Hacking the SDG Discourse

September 1, 2015

Profile photo of Joe Brewer


A Narrative Strategy for Changing the Story of Global Development

A course is now being set for the next 15 years of global economic development. As the Millennium Development Goals come to an end, the United Nations will officially adopt their replacement — the Sustainable Development Goals — in September of this year. After conducting a detailed frame analysis of these SDGs we have pinpointed a set of weak links in the logic that can be targeted to help humanity make the transition to a truly sustainable world.

We have set ourselves on a path to reframe the key narratives of economic progress — using the Sustainable Development Goals as a “historic moment” where a successful intervention has the potential to reach larger audiences. This will require that we work seamlessly as a team with a shared understanding of what we are attempting to do and how we are going about it.

/TheRules has been built on a body of research in two key areas: (1) Political analysis of economic history that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality. And (2) linguistic analysis of the cultural patterns that keep these structural causes hidden from view such that they are not adequately addressed.

Our intervention is to open up the mental space for inquiry among development professionals and change agents working to address systemic threats to humanity.

The strategy for doing this has two parts:

  1. Weaken the core logic of development-as-usual by challenging its assumptions and revealing covert, unpopular agendas.
  2. Ask three questions that are designed to initiate people on a learning journey that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality — thus opening up the conversation landscape to a new set of stories that give meaning to these emergent understandings.

This is built on a Theory of Change informed by the science of cultural evolution, which has observed that:

People live within stories that make sense of their social world. These stories become entrenched as institutional structures and practices, making them difficult to dislodge and change. Telling a “better story” is therefore a process of making the dominant stories less coherent and more difficult to understand, which opens up space for new meanings to fill in where they have broken down. Our theory of change is to challenge the logic of the problematic narratives while facilitating a learning process that helps people craft their own new stories that make sense of the knowledge and insights gained along the way. tweet

We will “hack” the SDG discourse by asking three questions (listed below). These questions will be delivered in multiple forms — a series of blog articles written by our team and allies closely aligned with our mission; short videos posted to the web that challenge the dominant narrative; and a set of infographics that reveal key empirical findings about the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

Social reality is built on consensus of perception about what is real. Believe something else is possible and it may come to be true.

Our challenge is to unleash these waves of potential conversation in a synergistic manner. This is why we need to articulate our narrative strategy as clearly as possible.

First, the three questions:

How Is Poverty Created?
Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?

Who’s Developing Whom?
The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?

Why Is Growth The Only Answer?
The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?

We will use these questions as organising principles in our blog articles. They are woven into the infographics and web videos. And we have seen early evidence of their power in articles written earlier this year.

Outlining A “Script” for Our September Pulse

The SDG Framework will be officially adopted in late September, creating a media window when lots of people will be talking about them for a short period of time. We want our ideas to go viral — as a “pulse” or crescendoing wave of dialogue where people share our content and create their own in response to what we are sharing.

This is where we need to organise ourselves for synergistic action. We’ll need a script that we can follow to operate independently while ensuring that we support each other’s efforts in a manner that creates resonance across the landscape of conversations.

The script is our game plan. It is how we want things to play out. Just like in a theatrical play, the script is what we follow to know what the character roles are and how their behaviour is prescribed. It needs to be very simple and easy to use so we “know our proper role” for the settings we find ourselves in.

The play-by-play reality of this pulse is going to get messy. There will be waves of internet memes (think of #CecilTheLion from a few weeks ago) that cannot be predicted ahead of time. People will talk about and share whatever is creating synchronicity in the moment. Which means we need to be agile and able to improvise without losing sight of our end game.

That is the purpose of this script. It will tell us how to act as we improvise in different settings. Here’s an outline for what it might look like:

There will be opponents (people who advocate for and promote counter narratives). Some of them will be coordinating with each other and have substantial financial resources at their disposal for marketing and promotions. We don’t have large resources, which means we will have to use guerrilla tactics and asymmetrical manoeuvres that mobilise our opponents to respond in ways that turn their size against them. Our game plan in these contexts is to be the mosquito that agitates the elephant.

There will be NGO dissidents (people who work within the system, yet are frustrated because they know it is broken). We have a group of them that we are working with directly, but many more will remain hidden to us. These people are our hidden allies. We won’t know where they are or how many of them that might step up as internal saboteurs of the standard narrative. We must embrace this ignorance and “fly blind with full knowledge that our vision is obscured”. Our game plan in these contexts is to provide narrative ammunition they can pick up and use with ease, wherever they are.

There will be concerned citizens (people who are generally aware of the problems but not formally engaged in addressing them). These people are distracted and filled with daily concerns of their own. They may be suffering from information overload or feeling powerless in the face of such huge problems. We must embrace their lived experience and honour it with humility and the respect it deserves. Our game plan in these contexts is to provide insights that make them feel more hopeful and empowered that something can be done.

In each case, the script we follow is a strategic mode of engagement. It is easy to understand and can be monitored by other members of our team. When one of us enters the discourse we will all be able to tell if they are following the game plans outlined here.

Unpacking the Harmful Narratives

Much can be said about the harmful narratives we are countering. Indeed, entire libraries of books and articles have been written about them. Our purpose here is not to be comprehensive. Rather it is to be focused on leverage points — like the Aikido master who knows just where and when to apply pressure to create a pivot and throw their opponent to the ground.

The Great Lie of Human Progress
A key battleground will be to challenge the “feel good story” of progress, which tells us that poverty is going down, wealth is increasing, and the world is like a car speeding along a well maintained highway toward Techno-Utopia. We have already seen how this has played out. It masks the chronic problems of our time and hides the culprits who are responsible for gaming the system in their favour.

We can challenge this story with killer statistics and critiques of the logic claiming that the secret ingredient to cure all ills is “economic growth”. This is where we show how statistical manipulation has been used to paint a false picture, how things really are getting worse (even though there has been authentic progress on several fronts), and that more of the same is a recipe for disaster.

Need to Question the Fundamentals
Our central critique is that the SDG’s have been framed in a way that removes all discussion of political agendas. Nothing is said about corporate power. Nowhere is the history of poverty creation (or ecological destruction) given its due as one set of people taking advantage of unilateral power to conquer and steal from other groups of people. Structural causes — the rules-of-play that create poverty and environmental harm — are left out of the conversation.

We can challenge this story by asking critical questions. Reminding people about the structures and history of exploitation. Articulating that a great deal is known about how these problems were caused, so it is possible to actually solve them. But only if we focus on the fundamentals.

Neoliberal Capitalism Is Not Descended From God
The notion that capitalism is the end game, the utopian solution for economies around the world, something we must assume as given and unchanging is naively and dangerously ignorant of history. Hegemonies and paradigms come and go. They have lifetimes. There are discernible patterns of incubation, early growth, maturity, and decay.

We need to understand this if we are to tell a compelling story about the end of capitalism. We can pose historical contexts and begin inquiries. Did the Roman elites think their empire would last forever? What kinds of delusions held sway among the Egyptian pharaohs just before their empire collapsed into oblivion? Why is it so difficult to understand Chinese history? Because there were wave after wave of dynastic orders each rising and falling across the span of deep time.

Our stories can remind people to think with historicity, to remember that to everything there is a season. We can note the increasing number and diversity of commentators who point out that corporate capitalism is subject to evolution (just as all of humanity is — evolution isn’t done, it is still happening).

We see voices among the elites (Paul Mason, Jeremy Rifkin, and others) who paint a picture of capitalism being so successful at wealth extraction that its days are becoming limited. It is literally too good at what it does and is driving productive processes toward “zero marginal cost” where profit-seeking is no longer possible. We see grassroots movements and social uprisings all over the world because the system of today builds its towers of opulence on the backs of the working poor. And we see that human population growth (combined with technological advances) has “made the Earth full” and we simply cannot grow much further before collapse becomes inevitable.

The laws of physics, biology, and economics are all pointing the way to a post-capitalist world. Neoliberal capitalism is a brief period of rapid growth, soon to be followed by collapse and decay — like the cancerous tissue that it actually is. We can tell this story and challenge the hegemony of 20th Century capitalism while calling for the paradigm to emerge that replaces it.

The Moral High Ground of “Greed Is Good”
This story, that rational self-interest is the only and best way to create wealth, is so full of holes that it only exists today because of the power inherent in shadow narratives. It is so vacuous that it can be all around us, lightly touching everything even though it has very little real substance.

We can point out that happiness and fulfilment are not the same as material accumulation. That those who hoard the most are not role-models, they are suffering from a sickness spawned in their constitutional insecurities. That the best way to create and maintain social good is by managing the commons — a set of criteria for collective governance that won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Our inquiry here is into the nature of human nature itself. What kind of creature are we? How does this selfish trait fit within the bigger picture of our profoundly social and moral nature? What kind of future do we truly want? Is it one built on inequality through exploitation? Or is it one built on shared visions and collective effort?

Our Strategy — Inquiries That Birth New Stories

In closing, our narrative strategy is not to “tell a better story.” It is to facilitate inquiry and learning by “asking better questions.” We know that people don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be part of creating something better.

Ask better questions and you will change the world.

We will ask our three questions — using the multi-media forms listed at the beginning of this brief — and do so with the script that outlines our game plan for engaging with different types of players in this conversation. Our measure of success will be the extent to which other people are asking the same questions we are and coming to similar conclusions. Even better will be if they uncover new insights and find better ways to move forward than we could have done on our own.

We know that we don’t know the best way to transform our civilization in the next few decades. We also know that a small group like /TheRules can make impacts much larger than our size by holding tight to the spiritual integrity of humble inquiry for the truth. As we role-model this behavior in our own actions, we just might be of service to others as they make their own inquiries on these, the most important issues of our time.


11 thoughts on “Hacking the SDG Discourse”

  1. james jay ellis says:

    I’m a filmmaker interested in social change.
    Can you please contact me to explore how we can work together?

    1. Joe Brewer says:

      Hello Jay,

      Let’s connect and talk. 😉

      Easiest way is to friend me on Facebook.



  2. Nick Chugg says:

    Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837) was a philosopher and utopian socialist

    Frenchman Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837) was a philosopher and utopian socialist. It was Fourier who coined the word feminism. He was a powerful advocate of the importance of community and the Communards of the Paris Commune were greatly influenced by his ideas.

    Fourier was insistent that cooperation was the secret of a healthy society and would radically improve the productivity levels of workers, each of whom would be rewarded in direct proportion to their contribution (i.e. hard work would be incentivised).

    Fourier asserted that poverty was the cause of most of the ills of society, hence there must be a decent minimum wage for everyone, including those unable to work. This is perhaps the first appearance of the “basic income” doctrine – everyone in society to have a guaranteed amount of money to live on – although it was assumed that anyone who could work would work and no one would choose to opt out and simply take the money (if they were neither ill nor unemployed against their will).

    Fourier wanted to liberate every human being – every man, woman, and child – and he regarded liberation as having two primary aspects: intelligence, nourished by education, and joy, nourished by the healthy expression of human passion. Everywhere, he saw intelligence and joy under attack. Education for the vast majority of people remained rudimentary and religion continually constrained all joyful activities. Work always undermined joy, so he wanted to crack the secret of turning work into play.

    People who love what they do will invest far more time and care into it than those who hate their work. They will do a far better job and be enormously more productive. They will feel fulfilled, contented, at one with their work, with how they use their time. The most depressing thing is to be alienated from how you spend your time because that’s what constitutes your life. To love life, you must love how you spend your time, and you never will if you’re trapped in a job you hate and you’re only doing it because you have no alternative. That makes you a slave, and there’s nothing worse than that. People and work must be harmonised. The State should find what people like doing and give them jobs that involve that activity, in the company of others who enjoy it too. Work should be the centrepiece of a joyful life, not the thing that people flee from. Most people spend their lives dreaming of their free time and of the “weekend” when work mercifully stops for 48 precious hours. So many people are driven by this permanent Sisyphean treadmill of work, play, work, play, ad infinitum. Play takes on a kind of insane, desperate character with many pumping themselves full of drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of their lives. Precious few use their spare time to dig their escape tunnel from their prison camp. They never get out.

    Life can be good only when work and play coincide – you love what you do to earn your living. Soccer players are immensely envied because they relish what they do, get paid a fortune for it and receive endless adulation and all the finest things in life because of it. Most soccer players are morons, but, hey, you can’t have everything, can you?

    Fourier was a zealous proponent of a New World Order based on harmonious collaboration.

    The Phalanx Model of the World

    “Phalanstery” (also called phalanx): a socialist community as planned by Charles Fourier; any communal association; the buildings housing such a community; a grand hotel-cum-monastery.

    Origin: French phalanstère (phalange (phalanx) + (mona)stère, monastery).

    Fourier’s utopian vision was of a world organised into self-sufficient phalanges (phalanxes), each consisting of about 1,600 people sharing common buildings (phalansteries) – very much like modern university campus halls of residence – and working about 5,000 acres of land to grow the foodstuffs for the community (i.e. it was designed to integrate urban and rural features). Educational facilities were to be provided, along with workshops for handicrafts. Regular entertainment would be laid on and everything would be rationally organised to provide a happy and harmonious social life. Those doing the most menial, unpleasant tasks or the most challenging and demanding, were to be paid the most from the commonwealth, while those doing the easiest and most pleasant jobs would be paid the least.

    The phalanges were to be linked into suitable cooperative groups and finally into a great federation. Theoretically, each phalange could be self-governing with its own unique character, like an ancient Greek city-state, or a whole group might agree to have a common government. This model is supremely flexible. It is the political equivalent of atoms and molecules in chemistry. The basic political atom is the phalange and these atoms can be joined to create molecules of different sizes. Is this not an inherently better system than a one-size-fits-all democracy with a single centralized government? It offers far more freedom, choice, flexibility and dynamism and can accommodate on an equitable basis radically different approaches to life. Phalanges that have different outlooks can ignore each other while having friendly relations with those on a similar wavelength.

    Basically, everyone in the world can have a bespoke political and social system if they can find 1,600 other similarly minded people.

    Is this not the future? Is this not how the world should be, a world of choice and liberty? Imagine a whole world where the family square box (house) model of the world is abolished and is instead replaced by a phalange model where each phalanstery resembles a campus university, with educational facilities at its core. There would also be many bespoke workshops for hi-tech companies, design companies, and so forth. Each phalanstery would have a medical facility, and each group of phalansteries would have a hospital. There would be shared entertainment complexes and shopping areas.

    With this basic model, we would have the building blocks to create bespoke societies and city-states. Everyone would be able to have their own utopia where they are surrounded by those who share their values. There wouldn’t be a capitalist corporation in sight, nor any bank “too big to fail”, nor any irrational market.

    Fourier dreamt that there would be millions of these phalanxes all around the world, loosely ruled by a world omniarch (“ruler of all”), or a World Congress of Phalanxes.

    Fourier, an ardent feminist and advocate of equal rights for women, believed that the traditional family home oppressed women and that they would be much freer within a community, supported by many other women. He considered that all important jobs should be open to women and men on an equal basis and aptitude alone should decide who was given the job. He was keen to speak of women as individuals rather than as appendages of men. What he saw of marriage so horrified him that he himself never married.


    Video ‘The Phalanstery Commune’:


    1. Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Nick,

      Thank you for sharing the ideas of Charles Fourier (hearing his name makes me think of Joseph Fourier, the mathematician). 😉

      I love that he so carefully articulated his vision for social utopia. The challenge of course is that most utopias are built on assumptions that are flawed or incomplete in some way. In this case, it seems that one of the problems will be the attempt to create a “rational” society around Enlightenment ideals that are incompatible with human nature. That said it is very important to explore utopian ideas and learn what we can from them.

      Just curious, do you know that the Neoliberal movement grew around a well grounded fear of utopian socialist thinking? They took their critiques way too far and came to disastrous “capitalist utopian” conclusions of their own… but it was Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom that set the whole Neoliberal enterprise in motion — a critique of centralized governments based on his observations as an Austrian watching the rise of the First, Second, and Third Reich in Germany all through open, democratic processes. The Nazi vision of utopia was horrible (and disastrous). It was also a rather pernicious and totalitarian version of socialism.

      Getting back to what I love about Charle’s Fourier’s ideas, the scientific research findings on societal well-being are broadly supportive of what he described in his utopian vision — in the sense that cultivation of trust, cooperation, altruism (or “prosocial tendencies” for short) are all contextual factors that reinforce conditions of personal and social well-being. A great article on this topic can be found here:

      Behavioral Science May Prove to Be Our Most Important Science

      Curious what you think.



  3. Francesca says:

    I FOUND MY TRIBE. How do we collaborate? How can I help? I have felt like John the Baptist…like the voice that echoes in the desert. I stick out everywhere, because people don’t question the fundamentals of poverty creation, nor do they want to take a look at themselves as part of the system that perpetuates gross inequality in a global scale. Here is my presentation from a year ago – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQyifYFs0IQ
    Let’s talk. Please!

    1. Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Francesca,

      I am watching your talk now… LOVE it. 😉

      Totally with you that the “open everything” hacker-maker approach, leap-frogging with digital communication technology can transform the global system and dismantle the Poverty Creation Industry. Reaching out to you via email for a chat!

      So pleased we’ve found each other,


  4. max says:

    Everyone in this society talk about the economical view about the world. If want to make our environment eco-friendly then we have to work as a unit in this world. Only the collective progress of the people will make our society beautiful. British people are also working for this purpose and in my opinion it’s good essay.britishessays

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