Whilst at the United Nations they had me doing various activities, one of which was a panel for UNTV. The panel comprised Elliot Harris, UN Chief Economist; Matthew Blake, Head of Future of Financial and Monetary Systems, World Economic Forum; and was moderated by Gillian Tett, Editor-at-large, Financial Times. You can watch the short discussion below.
As the UNTV media zone was in the main reception area of the UN building, it meant that anyone could sit and listen. As a result, I found myself in an interesting debate with a stranger at the end of the chat. A man from South America came up to me and asked me why I thought the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a good thing.
I said that it’s obvious they are good as it is all about making the planet better, doing good for society and making everyone included and supported.
He asked me how I was going to do that.
I said that it’s about giving everyone equality and opportunity.
He said how again.
I said that it was like the old Bible story of give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat every day. That’s what the UN SDGs are all about. Teach people to take opportunity and support them to reach those opportunities by developing them. Develop their skills, give them access, give them support, give them opportunity. Surely, that’s a good thing.
He then moved into his kicker line. He said that he comes from a small village, where everyone lives off nature. They’ve been taught to fish, and they are happy. So why are you trying to get them involved in money. They don’t have money and they’re happy. Why is everything focused on money?
I said it wasn’t focused on money, but opportunity.
He said that isn’t the way it comes across. It seems that it’s more about raising people out of poverty (UN SDG Goal #1) and getting them to work to get money.
I said not really. You see, there are three levels of society. The consumer society, which is largely Europe and America, although China and India and other regions are catching up. Those societies are all about work to pay bills, get a home and live a life of aspiration (although in many cases it is to live an unequal life of poverty). The second society is the nature-based society he was talking about, where people may be able to live off the land and sea, not care about money and have a happy life (as long as the local drugs cartel doesn’t get interested and sack the village). And then there’s the third society who are abused, raped, kidnapped, killed, sitting in poverty with no support and no access and often involved in wars and battles. It’s the third society the UN SDGs are really focused upon.
At that, he asked me where I was from. I said I’m British. He said that the third society was created by people like me, coming from countries that colonised and made those problems for those peoples because we wanted prosperity and a consumer society at the expense of those people.
I said that’s the way it used to be maybe two centuries ago when the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British went around the world enslaving people, but we’re now trying ot sort it out and address those issues, which is why I’m here and the UN SDGs exist.
Ah, he said. Now it makes sense.
I’m not sure what he took away from the conversation, but mine was a sense of humility. I’ll try and wear it well.