2018), and some perceive symptoms of a US societal collapse that is “beyond the data, past the statistics.” Haque (2018) writes that “we need a whole new language—and a new way of seeing—to even begin to make sense” of an apparent normalization of “extreme capitalism” and accompanying societal suffering. The disjuncture between that pain and prevailing political practice could not be starker.

Extinguishing poverty in the United States is a cause championed by few contemporary national politicians, who usually prefer instead to speak about upward mobility and the improbably capacious category “middle class.” Prominent clergy, by contrast, declare that “Poverty in America Is a Moral Outrage,” and political mobilization among US residents is in a new cycle of expansion, including a revived Poor People’s Campaign that deploys nonviolent protest and direct action. Signs such as “Fight Poverty Not the Poor” and “We are a new and unsettling force” (a 1968 quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) appeared in 2018 street protests. The Reverend Dr. William Barber avowed: “It’s time for moral confrontation . . . with the immoral policies that we see are continuing to hurt the poor. . . . We’re not even talking about these issues in the country.”

Poor People’s Campaign march. Source: Flickr.

Behind the public silences are racial dog-whistles and discourses that depict poverty as inevitable, or a character flaw, rather than the outcome of deliberate policies defined through political processes (deregulation, privatization, large tax cuts for corporations and the rich, weakening unions, and shredding the social safety net). Reverend Barber tweeted (May 11, 2018, @RevDrBarber): “For too long, we’ve accepted this moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other.” The foundational ideal that anyone who wants to achieve the American dream can do so if they work hard enough is undermined when millions of people in the United States struggle to survive while working multiple low-wage jobs at a time, and when wages for most workers stagnate for decades as productivity increases and corporate profits soar.

Conventional economic models disguised as “morally neutral instruments for defining the common good” help to enable policies that benefit very wealthy individuals and corporations. Meanwhile, we conduct our public discourse, Sandel (2018) writes, “as if it were possible to outsource moral judgment to markets,” and that has created “empty public spaces [that] are invariably filled by narrow, intolerant, authoritarian alternatives—whether in the form of religious fundamentalism or strident nationalism.”

When the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals land in these hollowed-out public spheres, it is a formidable challenge to foster well-informed discussion about competing economic moralities. Although large multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have more power than United Nations agencies to enact economic policy changes, UN agencies can help to shape our thinking about the economy through resolutions such as the SDGs. They can help citizens to keep alive counter-narratives and to imagine a new economy.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston reframes poverty as a human rights concern and strongly criticizes successive US administrations that reject the “idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights” intended to prevent people from dying of hunger or from lack of access to affordable health care. The United States is an outlier in that respect among wealthy nations. These economic and social rights, Alston notes, are recognized clearly in “key treaties that the US has ratified (such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the US has long insisted other countries must respect”—though the United States has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Can commitment to economic and social rights reinvigorate democratic politics globally? If so, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals just might triumph.

Angelique Haugerud is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University.


Alston, Philip. 2017. “Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.” Washington, DC: December 15.

Alvaredo, Facundo, Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, eds. 2018. World Inequality Report 2018. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barber, William, and Liz Theoharis. 2017. “Poverty in America Is a Moral Outrage: The Soul of Our Nation Is at Stake.” The Guardian, December 16.

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Democracy Now. 2018. “‘It’s Time for Moral Confrontation’: New Poor People’s Campaign Stages Nationwide Civil Disobedience,” Democracy Now, May 14.

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Edelman, Marc. 2018. “Sacrifice Zones in Rural and Non-metro USA: Fertile Soil for Authoritarian Populism.” OpenDemocracy, February 19.

Fatheuer, Thomas. 2011. “Buen Vivir: A Brief Introduction to Latin America’s New Concepts for the Good Life and the Rights of Nature.” Publication Series on Ecology 17. Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Felli, Romain. 2016. “The World Bank’s Neoliberal Language of Resilience.” Research in Political Economy 31:267–95.

Haque, Umair. 2018. “Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse—Eudaimonia and Co.” Eudaimonia&Co., January 25.

Hickel, Jason. 2015. “Why the New Sustainable Development Goals Won’t Make the World a Fairer Place.” The Conversation, August 23.

Hickel, Jason. 2017. The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions. London: William Heinemann.

Institute for Policy Studies. 2017. The Souls of Poor Folk: A Preliminary Report, Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Systemic Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality. Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies.

Sandel, Michael J. 2018. “Populism, Trump, and the Future of Democracy.” OpenDemocracy, May 9.

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Weingarten, Debbie. 2017. “Why Are America’s Farmers Killing Themselves in Record Numbers?” The Guardian, December 6.

World Inequality Report. 2018. Coordinated by Facundo Alvaredo, Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucan. World Inequality Lab, Creative Commons License 4.0-CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Haugerud, Angelique. 2018. “Imagining an End to Poverty: New UN Sustainable Development Goals and the United States.” American Anthropologist website, September 25.

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